Commentary

Former Patriots video assistant hints at team's spying history

Originally Published: February 1, 2008
By Mike Fish | ESPN.com

LAHAINA, Hawaii -- Matt Walsh worked seven years with the New England Patriots before being let go on Martin Luther King Day in 2003. He was on the New Orleans Superdome sidelines when the Pats kicked off their dominant run, upsetting the St. Louis Rams in the 2002 Super Bowl. He wasn't a chiseled athlete, but a go-getter who climbed his way up the team's support staff ladder -- first as a public relations intern, then as a video assistant and later, in his last year, a college scout.

Mostly, though, his years with New England were spent shooting football video.

He was the third, and last, employee on the video staff. In his words, he was Matt Estrella before Matt Estrella, a reference to the Patriots video assistant caught filming the Jets' defensive signals by league officials last September at halftime of a game against New York -- the violation that birthed "Spygate" and led, in part, to some of the heftiest penalties in league history. New England coach Bill Belichick was fined $500,000 -- the biggest fine ever for a coach -- and the team was docked its first-round draft choice this year.

And now, Walsh, 31, an assistant golf pro on Maui, might be positioned to further pull back the curtain on the Patriots' taping history, expose where and how they gained advantages and, perhaps even, turn over video proof.

If Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, is serious about calling a hearing to delve into the issue -- particularly the questions of why the NFL hastily destroyed all evidence, including tapes handed over by the Patriots, and what other as-yet-undisclosed material might be out there -- perhaps one of his first calls should be to Walsh, who in conversations with ESPN.com suggested he has information that could be damaging to both the league and the Patriots.

In a New York Times story on Friday and again at a news conference later in the day, Specter expressed frustration with a lack of response from the NFL to his Nov. 15 letter inquiring about the league's investigation. He said NFL commissioner Roger Goodell would eventually be called before the committee to address, among other things, the destruction of the tapes. NFL officials and Patriots employees possibly could be brought before the committee to testify.

Walsh told ESPN.com that, in the wake of the cheating scandal that broke early in the season, he has never been contacted by NFL officials to inquire about his insight into the Patriots' illegal taping practices, which he says date back to his time with the franchise. Nor, he said, has there been any communication with the Patriots.

[+] EnlargeMatt Walsh
Mike Fish, ESPN.comMatt Walsh might hold the key to 'Spygate,' but isn't unlocking any doors.
"If they're doing a thorough investigation -- they didn't contact me," Walsh told ESPN.com. "So draw your own conclusions. Maybe they felt they didn't need to. Maybe the league feels they got satisfactory answers from everything the Patriots sent them."

Goodell said at his annual address to the media at the Super Bowl on Friday that the tapes turned over by the Patriots date back only to 2006, well after Walsh had left the organization. Does Walsh know anything that might be of interest to that inquiry? He won't say, but he hasn't dodged the suggestion that he does. On a number of occasions in interviews with ESPN and ESPN.com in recent weeks, he has hinted about evidence and information he might be able to provide.

"No, the league has never called me," he said. "Neither have the Patriots. And really, I would be surprised if they did. Then all of a sudden -- I don't know how much the league or Patriots know about my stance or how I feel about things -- for them to put in a call to me, what are they going to say? Are they going to try and threaten me? Or say, don't talk about it? Then, they are putting themselves out there and looking bad as far as if I turn around and say, 'Hey, guess what, the league called me and said [we're] gonna take away your pension if you say anything about this.'"

Later, Walsh said his reference to a pension meant his 401k retirement plan.

Walsh suggested he could have blown the whistle long ago, if he'd been so inclined.

"If I had a reason to want to go public or tell a story, I could have done it before this even broke," he said. "I could have said everything rather than having [Eric] Mangini be the one to bring it out."

It is widely assumed that Mangini, the Jets head coach and former Patriots assistant under Belichick, was responsible for exposing the Patriots' spying tactics earlier this season. Several members of New England's staff came to the Jets with Mangini when he took the head job in New York, including assistant coaches Brian Daboll and Jay Mandoleso and video director Steve Scarnecchia, a former Patriot video assistant.

The Jets' staff, under orders from team management, refused comment for this story.

"Obviously, Mangini knew what was going on and it had been going on for a while," Walsh said. "They tried to catch them doing it last year and weren't able to. So they were just waiting for them to throw the camera up this year on the sideline. But afterwards, I get the impression the league said to them, 'Hey, kind of back down from this; let us take care of it,' because Mangini probably could have come out and said more, made more of a deal out of it if he wanted to."

Walsh said that when he worked with the Patriots, a very limited number of people within the organization were privy to details about the team's video practices, notably video director Jimmy Dee and Ernie Adams, Belichick's prep school friend and right-hand man.

Walsh said that during his tenure in New England, no taping was done without Dee's knowledge.

As for the prospect of Adams sharing insight into the suspicious practices, Walsh said: "You've got a better chance of him telling you who killed JFK than anything about New England. There are lots of stories there. He told me stories of things they used to do in Cleveland [where Adams assisted Belichick with the Browns]."

[+] EnlargeMatt Walsh
Mike Fish, ESPN.comWalsh says he could have broken a story about spying by the Patriots before the Jets' Eric Mangini did.
Asked Friday at his Super Bowl news conference about the New York Times story that indicated Specter's interest and identified Walsh as a person who might have inside knowledge about the Patriots' operations, Belichick said, "It's a league matter. I don't know anything about it."

Despite suggestions that he could be a player in expanding the Spygate probe, Walsh repeatedly has refused to provide ESPN.com with any evidence of wrongdoing by the Patriots. He also has refused to confirm that he has tapes in his possession.

