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Patriots

Before he became Bill Belichick’s right-hand man, the mysterious Ernie Adams worked on Wall Street

Don't know much about Ernie Adams? He prefers to stay behind-the-scenes in the Belichick operation. His official title is "football research director" and his responsibilities are obscured, even to people inside 1 Patriot Place.
Don't know much about Ernie Adams? He prefers to stay behind-the-scenes in the Belichick operation. His official title is "football research director" and his responsibilities are obscured, even to people inside 1 Patriot Place.Jim Davis

The NFL Draft this past spring gave fans a unique peek behind the curtain, as coaches, general managers, and the league’s top decision-makers called the shots and conducted interviews from their home offices.

Those watching the ESPN broadcast were treated to a live look at a very Belichick-ian setup at a Nantucket kitchen table. Those following along on social media got a glimpse of the full Patriots draft-day brain trust, which included owner Robert Kraft, coach Bill Belichick, director of player personnel Nick Caserio, and the elusive Ernie Adams, who for two decades has held the vague title of “football research director.”

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In the background of the shot in Adams’s residence, three photo frames hung from an off-white wall.

Naturally, there were no pictures in any of them.

Legendarily private, Adams remains intensely devoted to the Patriots’ dominance but actively avoids the fame and recognition that should come with it. During this dynasty, the ratio of Patriots Super Bowls to Ernie Adams on-the-record interviews is 3:1. His work is kept close to the vest, even to those in the building at 1 Patriot Place. He has a direct line to Belichick during games. He observes from the corners of the field during training camp practices, arms folded, quietly gathering intel from a distance. It is widely presumed that Adams, as Belichick’s longtime confidant, plays an integral role in game-planning and personnel decisions alike.

Ernie Adams has a direct line to Bill Belichick.
Ernie Adams has a direct line to Bill Belichick.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

He is equally brilliant and unassuming, although he can be long-winded if the topic is right, according to those who have worked with him. Football history will do the trick. United States history, too. Really, anything but his own story, which is a shame because his story makes him one of the most fascinating figures in the NFL.

Ernie Adams could have done anything he wanted. He chose football, the game that captured his imagination as a high school student at Phillips Academy in Andover, where he first connected with Belichick. At one point, though, Adams was thriving on a radically different career path.

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As only he could, Adams once ditched the NFL for Wall Street.

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What’s it like to work alongside Ernie Adams?

Maybe someday Patriots coaches and front office staffers will be ready to share. But so long as Belichick and Adams are together chasing Lombardi Trophies, behind-the-scenes tales remain on hold.

Many of Adams’s former Wall Street colleagues have followed his football career with great interest. They’ve clipped newspaper articles and searched for photos. They say his appearance today is almost exactly the same as it was then: thick-framed glasses, bushy mustache, slender build. They’ve occasionally tried to contact him through the Patriots.

Of course, they still remember working with him because, well, how could you forget?

In 1985, a young Ernie Adams arrived at Mabon, Nugent & Co., a prominent investment brokerage firm in lower Manhattan. Prior to making the leap to Wall Street, Adams had been a wunderkind in the NFL, ascending to the position of director of player personnel for the New York Giants before he turned 30 years old. In his role with the Giants, Adams “was responsible for rating all players in the NFL for purposes of trade or waiver acquisition, evaluating college talent for the NFL Draft, and evaluating upcoming Giants opponents,” according to his bio in the 1991 Cleveland Browns media guide.

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By age 33, however, Adams was looking to get out of football.

How Adams ended up at Mabon is a bit of a mystery. Tom Boucher, who hired and supervised Adams at Mabon, was under the impression that it was not Adams’s choice to leave the Giants. The franchise did have a connection with Mabon: Helen Mara, the widow of the former Giants co-owner Jack Mara, married Joseph Nugent — managing partner at Mabon, Nugent & Co — in 1980. It’s possible that the Giants helped Adams get his foot in the door, Boucher said.

Tom Boucher assigned Ernie Adams to the municipal bond trading desk, a position that involved research – a job perfectly suited to Adams's meticulous nature.
Tom Boucher assigned Ernie Adams to the municipal bond trading desk, a position that involved research – a job perfectly suited to Adams's meticulous nature.Ingalls & Snyder

Within the company, the rumor was that Adams had taken a class at the New School for Social Research and his professor, Paul Isaac, was so blown away by Adams’s intellect that he offered him a job. But Isaac, who worked at Mabon in the late 1980s and today is a widely recognized expert on value investing, is “not completely sure” that he met Adams through the New School. The Patriots declined a request to interview Adams for this story.

Regardless of how Adams landed on Mabon’s radar, it was clear from the beginning that this was not an ordinary hire.

“The man is an enigma, was an enigma,” Boucher said. “If it were 1941, he’d be in Bletchley Park” — a reference to the center for Allied code-breaking in World War II.

