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On Second Thought

Does Ben Coates not get the recognition he deserves because he played before the Patriots started winning Super Bowls?

In his six prime pass-catching seasons with the Patriots, Ben Coates was the intended receiver 671 times and caught 428 (.638) of those passes, 44 for touchdowns.HENNY ABRAMS

Ben Coates, a hurricane force of a tight end in his days with the Patriots, will blow back into town Dec. 8 for his night as an honoree at the Sports Museum’s prestigious “Tradition” ceremony at the Garden.

Note to Causeway Street shop owners: Batten down the hatches, ladies and gents, because the wind whipped up pretty good around here when Big Ben was barreling down the field.

Coates, now 52, was an intimidating mix of size (6 feet 5 inches, 245 pounds), speed, violent blocking, velveteen hands, and ferocious after-the-catch determination. His will to shake off defenders and any number of other feeble hangers-on made him tougher to take down than an international crime syndicate.

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“Now that’s all about pride … that’s pride,” Coates recalled the other day, reached at his home in Concord, N.C. “That’s pride when you come from a small school, and a lot of people said that you shouldn’t be there, but you’re there, and you’re just trying to prove that everybody’s wrong.”

Like a large portion of 20th century Patriots history — those decades before Super Bowl rings and duck boat parades became our gridiron de rigueur — time has placed Coates on the back shelf of memories of even some of the most ardent Patriots fans. After arriving here in 1991 from tiny Livingstone College in Salisbury, N.C., he worked his way up from special teams to blossom as the NFL’s dominant tight end once Drew Bledsoe became quarterback in 1993.

“Yeah, that was my highlight when Bledsoe arrived,” noted Coates, who quickly rendered two-time Pro Bowl selection Marv Cook a spare part. “It was like, ‘Drew, you just throw me the ball, OK?, and I’ll catch it. Just throw … me … the … ball.’ ”

In his six prime pass-catching seasons with the Patriots, 1993-98, Coates was the intended receiver 671 times and caught 428 (.638) of those passes, 44 for touchdowns. Bledsoe amassed 128 TD passes across that same stretch.

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Upon Coates’s retirement in 2001, after winning the Super Bowl in his 2000 farewell season with the Ravens, he ranked as the No. 4 receiver at tight end (499 catches, 50 TDs, 5,555 yards), behind Ozzie Newsome, Shannon Sharpe, and Kellen Winslow, all of them now enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Ben Coates (right) gave his all for the Patriots, and should be enshrined in Canton.The Boston Globe/Boston Globe

Coates deserves to have his bust in Canton, too. The fact that his excellence has been lost to time is really two-fold: 1. New England’s success was rather lean (67-77) during his nine years here, including the loss to Green Bay in Super Bowl XXXI; 2. The total eclipse of everything that ever happened here once Tom Brady and crew began to accumulate that six-ring haul in 2001.

“In all honesty, that’s fair,” said Coates, acknowledging how his time and legacy have been framed here. “But you know, Rome wasn’t built in a day, right? Somebody had to build it. Somebody had to be the foundation for them to be champions six times, go to all those Super Bowls. Because when I went there in 1991, we weren’t great … but eventually we were building something.”

The club’s return to respectability over the latter part of the 1990s, Coates believes, eventually is what helped persuade Bill Belichick to return as Foxborough’s rainmaker in chief.

“The program was pretty much established by then,” he said. “If he didn’t think so, he would have stayed with the Jets.”

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In the 20 years Coates has been retired, the game has changed dramatically. He was on the field plenty, coach Bill Parcells often leaving him out there for first, second, and third downs, a rarity for tight ends. A 22-year-old Coates entering today’s game probably couldn’t be out there more than he was then, but he’d likely be targeted far more frequently in today’s pass-first, pass-last, pass-always NFL.

More significantly, Coates today wouldn’t be required to smack down defensive ends as part of the running game, a role he performed with gusto and excellence, helping Curtis Martin to crack 1,100 yards rushing, good for an average 10 TDs, each of the three years he ran out of the New England backfield.

“True, complete tight ends, they’re a thing of the past,” offered Coates., who just a few years ago had both hips replaced, the price for too much wear and tear from blocks and after-catch yardage. “The game is all about passing and points now, teams with 20, 30, and 40 points every game. It’s like flag football out there. Some of these tight ends, I mean, you see ‘em, look at their shoulder pads, they look like kickers. They’re not blocking anybody.”

Now fully retired at his home outside Charlotte, Coates just watched Christopher, his youngest of three sons, wrap up his high school career. Post-retirement, until his hips grew too painful, he spent the better part of 15 years in coaching for seven teams, pro and college. During a one-year internship with the Cowboys, he helped to develop Jason Witten, and he also tutored Kellen Winslow II for two years with the Browns.

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“The hip pain just got to be too much,” Coates said, “Time came that I said, ‘OK, that’s enough. I’m good.’”

Coates said he was “ecstatic” and felt it was “truly an honor” to receive word from Rusty Sullivan, executive director of the Sports Museum, that he would be included among this year’s Tradition honorees, an illustrious group that includes David Ortiz, Kevin McHale, Angela Ruggiero, Taylor Twellman, and Mike Milbury. In 2008, the Patriots inducted Coates into their Hall of Fame.

“Just great to be honored like this,” said Coates. “Who knows, maybe I get this attention here, and maybe the [Pro Football Hall of Fame] will get to thinking, ‘Hey, wait a minute, did we forget about Coates?’”


For tickets or more information about The Tradition, Dec. 8 at TD Garden, visit www.sportsmuseum.org or e-mail Maria Kangas at mkangas@sportsmuseum.org.


Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at kevin.dupont@globe.com.