Walsh said he is fearful of possible legal action against him by either the league or Patriots if he details what he knows. He refused to provide evidence of potential wrongdoing unless ESPN agreed to pay his legal fees related to his involvement in the story, as well as an indemnification agreement that would cover any damages found against him in court. ESPN denied his requests.

On Friday, Walsh told ESPN he is uncertain whether he would voluntarily meet with a Senate committee, if asked. Previously, however, he expressed a willingness to tell league officials what he knows if they should call.

"I wouldn't lie to them about anything, and especially because I don't know what they have," Walsh said. "I don't know what evidence they have. So there is no reason for me to lie to anybody, anyways. It is one thing for me to say, 'Hey, look, just not gonna talk about it.' It is not like a felony or crime or something where I got to go on a stand in court and swear on a Bible or something. It is the kind of thing where for me, personally, it could potentially do more harm to talk about it than not talk about it.

"But if the league contacted me and said, 'Did you do this? Did you do that? …' Maybe they have evidence I did, so I am not going to say, 'No, I didn't.'"

Like others trying to break into the NFL, Walsh came to the Patriots fresh out of college with little experience and a world of ambition. He graduated from Springfield College, class of 1998, with a degree in sports management. He didn't play college football; and though he claims to have spent parts of two seasons on the golf team, the college's sports information office has no record of him in its files.

He began his time with the NFL by working on the Patriots' game-day press box staff during his college years. Those connections led Walsh to an internship in the franchise's public relations department during the first semester of his senior year at Springfield. In an effort to get ahead with the team, Walsh told ESPN.com, he offered to help out in the scouting department, which was then headed by Bobby Grier, after his day shift in PR ended.

Walsh found himself without a full-time job after graduation. He was working as a lifeguard on Cape Cod when the Patriots called just days before the start of camp and offered him a job as a video assistant, even though he had no expertise or training in that area.

In the winter of 2002-03, Walsh said he was fired by Patriots vice president for player personnel Scott Pioli, and then spent a year on the video staff of the Cologne Centurions in now-defunct NFL Europe. Walsh says he was frustrated with the monotony of the scouting job in New England -- he focused on the few football-playing colleges in western New York -- and that may have been a factor in his dismissal. He suggested it likely got back to the Patriots that he had made overtures about video jobs with other teams. He eventually landed a series of assistant golf pro jobs at private clubs in New England and Arizona.

He can be found these days on the staff at the Ka'anapali Golf Resort in Lahaina, Hawaii, a 36-hole layout that caters to tourists visiting the high-end hotels and resort condos that line the long stretch of beach overlooking the Pacific Ocean. As he spoke with ESPN.com on a recent morning, he strode around the course confidently, talking up guests between an occasional golf lesson.

Walsh described himself as a guy who makes friends easily, and who is adroit at working deals. When he worked video for the Patriots, he said, he often finagled a round of golf at top course in exchange for game tickets. After he left the Patriots, he hooked up with a high school friend who worked security for his favorite group, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and followed the band on tour over 27 stops, sharing drink and food backstage with band members by night, and playing golf by day.

His air of confidence, though, came and went as he chatted about whether he wants to involve himself in Spygate. He has a young wife who is a physical therapist, and an 8-month-old son. He has family back in New England who, he said, could be in harm's way if he damages the Patriots with any information he might disclose. Even in Hawaii, he remains a New England season-ticket holder. And he said he worries about how he might be perceived by future employers if he blows the whistle on the Patriots.

And he wondered aloud what might be in it for him if he does.

He said he fears the potential wrath of the Patriots, and their ability to tie him in up in court for an extended period of time. Although he stopped short of saying he has actual video evidence, he suggested he does; and so raised the possibility that it might be viewed as stolen property.

He mentioned a confidentiality agreement he signed with the club, though he's not sure how that might factor into what he has to say.

"So whether that still covers me talking about things that we did when I was there or not, I'm not completely sure," Walsh said. "But if it doesn't -- if the worst they do is get pissed off that I am coming out talking to national media about all these things that I know that they have done and what not, and they just decide to pull my season tickets -- well, OK. At the end of the day, what did I get out of it? I lost my season tickets."

At one point, when the discussion turned to potential evidence, he said, "I'd use it if they came after me. The last thing I need is for people to make a case against me."

During an afternoon tour of the golf course where he works, Walsh stopped and pointed out Black Rock, a cliff where a nightly ritual features a lone figure lifting a torch to salute the sky before plunging into the dark waters, home to the occasional small shark. He used that scene as an analogy to the risk he'd face coming forward with his story.

"That guy is taking a chance jumping into shark-infested waters," Walsh said, motioning toward the cliff. "There'd be nothing to come out of it for me. Be a helluva risk."

He said he does not feel an ethical urge to do what some might perceive as the right thing, to help set the record straight -- either by exposing the Patriots or by depicting them as simply doing what every other team does.

"I'll be honest with you: I can't really be guilted into anything," he said. "Maybe after this whole thing, you don't think I have a conscience because of the people I was exposed to and what they had me doing.

"Really, I just [have] no incentive to really talk to anybody, no reason to do it. For me, personally, I haven't really been able to see the gain in doing it."

But now the Senate Judiciary Committee knows about him. And perhaps the incentive will come in the form of a subpoena from Specter's committee.

Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. He can be reached at michaeljfish@gmail.com. Ben Houser, a feature producer for ESPN's "Outside the Lines," and ESPN.com's Gregg Easterbrook also contributed to this report.