FOXBOROUGH — At first, the fans in the stands and hillside surrounding the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium didn’t realize that the lanky guy in shorts and navy blue shell over his dark shirt walking toward the center of the expanse of neatly trimmed grass was Tom Brady.
Even No. 12 is hard to recognize without his jersey on.
But once he pulled his red practice jersey over his shoulders Thursday, Brady received a hero’s welcome from the crowd, likely a little more excited than usual to see the Patriots quarterback.
After Wednesday, when Brady went down for a couple of minutes after getting rolled by teammate Nate Solder and ultimately left practice early, everyone was thrilled to see him back at practice less than 24 hours later.
Wearing the bulky, hinged black knee brace he has worn in games since his severe knee injury in 2008, Brady took part in the half-speed walkthrough practice the Patriots held with the Buccaneers that marked their final public training camp session of the year.
“With Brady back out there, for us it’s a great sign,” said running back Stevan Ridley. “It was a scary moment, but with Tom, I know he’s a competitor, he’s going to do whatever to get out there, I’m just glad they took him out, checked him out, made sure he was good.
“My heart’s at peace knowing he’s OK.”
Brady appeared to take his regular number of reps with the top offensive players, making it a possibility he will play Friday night in the Patriots’ preseason game with Tampa Bay.
After practice, he spent a good deal of time playing and talking with his wife and two sons. Reporters waited patiently to see whether he would make a statement about his health, but as he walked past, Brady simply said, “See you tomorrow. Thanks, guys.”
Though there was some tense time Wednesday until news began to trickle out that Brady’s injury was not serious, Ridley said his teammates knew not long after the practice he was not facing a severe situation.
“I think you guys had more communication and more opinions than we did,” defensive back Devin McCourty joked to reporters. “We actually got to see him in the locker room and all that, so it wasn’t as crazy as the media made it seem.”
McCourty did acknowledge, “I’m sure there were a lot of fans at home pulling their hair out yesterday.”
But fans aren’t the only ones who know how important Brady is to the Patriots’ fortunes.
“That’s our leader, man,” Ridley said. “I’ll say this first and foremost: We ride with Tom Brady all the way. Any time you see somebody go down like that, everything stops in front of you. But for us, we just have to move on, hope for the best, and that’s what we did.
“We found out later in the day in team meetings that he was OK, and that’s all the news we needed to hear — that our quarterback was going to be with us and not have any major surgeries or anything. So we’re relieved.”
The question is whether Brady will play in the game. Judging by Thursday, signs point to his making an appearance, though last year when the Patriots faced Philadelphia in their second preseason game, Brady was one of 26 players not in uniform.
Two years ago, when New England faced Tampa Bay in its second exhibition game, Brady played most of the first half. Last week in the opener in Philadelphia, he played two series.
Asked if he believes Brady will play Friday night, Ridley said, “I know he’s going to be there when it counts — when the season matters the most, Tom’s going to be out there.
“I just don’t want us to rush him or anything like that; I think Tom will make the right decision and the coaches will, too.”