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Christopher L. Gasper

Kevin O’Connell was drafted by Bill Belichick in 2008. Now he’s facing him as a head coach.

Bill Belichick looked on as Kevin O'Connell went through drills at rookie minicamp with the Patriots in 2008.Wilson, Mark Globe Staff

When he was drafted by the Patriots in 2008, Kevin O’Connell wanted to follow in Tom Brady’s footsteps. Instead, he’s following in Bill Belichick’s.

The first-year head coach of the 8-2 Minnesota Vikings, O’Connell is going to match wits and ways with his old coach Thursday in Minneapolis. Those who have first-hand experience with Belichick’s secret sauce fare better than most. Half the Hoodie battle is walking the fine line between respect and intimidation.

The 37-year-old O’Connell is Belichick Tree adjacent. He observed and absorbed the Belichick Way during his brief time in Foxborough as a backup quarterback, but his NFL coaching apprenticeships came elsewhere. Still, that time in New England left an impression.


“As I made that transition into coaching, there were just so many moments and times where I relied on things — how I communicated, how I tried to coach as a young position coach in our league — where I circled back to foundational core things that I learned during that time there,” O’Connell said.

“Ultimately, I do think everything happens for a reason. I think the ability to spend that time in Foxborough with such great football minds and leaders really did impact me.”

I was on the Patriots beat in 2008 when Belichick drafted O’Connell, a mobile, strong-armed quarterback from San Diego State, in the third round. A Southern California soul, O’Connell’s sunny disposition and self-effacing humor stood out in the staid Patriots locker room. He’s a people person.

Some foolish football writer predicted he would supplant Matt Cassel as the starter during Brady’s torn-ACL injury abeyance in 2008 and become a righthanded Steve Young. That didn’t work out, but O’Connell was destined to make a mark in the NFL.

“If you had asked me who I thought would be a head coach out of our class, it would’ve been him and Jerod [Mayo],” said Patriots captain Matthew Slater, who formed a lasting bond with O’Connell when the two were rookies rooming together at the Residence Inn.


“One is doing it, the other is on track to do it. Super proud of Kevin, I stood in his wedding. He’s one of my best friends, so I love the guy.

“He has been a tremendous friend and support for me over the course of my career. He has been there for a lot of big moments in my life, personally. I just can’t tell you how proud I am of him to see him grow and to see him accomplish so much as a young coach in this league.”

Slater joked that seeing his pal as the opposing coach makes him feel NFL old. The 70-year-old Belichick must feel the same facing players he drafted, like Arizona Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury and O’Connell.

Thursday marks Belichick’s 488th game as an NFL head coach. He has won in 50 different stadiums. Minnesota’s U.S. Bank Stadium isn’t on the list.

It’s the site of the miserable mall Super Bowl and the scene of the crime of Malcolm Butler’s benching in a gut-wrenching loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.

O'Connell, 37, has the Vikings at 8-2 and could be in the running for NFL Coach of the Year.David Berding/Getty

O’Connell will attempt to be the latest former Fort Foxborough employee to get the better of his old boss. Even Patriots de facto offensive coordinator Matt Patricia scored a victory over Belichick in 2018 during his otherwise disastrous stint in Detroit.


O’Connell has faced Belichick before. He was Washington’s offensive coordinator in a 33-7 loss to the Patriots in 2019. He served as offensive coordinator for the Los Angeles Rams during their Super Bowl-winning campaign last year and in 2020 when the Rams defeated the Patriots, 24-3.

But he acknowledged that facing Belichick as the opposing head coach is different.

“The amount of respect that I have for Coach Belichick and not only what he has been able to accomplish, but just knowing the challenges that I’m now experiencing having the ability to now be the head coach of my own team,” said O’Connell.

“I just have so much respect for the type of football that they play week in and week out. How prepared his team is week in and week out. How fundamentally sound they are.”

O’Connell threw six passes in his Patriots career before he was released during the 2009 preseason to make room for Brian Hoyer. He bounced around until 2012 with Detroit, the New York Jets (twice), Miami, and the Chargers.

But he still has notebooks with meeting notes and other pearls of Patriots wisdom that he draws upon.

“Not only the exposure to Coach Belichick but all the great players and coaches he has coached and developed over the years, a lot of those principles they stick with me to this very day,” O’Connell said.

“I try to apply different characteristics of things I learned about playing football at a high level consistently in this league, and I think it has formed a lot of my own personal football philosophy that I’ve tried to convey to our staff and our players here.”


However, listen to O’Connell address his team or the media and he sounds like he’s channeling Sean McVay, not Belichick. O’Connell called the Rams coach “a huge influence.”

“Experiencing the success we experienced, doing it in a way that solidified my beliefs and culture,” he said.

The NFL’s second-youngest active head coach behind McVay, O’Connell could be in line for Coach of the Year honors in his first season. The Vikings are tied for the NFL’s second-best record.

A hallmark of Belichick’s teams has always been the ability to execute in key situations. Well, seven of Minnesota’s eight wins have been by one score or less, including a scintillating comeback overtime victory against the Buffalo Bills.

Slater sees a lot of his pal reflected in the Vikings, a team that celebrates with the Griddy and is gritty.

O'Connell said he continues to lean on the lessons he learned in Foxborough.Stephen Maturen/Getty

“You look at the Buffalo game, I’m sure everyone thought that game was over, and they just found ways to keep competing, scrapping, clawing, believing in one another, and going out there and playing for one another,” Slater said. “And that’s who Kevin is.

“He’s a very selfless guy, he’s a very competitive guy, and he’ll do everything he can for the man next to him. It seems that they play that way.”

O’Connell’s career as a player didn’t go quite the way he or Belichick planned. But he’s thriving devising game plans instead of executing them.


Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at christopher.gasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.