By MALCOLM MORAN
The boy was about 10 years old, standing on a football sideline in Philadelphia, surrounded by the majesty of the Army-Navy Game. He had gotten there because he was a coach’s son, but now the game was over, the chaos all around, and he was just a boy. There was a folded piece of paper at his feet, and the child stuck it in his pocket and forgot about it.
Until later, when the boy showed the paper to his father and they recognized their great good fortune.
The father was a Navy assistant coach.
The paper had belonged to an Army coach.
So at the start of the following season, when the father was scouting the Black Knights, he crossed paths with friends on the Army staff and casually used their terminology to make observations about plays that had worked or had not. The panic in their faces was immediate.
Bill Belichick laughed when he told that story about himself and his father, Steve.
This was nearly three and a half decades ago. He was a 28-year-old special teams coach for the New York Giants, a kid in the business trying to find ways to help make a bad team a little bit better. I was covering the team for The New York Times. In those days, on the way to a 4-12 season, the only apparent connection between Belichick and subterfuge was a child’s random discovery and a young coach’s creativity.
Belichick was smart, and engaging, and funny, with a Wesleyan education, an unusual range of interests for a coach and a willingness to describe his craft. He would offer insight to beat reporters trying to understand the reasons to explain a dreary season and the search for better days. We would sit around in the press room in the basement of the old Giants Stadium, trying to figure out what the special-teams coach would come up with next.
Belichick had remembered a play from his Navy childhood, when Wayne Hardin was the head coach, in which a player would linger near the sideline with his teammates in punt formation – and suddenly become a receiver.
“I thought, ‘That’s a great idea,’ Belichick said years ago. “Then I finally got a chance to do it.”
Then a letter from the National Football League arrived, with a simple message: Stop.
He smiled when he told that story, too.
The issue of gamesmanship, in those days, was more amusing than anything else. Coaches would tell stories about the antics of George Allen when he was in Los Angeles or Washington. A helicopter would pass near a practice field as a team prepared for the Oakland Raiders, and right on cue, someone would shake a fist and yell, “Damn you, Al Davis,” and everyone would smile.
The industry was far more approachable. The scrutiny was far less intense. The season would end and the teams would just go away for weeks.
Now the season never really ends and the financial stakes have never been greater and I can’t help but wonder: What happened to Bill Belichick?
The part that does not add up is the childhood in Annapolis, within the influence of the Naval Academy and its standards of honor. The boy had been shielded from many of the realities of the coaching business. Steve Belichick was fired at Vanderbilt when Bill was an infant, and again at North Carolina when his son was 4 years old. But then Steve Belichick became an institution, staying on with other generations of Midshipmen when head coaches and their staffs would come and go. The father described, with pride, graduation day for Joe Bellino, the Heisman Trophy winner and Bill’s hero. At the end of the ceremony, when the other graduates threw their hats into the air, Bellino grabbed another hat, tossed it toward the sky, and handed his hat to the boy.
At 34, Belichick would become the defensive coordinator for a Super Bowl champion. At 39, he was the head coach of the Cleveland Browns. I was thrilled for him and convinced he was on his way to greatness. He was too smart, too accomplished. He had a lifetime of knowledge and preparation. And he didn’t need much sleep.
But that chapter didn’t end well. A 5-11 season in 1995, the fourth losing season out of five, ended with the heartbreak of the franchise’s impending move to Baltimore and the frightening sound of shattering wood and explosive devices on the field during the final minutes of the last home game. As a child, Belichick once remembered, his family had moved once, and it was just across town. If he had been shielded from the nomadic existence of the coaching profession, he was shielded no more.
The eventual elite-level successes have been documented in far greater detail than whatever transformation took place in the unfulfilled expectations of the old Cleveland Stadium.
If the NFL investigation determines that someone – anyone – in the New England organization altered the footballs in the AFC Championship Game victory over Indianapolis that required no manufactured advantage for the Patriots, it will not matter whether Belichick was aware of what happened. It will not matter because the cheating would have taken place within the culture the face of the franchise had created: The disgrace of Spygate, the hoodie, the monotone, On To Cincinnati, the riffs that have provided material for Frank Caliendo and “Saturday Night Live” and have now brought ridicule to a league with more than enough issues of its own.
If the investigation provides that evidence, win or lose in the Super Bowl against the Seahawks on Sunday, Belichick’s legacy becomes something that would have been unthinkable when the bright, young assistant was just trying to conceal a receiver in punt formation.
He would become Barry Bonds in a headset.
All that work, a professional lifetime of achievement and creativity, would be reduced, unnecessarily, to a description of corruption. It would place a cloud over enshrinement one day in Canton, Ohio. Or possibly, in a worst-case scenario, the issue would complicate a decision that otherwise should be the simplest that voters for the Pro Football Hall of Fame will ever make.
Malcolm Moran is director of the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana University. A former sports reporter for The New York Times and USA Today was also the inaugural Knight Chair in Sports Journalism and Society at Penn State University from 2006 through 2012.
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