“I would make the argument that Ernie is in the top three, top five smartest individuals I’ve ever met in my life,” said former Mabon trader John Cummings, who went on to earn executive vice president roles at Goldman Sachs and PIMCO.

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‘“I would make the argument that Ernie is in the top three, top five smartest individuals I’ve ever met in my life.”’

John Cummings, former trader at Mabon with Ernie Adams

Adams majored in education at Northwestern and spent the first decade of his professional life in the NFL. Along the way, he developed an expertise in obscure value stocks, according to Isaac. He had a knack for forecasting trends and “figuring out a lot of these things way before most of us did,” Cummings said.

“He’s bringing something to the party that you rarely see,” Boucher said. “It was a pretty short interview process, quite frankly. It’s extremely rare to run across that. It happens, I don’t know, once every five or 10 years, and I’ve been in the business since 1980.”

Isaac and Boucher assigned Adams to the municipal bond trading desk, with a specialization in housing bonds. This was a research position, a job perfectly suited for Adams, who enjoyed nothing more than obsessing over the details. Mabon traded debt that was used to finance housing projects all over the country, and Adams was tasked with assessing the viability of these projects and deciding if they were going to generate enough cash flow to pay the debt.

Initially, his co-workers were skeptical.

“I thought this was a special talent I had, and now this guy just plops in from the NFL and he’s going to be a bond trader,” Cummings said. “You’re like, ‘I’ve seen it all. Now we’ve got guys trading bonds that are football coaches.’ I mean, think about your average football coach, right? The gym teacher was the football coach, and they were in no danger of trading bonds successfully on Wall Street.”

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Early on, Adams was given a research assistant, Tom DiTosto, who had just graduated from Colgate with honors in mathematical economics.

They spent their days doing what Ernie Adams loves: tracking down and analyzing every last bit of information. They called housing projects across the country. If they could not get in touch with managers, they spoke to janitors, maintenance workers, anyone who could provide insight. How many units are vacant? Do you like the tenants? Do they pay their bills? Are the maintenance and upkeep enough to keep the property sufficient to where it can attract new tenants?

Tom DiTosto worked as Adams's assistant. "To say that he was granular was an understatement," DiTosto explained.
Tom DiTosto worked as Adams's assistant. "To say that he was granular was an understatement," DiTosto explained.Tom DiTosto

“To say that [Adams] was granular would be an understatement,” DiTosto said. “We really got into the weeds.”

Property managers were under no obligation to disclose information, so it could be challenging to extract. Adams took a simple approach: Be upfront, be polite, and you’ll probably get what you are looking for.

Though the setting had changed, the purpose of Adams’s role with Mabon wasn’t all that different from his objective as a personnel guru with the Giants in the mid-1980s.

“If you could get the information that maybe others didn’t have, because they didn’t want to do the work, you’d know more about a property or an issue than the next guy, so you’d know to pay more for it,” DiTosto said.

Beyond the information about the properties themselves, Adams also analyzed the demographics of specific regions. If he was researching a property in Houston, for example, he wanted to know the latest economic trends in the city to inform his projection. The turnarounds were rapid. Adams needed to compile the information, complete an analysis, and communicate his opinion to the sales force within a few hours.

“A lot of people on Wall Street wing it, especially 30 years ago,” Cummings said. “It wasn’t that mathematical. What you learn from Ernie was to be very thorough in your research, to be well thought out. He always had well-thought-out arguments. You’d want to emulate this guy’s analytical skills.”

“He was more meticulous than anyone I have ever worked with,” said Bob Fields, the former managing director of institutional sales at Mabon.

Adams was friendly with co-workers and unusually helpful; on Wall Street, “you meet sociopaths, narcissistic personality disorder, some really nasty people,” Cummings said, but Adams was always glad to listen and lend advice.

“He appeared egoless,” Cummings said.

Universally appreciated by his colleagues, Adams wasn’t especially interested in socializing outside of the office, though. Having left the world of pro football behind, a young Ernie Adams was completely consumed by his new challenge. No time for breaks.

“It’s like, ‘OK, dude, it’s 5 o’clock, we’re going for beers,’ ” DiTosto said, “and that’s when you’d hear Ernie’s pregnant pause like, ‘Why don’t we just keep working on securities research?’ ”

From 2015: Mysterious Ernie Adams is Patriots’ man behind the curtain | Dan Shaughnessy

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It’s been three decades, but those who worked alongside Ernie Adams at Mabon all launch into similar impersonations. Words come out slowly. The message is direct and concise. And there’s always a moment of hesitation, an extra half-second of contemplation.

“Whether it’s a Bill Gates kind of guy, or Steve Jobs, or founders or CEOs and forward-thinking companies or great investors, they all seem to have this pregnant pause, especially when you’re talking about something that’s not their core competency,” DiTosto said. “They’re all able to be super focused. And Ernie was one of those guys.”

