When you see Bill Belichick, don’t you just want to give the New England Patriots coach a hug?
OK, perhaps not.
But the Patriots coming to town Sunday night to take on the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium brings back memories. And for me, they begin long before Mr. Bill came to Foxborough, Mass.
It seems I’ve ended up in the same place as Belichick quite often in 21 years of covering the NFL.
We met in Cleveland on Oct. 10, 1993, that is, I was a young, ambitious scribe looking to cover the NFL as a stringer for Gannett News Service. The Browns hosted Miami that day at old Municipal Stadium. Belichick was the Browns’ head coach.
The day was unforgettable for two reasons. Dan Marino stepped up in the pocket in that muddy mess of a field and tore his Achilles tendon. And Belichick benched quarterback Bernie Kosar for Vinny Testaverde.
While I don’t have tape laying around from that postgame interview, I can still hear Belichick assert that he had to do “what’s best for the team.” He wasn’t a fan of Kosar, a Cleveland legend. But the Browns were getting older and had quickly faded from their earlier playoff glory in the late 1990s.
Fast forward eight years to my first full-time year on the Colts’ beat in 2001, we had our first conference call with Belichick. After the first exchange of questions and answers, it was obvious he was having some lunch. I remember asking him what it was. Yeah, an awkward moment, but I thought it unprofessional to hear his lips smacking on a sandwich.
Still a bit full of myself, when we had him on the phone later in the year, I started the call off with, “What’s for lunch?” Yeah, it caught him off guard.
Don’t get me wrong. As much as Colts fans hate this guy, I grew to respect him. But it didn’t stop me from trying to pry his mouth open when it came to interview interactions.
When the Colts were preparing to face the Patriots in the AFC title game in January of 2004, I was sent to Foxborough to advance the New England side of the big game. By the last interview, it was obvious reporters had given up trying to ask the glum coach anything. He was going to get an early exit, but not so fast.
I asked about how much he didn’t care for chatting with reporters. Again, it was an awkward exchange, but he gave me a stock answer about how it’s a part of the process to give information to the public so we could share it with fans. Yeah, not much for headlines, but hey, I tried.
I had the same gig the next postseason, when the Colts went back to Gillette Stadium and got knocked out of the playoffs in January. By this time, I had accepted the reality that sometimes in reporting, well, you just punt. Ask what you need, but don’t belabor the process with this guy because he’s not going to change.
I laugh at that resignation now because when I went back to New England to advance the infamous AFC title game that would be played back in Indy in January of 2007, I was more determined than ever to write something worth a damn about Belichick. Keep in mind, it was the third time I was assigned the Patriots beat for a Colts game, the third time I had to write stories about how great it was to be quarterback Tom Brady, the third time I had an assignment to offer something worth reading on Belichick.
Before hopping the plane, I bought a copy of Michael Holley’s book Patriot Reign. While reading on the plane, I learned that Belichick actually got his NFL start with the Baltimore Colts on Ted Marchibroda’s staff in 1975.
That still cracks me up. The Colts are actually to blame for unleashing Belichick on them.
Driving up to Foxborough, I phoned Marchibroda. Of course, he remembered his former 23-year-old assistant. He called him “Billy” back then.
When mentioning Marchibroda at the press conference, it was as if Belichick became a different person. He smiled. Yeah, smiled. And then he gushed — yeah, gushed! — about the good, old days on that Colts staff. He used to drive the coaches to Memorial Stadium. They stayed in a Howard Johnson’s.
The quotes are memorable. I used them in the newspaper story, then again in my 2013 book 100 Things Colts Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die. Chapter 65 is entitled, “Bill Belichick Started as a Colt.”
“I worked right outside of Earl Weaver’s office,” Belichick said of his Memorial Stadium trappings near the old Baltimore Orioles manager’s workplace. “I wrote down all of the films. Every player was all on one card. Punch out the holes, put an ice pick in, drop the cards out, do the breakdowns, do probably 15 to 20 for (assistant coach) Maxie Baughan and the defensive coaches in the old Baltimore Memorial Stadium.
“I remember that. I learned probably more football in that room — it was a cinderblock closet, really — but I probably learned more football than any place else I’ve ever been. It was like a graduate course in football.”
Belichick was paid $25 per week and free lodging at that Howard Johnson’s.
“I’m deeply indebted to Ted for giving me that opportunity,” Belichick said. “There was no financial reward to it, but there was a personal and professional reward that I could never repay him for.”
We met at the door after the interview and he asked me how Marchibroda was doing. An assistant was reminding Belichick of a meeting, but he assured there was time to chat some more. And this man known for such a dispassionate look gushed some more. I thanked him for sharing the memories and he reciprocated with an appreciative farewell.
There have been more run-ins since then, but nothing like that chat in Foxborough.
The Colts, of course, won that game, probably the finest hour in this franchise’s history since arriving in Indianapolis, even more so than beating the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI. Tony Dungy and Colts players have said of beating the Patriots, “That was our Super Bowl.”
Who will ever forget the infamous fourth-and-2 game, when Belichick went for it on his own 28 late in the fourth quarter because he trusted Brady and the offense to get that first down more than his defense stopping Peyton Manning? The Patriots didn’t get it, Manning threw a TD pass to Reggie Wayne and the Colts won 35-34 at Lucas Oil Stadium in 2009. I remember hurriedly running Belichick quotes to my buddy Phil Richards on a tight deadline so everyone in Indy would know why the coach took such an unusual chance.
Belichick came back to Indy for Super Bowl XLVI at Lucas Oil Stadium in 2012. Once again, the assignment was to cover his opening press conference after the Patriots arrived. He cracked a joke, something about how it was the first time he was glad to be in Indianapolis. Or something like that.
He returns again to this Indy venue to try to torment the Colts in what should be an intriguing Sunday Night Football matchup. The Patriots have the AFC’s best record at 7-2. The Colts are 6-3 and trying to prove they can be AFC contenders.
Seriously, Colts fans are lucky to have such a hated rival. As I’ve grown older, I’ve learned to appreciate that more. I grew up a fan of the Los Angeles Lakers and Magic Johnson, which meant you didn’t like Larry Bird. But you couldn’t help but admire how Bird played and how the rivals brought out the best in each other.
Colts fans hate Belichick because he’s beaten them too many times. Some mention SpyGate, but let’s face it, he’s a damn good football coach.
When you compete against Belichick, that means something. You’re going up against the NFL’s best.
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.