|ESPN.com: Under The Hoodie|
IDDLETOWN, Conn. -- The New England leg of my quest ends here, where the only line of resistance is a smallish college girl standing behind a tall desk. Big, powerful people -- tight-pantsed celebrities, successful businessmen and manly football players -- have hung up the phone or fled when the subject was broached. It's almost as if they're afraid.
"Coach Belichick," they say, "would not want this story."
It seemed like a relatively easy assignment: Write a piece about the human side of Bill Belichick, loosen the hoodie strings, spin a few yarns about his long walks in the woods with a golden retriever named Chrissie. The guy is human, right? He eats, bleeds, reads and probably snores. He occasionally feels human suffering instead of inflicting it.
And judging from all the nicknames he recently has acquired -- not to mention that photo of the postgame handshake with Tony Dungy that has scared young children -- it's not as if the guy couldn't use a little positive PR.
The first hint of Doom -- that's one of Belichick's nicknames, by the way -- comes from Charles Barkley. They're good buddies, two hard-driving but vastly different men. Sir Charles, never afraid to speak his mind or tick someone off, quickly responds ... through a publicist type:
"I'm afraid Charles has passed on this opportunity."
So here I am, standing in the middle of one of the most radical campuses in the East, Wesleyan University, a place where the young Belichick grew into a man, praying for a useful revelation or two. Surely, the good people at Wesleyan must be interested in clearing his name, because he's an alum and it's a slow Friday.
It is so anti-Mr. Monotone here, so innocent, so resistant to intimidation by authority figures. A few weeks ago, protesters set up camp for a few days because they didn't want chimpanzees being used in science projects. The bongos apparently were quite soothing.
Certainly, at the very least, the Wesleyan gatekeepers will let me enter the fortress and search for a little humanity in the glass trophy cases. Photographs show young people frozen in various stages of awkwardness, achievement, vulnerability. Players on the school's first women's field hockey team are standing around a tree, gazing blandly at the future through horn-rimmed glasses. Maybe one of them dated Belichick. Even equestrian stars and a plastic fish made it into these trophy cases. Sadly, Belichick did not. It's not that he was as private then; he played center, linebacker and tight end, but most of his teams just weren't very good.
At least a couple times a year, when the Patriots begin their annihilation of the AFC East, national media types call Brian Katten in search of Wesleyan folks who will talk about Belichick's life there in the early 1970s. Katten, the school's Sports Information Director, has tried to track down teammates and frat buddies, but eventually is forced to steer these truth-seekers to an aging coach or an economics professor.
"I guess no one would want to get on Bill's bad side at this point," Katten says. "They know he's a private person, and that's fine."
The library has some old yearbooks that might have captured Belichick with a youthful smile, or perhaps a stray pimple. But I'm told they're very protective of those books, and to get my dirty little hands on them I might have to submit to a body-cavity search.
Somewhere, Doom is snickering.
HE HAS A SONG IN HIS HEART. NO, REALLY!
Rain has fallen for three straight days in Foxborough, Mass., and in the bowels of Gillette Stadium, reporters break up the monotony with banter about the advanced age of Bobby Bowden and how Dick Vermeil likes to cry. When the 55-year-old Belichick walks in wearing what appears to be the same cutoff sweatshirt he has showcased the past three days, the babble softens to a detention-hall hush.
Twenty minutes, a dozen or so questions, zero color. Hey, was that a smile? Only if you look at him upside down.
But this Mount Rushmore face, I've been assured, has been chiseled mainly for public view. It has to have been. How else could he have very close, big-haired friends such as rock star Jon Bon Jovi? Or loud, obnoxious ones such as comedian Lenny Clarke? (Neither of them, by the way, will talk about Belichick for the record.)
If the Patriots coach could've been somebody else, he might've been a rock star. He needed the pipes, of course. And a willingness to let people in.
"Bon Jovi wants to be a head coach," Belichick's friend Rob Ingraham says. "And Bill wants to be a rock 'n' roller."
A few years back, Belichick threw a party on Nantucket for a couple hundred of his closest friends, family and neighbors. He asked Ingraham, who played in a band, to be the entertainment.
They've known each other since college, and their friendship grew through adulthood and middle age. Ingraham was a hockey player at Wesleyan and runs a sports-marketing firm on Long Island, N.Y. When Belichick joined the Jets in '97 as an assistant head coach, and couldn't move his family right away, he stayed in an old farmhouse of Ingraham's. To make Belichick feel as if he was giving something back, Ingraham struck a deal with his buddy -- Belichick could stay for free if he would let him call one play on defense. After a characteristic look of disdain, Belichick reluctantly agreed. Ingraham wanted to bring the house, rush all 11 defenders. Belichick settled on sending 10 in a meaningless preseason game.