Tales of Adams’s photographic memory have existed for years. Cummings, who was seated next to Adams on the municipal trading desk, witnessed it firsthand. One day, a call came into the desk — longtime NFL punter Dave Jennings, who first played with the Giants and then with the Jets in the late 1980s, was looking for Adams. Cummings eavesdropped as Adams recited the hang times and landing spots of Jennings’s punts from the previous Sunday. No notes needed. He had memorized it all. Cummings was stunned.

“I watched that same game,” Cummings said. “I think Ernie inhaled it.”

‘“Whether it’s a Bill Gates kind of guy, or Steve Jobs, or founders or CEOs and forward-thinking companies or great investors, they all seem to have this pregnant pause, especially when you’re talking about something that’s not their core competency. They’re all able to be super focused. And Ernie was one of those guys.”’

Tom DiTosto, Adams's former assistant

Football rarely was discussed on the trading floor, though. Adams played along when asked about his life in the NFL, but he didn’t volunteer stories to solicit attention. Truthfully, he preferred all attention be directed elsewhere. He was “taciturn to the point of being a little reclusive,” Isaac said.

He eschewed lower Manhattan dining options for the same lunch every day: a homemade sandwich, an apple, and an oatmeal cookie. Hell, he even carried his lunch in the same brown paper bag. He’d go months without switching to a new bag, DiTosto said, and sometimes the transition was not entirely his choice.

A few times, his co-workers stapled the months-old paper bag to the wall and declared it “officially retired.”

Adams would laugh along with his buddies.

“He’s very comfortable being just a super dork — in a good way,” DiTosto said. “He’s our guy. Ernie’s our guy.”

“A lot of times you’ll meet really, really intelligent people and they use it as a weapon,” Cummings said. “That wasn’t his style. He was a person who was quite comfortable in his own skin.”

Still, Adams was in many ways mysterious. He seemed to enjoy the work at Mabon, and he’d been there for five years, but what was next? After all, Adams was the type of guy who could excel in any role, any career.

“You can use a Ferrari to tow a boat to the dock to put it in the water, but that’s probably not the best use of your Ferrari,” Boucher said. “We were probably using a Ferrari to tow our bass fishing boat down to the launching ramp — and it worked, it worked fine — but it wasn’t a particularly good use of the car.”

Committed as Adams was to bond trading, his NFL life was not yet a distant memory. Adams once brought DiTosto to a Jets-Giants preseason game, and afterward they met up with Belichick and Jennings at Rutt’s Hut, a famous hot dog joint a few miles from Giants Stadium. DiTosto remembers listening to Belichick and Adams talk shop, picking up right where they left off.

Bill Belichick (left) and Ernie Adams (right) go way back – all the way to Phillips Andover Academy.
Bill Belichick (left) and Ernie Adams (right) go way back – all the way to Phillips Andover Academy.Courtesy/Phillips Andover Archives

They’d met in high school and broke into the NFL the same season — 1975 — but Adams was the one who had achieved a prominent role at a young age. He was the Giants’ director of player personnel before he turned 30. Belichick climbed the ladder in a more traditional manner, spending nearly a decade coaching special teams before assuming linebacker duties with the Giants in 1984. Belichick’s coaching career began to blossom during Adams’s five-year stint on Wall Street. He was named Giants defensive coordinator in 1985. He constructed masterful Super Bowl XXI and XXV game plans. A head coaching gig was inevitable.

So maybe Adams’s departure from Wall Street was, too.

From 2018: ‘The single most important year in my development’: Bill Belichick, Ernie Adams and the 1970 Andover football team

Adams left Mabon in 1991 to join Belichick’s staff in Cleveland. Save for the few years after Belichick’s ouster from the Browns, they’ve been together ever since. Belichick is a surefire Hall of Famer, a legend in the sport. Adams should have a compelling case for Canton, as well . . . that is, if anyone knew exactly what his role with the Patriots entails.

Many of Adams’s former co-workers achieved the highest levels of success on Wall Street. Isaac, who had hired Adams, is the CEO and founder of Arbiter Partners Capital Management, LLC. Boucher works as a portfolio manager at Ingalls & Snyder, a New York-based investment firm with approximately $4 billion in client assets. DiTosto also works at Ingalls & Snyder, where he holds the titles of senior vice president and portfolio manager.

Looking back, DiTosto’s first taste of Wall Street, as a 23-year-old research assistant reporting to Adams, could not have prepared him any better.

“If you think you have all of the information, you don’t,” DiTosto said. “If you think you have all the information, that’s how you lose. There’s always more information to be gleaned. There’s always one more rock to turn over.”

For Ernie Adams, not much has changed.

Adams (right) and Belichick have worked side-by-side for decades.
Adams (right) and Belichick have worked side-by-side for decades.Jim Davis