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The Boston Globe

Sports

Dan Shaughnessy

On Opening Day, AFL pioneers battle again

Some familiar refrains in Music City

NASHVILLE — Bill Belichick was born here. And it turns out that his suspicion/hatred of sportswriters was rooted right here in Music City.

It’s all right there in the late David Halberstam’s wonderful book, “The Education of a Coach.”

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Bill Belichick was born in Nashville in 1952 when his dad, Steve Belichick, was in the middle of being fired as an assistant coach at Vanderbilt. According to Halberstam, Steve Belichick “had been fired, all of the members of the Belichick family later believed, because they and the coaching team they were part of had been not quite social enough for the genteel world of Vanderbilt football, and there had been a deftly organized campaign against them by one of Nashville’s more influential (and social) sportswriters.’’

Hmmm. Steve Belichick and family bounced for not using the correct silverware at a Vanderbilt boosters luncheon. Sounds like Dale Sveum botching his chance to manage the Red Sox when he spit tobacco juice into a Styrofoam cup during lunch with John Henry.

Imagine. The Belichicks could have been kings of Nashville, but they were sent packing because some influential sportswriter deemed them not “social enough’’ for the upper crust of Tennessee. After something like that, you expect Coach Hoodie to embrace Greg Bedard, Shalise Manza Young, and myself?

It would be nice to play up the revenge theme for today’s 1 p.m. kickoff against the Titans, but we really can’t make that fly. When Belichick was asked about this “homecoming,’’ he said, “Kind of. Yeah. One of many. I can’t say I remember too much from my year there — nine months or whatever it was — but that’s where it got started.’’

Fifty-two years ago, when Billy Belichick was a little kid in Annapolis, Md. (after the Vanderbilt diss, Steve Belichick enjoyed a great career coaching at the US Naval Academy), the Boston Patriots and Houston Oilers were charter members of the start-up American Football League in 1960.

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Long after the Patriots became the New England Patriots, the Oilers relocated to Nashville and became the Tennessee Titans. Today will be the 40th meeting between the former AFL pioneers.

For my money, the best game between these franchises was New England’s 17-14 playoff win over the Titans on Jan. 10, 2004, three weeks before Super Bowl XXXVIII in Houston. It was the coldest football night ever in Foxborough (4 degrees at kickoff).

The Patriots have lost only once to the Titans in the Belichick era, a 24-7 spanking at LP Field on “Monday Night Football” in December of 2002. The most recent joust was the hideous 59-0 Patriot victory at snowy Gillette Stadium in October of 2009.

It’s just about impossible to find anyone picking the Titans today. The home team will be quarterbacked by 24-year-old Jake Locker, making his first start in an NFL regular-season game. Historically, this has not been a prescription for success against Belichick.

I, for one, am prepared for a Patriot season with no drama. The Patriots came within one play of winning the Super Bowl last year, have the easiest schedule in the NFL, and play in the Powder Puff Division of the NFL’s Inferior Conference. The Patriots have won the AFC East eight of the last nine seasons, failing to lead the division only when Tom Brady was lost for the year in the first half of the first game of the 2008 season.

There’s a bad memory. When the 2008 Patriots opened the season, we were talking about how close they’d come to winning the Super Bowl only seven months earlier. They had lost to the Giants by 3 points when Eli Manning led New York down the field in the closing seconds.

Here we are four years older and it’s the same story. Does Indianapolis feel like it was more than seven months ago to you?

It doesn’t to me. I still have this vision of Rob Gronkowski lurching across the end zone, inches shy of snatching Brady’s Hail Mary that had been batted away by Aaron Hernandez and a trio of Giants defenders. A healthy Gronk might have caught that ball.

But it didn’t happen. We had Giants Redux. And we have a Patriots team that (amazingly) owns the longest championship drought in Boston sports. It’s been eight years.

The summer of Gronk is over. Bill O’Brien, Kevin Faulk, Matt Light, Deion Branch, Brian Hoyer, Andre Carter, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Dan Koppen, Chad Ochocinco, and the MHK patches are gone.

But the Patriots are back. And we expect them to return to the Super Bowl.

See you in New Orleans in February.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com

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