So now Belichick was asking another favor from his friend, and Ingraham agreed to play the party on one condition: if Belichick agreed to sing one song himself.
"There was a pause on the phone," Ingraham says.
"What do I have to sing?" Belichick asked. Ingraham said he'd come up with something.
Another pause. "OK," Belichick finally said. "But it'll be my song."
He decided on The Clovers' 1959 hit "Love Potion No. 9," rehearsed in a guest house and dabbled with props. Belichick got up on the stage, belted out the 2-minute tune, and swigged from a flask -- non-alcoholic, of course -- for effect.
His three children were stunned.
"He brought down the whole house," Ingraham says. "He was so into it. Anyone who thinks this guy is cold, stiff, calculating, I wish they could've seen that performance. It's as human as we can be. He was up there on a stage, entertaining, smiling, not under the influence of anything but ginger ale. It was a fabulous moment that anyone who was there will never forget because this was the guy at his happiest, with his friends and family playing rock 'n' roll."
Ah, but memories are all they have. After the show, Belichick had all video of the performance confiscated.
THE GOOD SAMARITAN IN A SUPER BOWL VISOR
David Salisbury is interested in talking only if I promise to play nice. There is no hiding where his loyalties lie. At the start of training camp each summer, Salisbury hangs a Patriots flag outside his house in Cranston, R.I. When New England loses, the flag flies at half-staff. When the Patriots win, his neighbors tend to avoid him.
"I only met him for those couple of minutes," Salisbury says on the phone as he waits for a Patriots game to start on TV. "You know what? I just wish I had met him under different circumstances."
His brush with Belichick came on a late Saturday afternoon in July 2006. Five-hundred drivers must have blown by the twisted, upside-down BMW on a patch of Route 95 just south of the Rhode Island border, Salisbury says. Not Belichick.
Salisbury and the coach, wearing a Super Bowl XXXVI visor and apparently on his way back from watching his son play lacrosse, were good samaritans.; Together, they helped an injured driver whose car shot across the highway, hit a drainage ditch and flipped on its roof.
And now Belichick was ready to take charge. "Hey, you have a head injury," he said to the driver. "Let's go lie down."
Taking the wobbly man by the arm, he laid him in the bed of a truck, and held a beach towel full of ice to the man's bleeding head until rescue workers arrived. "He was very polite," Salisbury says. "He took control, but was still polite about it."
Belichick almost escaped without being recognized, but the whole thing became too much for Salisbury, who let out a cry of "Hey! You're Bill Belichick!"
Sssshhhhhh, said the stare Salisbury got back. So he refrained from asking for an autograph. Didn't seem like the right time, or place.
Instead, he wished Belichick luck on the season. "Thank you very much," Belichick said. And then he was gone, off in his sensible SUV, just a few days before training camp.
"He just pulled over like anybody else," Salisbury says, still amazed at the wonder of it all.
DON'T ASK, 'CAUSE WE WON'T TELL
Maybe no football stadium was ever built to suit the personality of its leader, but the Patriots come close. Gillette Stadium is far removed from the bustle of Boston, in a nondescript stretch of Route 1. A Bass Pro Shop that is under construction provides about the only other excitement for miles.
Inside the locker room, Randy Moss is wearing a T-shirt that says "HUMBLE PIE" on the back and "I EAT IT" on the front. He will not be giving sound bites today.
"Gotta keep it in-house" is the almost-universal response to questions about the coach.
"You guys try to pick and pick and pick, but we're not going to let it out," Lonie Paxton says. (Yes, even the long-snapper has a jaded view of the media.) "It's better. I think it's the way that a lot of places should be. Just keep everything in-house. You guys are going to manipulate it sooner or later, one way or the other. As long as we really know what's really happening, that's the main thing."
Across the locker room, a guy named Brady -- Kyle, not Tom -- tries to explain the bunker mentality. In team meetings, you see, Belichick shows off more personality. He's witty and dry and sometimes sarcastic, and he tries hard to give life lessons in these millionaire-filled classrooms.
He'll tell his players to behave, to not draw negative attention to the team. In lighter moments, he'll read quotes from the paper and make fun of a player who spoke out of place.
"He's very adamant that we just speak for ourselves," Brady says. "Don't talk about other people and a situation they may have. Don't give anything away, don't show your hand.
"Less is usually better."
MISTAKES BY THE LAKE
One of the oddest Belichick stories comes from, of all places, Cleveland. The people there despise him. When Belichick goes back, it's like a Michael Moore-George W. Bush cocktail party.
