Who is the mysterious Berj Najarian, Bill Belichick’s right-hand man?
ATLANTA — He is Tom Hagen in “The Godfather.’’ He is Doug Stamper on “House of Cards.’’
He is Berj Najarian, consigliere to Bill Belichick. He is The Man To See if you want to see Bill.
“You’re never going to get to Bill unless you go through Berj,’’ said Scott Zolak, a Patriot insider for three decades. “Berj is the guy who dictates who Bill talks to.’’
“Everybody knows Berj runs the show down there,’’ added Troy Brown, a three-time Super Bowl winner with Belichick. “You had to go to Berj for everything. You’d walk in the front door and the first guy you’d see is Berj. He was in charge the whole time I was there.’’
Najarian is one of the most powerful figures on the Boston sports landscape, yet most fans have never heard of him. There isn’t much to find about him on the Internet. Najarian makes no sound and leaves no footprints.
He is a behind-the-scenes guy who does not want anyone in the Patriots family to think he is seeking attention. Seven years ago, in a moment of weakness, he gave the New York Times a one-paragraph, snooze-filled statement regarding his duties (“helping uphold the standard of excellence set by the Kraft family” blah-blah), but he has no intention of being so reckless again.
When I asked to interview him for this story, it went like this.
Me: “Can I talk to you for five minutes for a story on you?”
Berj: “You’ll have to ask Bill.”
Me: “I can’t ask Bill without going through you first.’’
Berj: “We’ll get back to you.’’
I heard from Berj later that night. He said he’d rather not break his Ripkenesque streak of not giving quotes to the media.
Najarian’s official title in the Patriots media guide is “Director of Football/Head Coach Administration.’’
Working from a Gillette Stadium office adjoined to Belichick’s, Najarian handles the logistics of Belichick’s workday. He decides who sits where on the team plane. He selects the music for practice. He doles out speaking gigs to assistant coaches if the Patriots are approached by corporations. He prioritizes.
He combs through all media coverage of the Patriots (an overwhelming tonnage of digital, ink, and radio/TV noise) and decides what Bill needs to see and hear. He seeks out reporters who he believes have been unfair to his boss or the Patriot Way. I can’t prove it, but I believe he has a Nixonian enemies list.
Any time you see Belichick standing at a podium at any news conference, you can see Berj off to the side, deep in the background, monitoring the proceedings while checking his Smartphone.
“His ability to absorb everything around him, with eyes in the back of his head, is the most impressive thing,’’ said Zolak. “He takes the information and puts it through the strainer: what the coach should and should not see. Berj has a real good ear for that.’’
After Wednesday’s media session at the Super Bowl, I cornered Belichick for a few words about his ubiquitous wingman.
“What does Berj do for you?’’ I started.
“We could probably talk about that for a week,’’ said the coach. “He does a lot. There’s football, non-football. Scheduling. Just a lot of things I need to be aware of and logistical things that need to be taken care of. Some things we talk about and some things he just knows what he needs to do.
“Berj gets along with people great. He has great relationships with almost everybody. I think everybody likes him and he’s good to work with. He’s smart. He’s very dedicated and team-oriented and unselfish. He’ll do what’s best for the team and he’ll work with anybody and is able to be productive with them.
“Sometimes there’s a conflict in how things need to go, and he does a good job in compromising and finding a middle ground where everybody can feel they have a workable situation.’’
Bob Kraft has called Najarian “one of our hidden weapons.’’
It is the Patriot Way.
Paranoia and secrecy strike deep in the heart of Foxborough. Assistant coaches are rarely made available. Ernie Adams (Bill’s replay-challenge whisperer) speaks to no one. Players are told what to say, and all outsiders are processed through “Security Command.’’
In this spirit, Najarian is a perfect fit for Fort Foxborough.
Najarian, 49, grew up on Long Island, played baseball at Manhasset (high school home of running back Jim Brown), then played a year of baseball at Boston University before graduating with a liberal arts degree in 1991. He worked in the PR office of the New York Knicks during their NBA Finals season of 1993-94, then moved over to the New York Jets in 1995.
Young Najarian attached himself to Jets wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, and beat reporters learned that if you wanted to get Keyshawn, you had to go through Berj.
In 1997, when Belichick came to the Jets with Bill Parcells (who was famous for not allowing his assistants to talk to the media), Najarian hitched his wagon to the grumpy defensive coordinator. They worked out on treadmills, side by side, and according to Ian O’Connor’s bestselling book “Belichick,” “They talked about ways Little Bill could better deal with the media while working around Big Bill’s restrictions.’’
When Belichick got the Patriots job, the Hoodie did not want to repeat the media mistakes he made as head coach in Cleveland. He wanted his own guy. He brought Najarian with him to Foxborough.
“I knew him because of the PR connection with the Jets,’’ said Belichick. “We would play other teams and he would get PR material from them. It was a little different then. I would ask him to keep an eye out for articles relevant to our next game, like, ‘what are they saying about this guy’s knee?’ or things like that. That’s how we got started.
“I needed somebody to do the non-football stuff. Somebody who was not a coach. As a head coach, you deal with a lot of non-football things that relate to the job. Berj and I talked about different options and he said, ‘Why don’t I just do that?’ And I said, ‘Well, let’s see how it goes.’ ’’
Belichick bringing his own guy to Foxborough created an awkward situation in the Patriots PR office. Ever-capable Patriots PR director Stacey James, a Kraft favorite, had been on the job in New England for seven years when Belichick was named coach. Kraft solved the issue by allowing Belichick to hire Najarian as part of the “football staff.”
James and Najarian have delicately worked around one another for almost 20 years. But if you call Patriots PR looking for the coach, the PR director will send you to Najarian.
Najarian is a rabid sports fan who attended the NFC Championship game that sent Belichick to his first Super Bowl with the Giants. He was at Shea Stadium the night the Mets beat the Red Sox in Game 7 of the 1986 World Series. He treasures a Ken Griffey Jr. baseball he caught during Home Run Derby when the All-Star Game came to Fenway Park in 1999.
Najarian was teased early in his Patriot career when Drew Bledsoe and friends sent a dozen roses to his stadium office on National Secretaries Day. More than a decade later, when the Patriots visited the White House, a bold Najarian had enough confidence to wear an Armenian flag pin (which Belichick also wore) and challenge Barack Obama for not using the word “genocide” when describing the mass murder of 1.5 million Armenians early in the 20th century.
Berj and Regina Najarian are raising two children in a Wellesley home that has a considerable link to Patriot history. Through sheer coincidence, Bill Belichick’s trusted associate bought a house that was once owned by Patriots founder Billy Sullivan.
“Berj’s house is the same house where my dad got the call from Lamar Hunt telling him that he had the final franchise in the American Football League,’’ said Patrick Sullivan, a former general manager of the Patriots.
So there. The guardian at the Belichick gate goes to sleep every night in the house where the Patriots were born.
I wanted to ask Bill about all of this, but time is tight during Super Bowl week, and my private Q-and-A with the coach did not stretch long into the afternoon. Before I got a fourth question out, Berj emerged from behind a curtain, motioned toward Belichick, pointed at his watch, and said, “We’ve got to go.’’