Backstory: Before the Patriots did, the Cleveland Browns saw potential in a boy genius who cut his chops as defensive coordinator with the New York Giants. But in Cleveland he sparred with the media and dismantled a veteran team to build for the future, with the blood reaching a boil when Belichick cut beloved quarterback Bernie Kosar. Fans chanted, "Bill must go!" and a canopy was built near the locker room to shield him from beer cups and flying garbage.
By 1995, the dysfunctional four-year marriage was careening toward an unhappy conclusion, as talk swirled that the Browns were leaving town.
Last home game of the season, a dreary winter day on Lake Erie, the Browns beat the Bengals, and John "Big Dawg" Thompson lingered an hour afterward on the 50-yard line -- a groundskeeper let the fan on the field -- because a friend told him when you say goodbye to a true love, you should savor the final moments.
Thompson was the unofficial leader of the "Dawg Pound," a rabid group of Browns fans who probably wouldn't have fit in at Belichick's Nantucket parties. Tipping the scales at almost 500 pounds, he was dressed in a dog collar and orange spray-painted high-tops. Down the field, Belichick, the blankety-blank who Cleveland fans were certain ruined Browns football, suddenly turned, spotted Thompson and ambled over.
He just wanted to say thanks for Thompson's support.
"He knew I was hurting," Thompson says. "He knew how big of a fan I was. For him to come out with his family and thank me ... that was one of the nicest things somebody has done for me."
Belichick asked Thompson what he would do now that the team was probably gone. Keep fighting, Thompson told him.
A few days after that, Belichick was fired. A while later, the phone rang at Thompson's sales-job office.
"It's Bill Belichick," a co-worker said.
"Yeah, right," Thompson said, along with a four-letter word or two.
He said he practically dropped the phone when he heard the voice on the other line: "John, it's me."
The conversation was longer this time, and Belichick opened up. He told Thompson the one mistake he made was fighting with the media. He knew he couldn't win that fight. Too many barrels of ink, he said. "He was saying sayonara, basically," Thompson says.
Belichick went back to being an assistant on Bill Parcells' staff; Thompson lost more than 300 pounds through gastric bypass surgery.
Eventually, when an expansion team assumed the Browns' name and history, Thompson was able to obsess over the Browns again. And during Cleveland's bye week, he watches a man who he thinks is misunderstood.
LITTLE BILLY PLAYS DRESS-UP
Of course Bill Belichick has a human side. Floyd Reese saw it on TV recently. Randy Moss caught a pass on "Monday Night Football," and Belichick gave him a pat. "For Bill to give him a pat on the fanny like that ..." Reese says. "Coming from Bill, that's a big deal."
Reese, a former GM for the Titans and current ESPN analyst, has witnessed the steel heart beat and sometimes even swoon. They were young coaches together with the Detroit Lions in 1976, a couple of 20-somethings on a staff full of men twice their age. Reese was lucky. He was balding, so he didn't look as baby-faced as Belichick. "Little Billy Belichick" -- that's what they used to call him in Detroit.
The Lions franchise is owned by the Ford family, and every year, the coaches got to pick a new set of wheels from a shiny catalog. "Everything but the trailer hitch" was the motto for Belichick and his buddy when they thumbed through all the bells and whistles. A tape deck was essential. How else could they listen to their Motown? So were the moon roof, automatic windows, and any other doohickey they couldn't figure out. They had to drive Thunderbirds. All the hip guys drove Thunderbirds. "I remember mine was black with a tan roof," Reese says. "It was beautiful. What did they call them? The Landau roof?"
If the car was a symbol that Belichick was one of the hip guys, his attire said something else entirely. The head coach at the time, Rick Forzano, was known to be something of a snazzy dresser. One time, tired of Belichick's khakis, purple pre-knotted ties and clashing shirts, Forzano took the kid to his favorite clothing store to help him pick out a wardrobe. Belichick spent $50 on a pair of pants and the next several months complaining about it.
"We were supposed to wear a shirt and tie every day to work," Reese says, "and you can imagine what some of the combinations look like when you really don't want to do it and probably don't have a lot of resources. I'm here to tell you that you can make a shirt and tie look a whole lot uglier than that hooded sweatshirt."
FROM FRAT CAT TO FAT CAT
A handful of older gentlemen from Wesleyan are eager to try to explain Belichick. One is his former squash coach. Nobody really knew why Belichick played squash. He sort of stuck out there among the wiry, agile men who didn't command the popularity of the rowdy jocks in the Chi Psi fraternity house. Uber-competitive, and out of his element, he'd occasionally bang his racket against the wall.
"He wasn't like a John McEnroe type," says Bob Long, who coached the squash team. "You could just tell that he was really mad at himself. Just competing really hard."
But at Chi Psi, Belichick was more at home. Alums say the fraternity was a fun-loving, beer-swilling gang full of jocks and jokesters and bright, young men who occasionally liked to heave couches off the roof and "light s--- on fire."
Remnants of their merriment were gouged into walls and left for new generations to try to top. In the basement of The Lodge, Wesleyan University's 22-room, wood-paneled home to Chi Psi, there are three bullet holes. Target practice, apparently. When Belichick was there in the early 1970s, his frat brothers were known to convert furniture into firewood. Four years after Belichick graduated, the trashed house was condemned, in part, because 12 dogs were living there.
Belichick watched and chuckled at his fraternity brothers' high jinks, but wasn't exactly carved in the Blutarsky mold. "They were personalities," his buddy Ingraham says. "Bill appreciates people with personality."
Apparently, things change. Belichick visited his alma mater a fews years back, and donated six leather couches to the fraternity. When he returned later and found the couches had been trashed, word is he washed his hands of Chi Psi.
"The one couch that was left when I got there in '98 was in terrible shape," says Andrew Yawitz, a former Chi Psi president. "It looked like it had been set on fire. I sat on the couch, so it's not like it's just urban legend."
A few years ago, the fraternity was in trouble. It needed to raise money to buy back the house, and went through a list of alums for donations.
"We just figured we'd try to hit up anybody familiar," Yawitz said. "I was told not to get in touch with him, because he was still mad about the couches."
NOT JUST HUMAN, BUT VULNERABLE, TOO
Carl Banks is laughing over my struggle to find the softer side of Belichick. There were times when he himself wondered if the guy was human.
But if you read David Halberstam's book, "The Education of a Coach," it's obvious Belichick loved Banks, a tough, lay-everything-on-the-line linebacker. According to the book, Banks was so exhausted after the Giants won the 1986 NFC Championship Game that he lay at his locker while the team celebrated.
Well, maybe love is too strong a word in describing Belichick's affections. But he did care deeply about Banks, brought him to Cleveland when his career was winding down, and proceeded to show his respect by making the veteran do special-teams drills, normally the work of the young grunts. "He's still going to make me run down punts, still going to make me do it in front of everybody at camp," Banks says. "And he's still going to scream at me in front of everybody if I don't get it right. Thank God I knew him before I showed up to camp."
Banks says Belichick derives no satisfaction from hearing his name called. He's concerned only with putting a plan in place that allows players to be successful. It's not about the coach's ego, Banks insists. Or sticking it to a league that assumes he needed to cheat to win.
If you saw him in a bar and wanted to have a cigar and a conversation, you'd leave Belichick thinking, "Oh, that's a great guy," Banks says. (Although he isn't sure Belichick actually smokes cigars.)
Banks tells a story he thinks proves Belichick is human and vulnerable. One time during training camp in Cleveland, he called Banks and Pepper Johnson into his office. His defensive coordinator had just taken a leave of absence.
"He sat down and said, 'Look, I'm going to need your help. I'm going to need you guys to help me run the defense,' " Banks says. "Most coaches would say, 'Whatever, I've got this handled,' and not show a vulnerable side. It was an unguarded moment."
"THE HARDEST JOB IN FOOTBALL"
It is early in the morning, and Robert Ingraham has to leave for jury duty. He's calling -- gasp! -- because he has something else to say about Belichick. It's days before the Patriots will beat the Colts in the biggest game of the year, and every week, Ingraham's 12-year-old son, Tucker, e-mails Belichick to critique his game and quickly chat about life.
"A little after 6 a.m.," Ingraham says, "during this busiest and most challenging week, he has time to sit down and write a lengthy e-mail to my kid, thanking him for his suggestions and checking in on his schoolwork.
"Not to beat a dead horse ... but this is a side to him people don't know about and should know about, in my view."
If that's the case, why doesn't Mount Rushmore ever crack? Is it because the more he reveals, the more human he becomes? Will his opponents find some weakness and exploit it? Is revealing yourself, ultimately, a sign of being weak?
There is a pizza parlor/comedy club in Boston where Lenny Clarke occasionally does shows and his brother/manager apparently keeps an office. I go there twice, call a few times. Nothing but crickets chirping.
Clarke, apparently, really got his friend to open up last year. Belichick did a cameo appearance on the TV show "Rescue Me," playing a random mourner in a funeral scene. Belichick, in a rare moment, made a crack to reporters about wearing makeup.
"Hardest job in football," he said. "Trying to make me look good."
No one disagreed.
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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