ATLANTA — This was a week ago Friday, when the Patriots had just concluded their final practice at Gillette Stadium of the season. Tom Brady, reflective about the 19 years he’s been in New England, measured the length of time by pointing out he’d spent more years with some of his coaches than he had his own parents. One of the names he mentioned was running backs coach Ivan Fears, on the Patriots’ staff since 1999.
Which made me think about how well Fears must know coach Bill Belichick, which made me figure Fears might be a great place to start for the one-question challenge I decided to bring with me to Atlanta: Tell me one thing about Belichick I don’t know.
How hard could that be?
“No way would I come up and tell you that,” Fears bellows, his laugh filling the room where the team is conducting Super Bowl interviews. “No,” he says, shaking his head. “No. That’s all right. I’m not going there.”
“Going there” would risk running afoul of the notoriously recalcitrant head coach, a man who rarely, if ever, pulls back a public curtain on his personality, one who might share a nearly 10-minute soliloquy on his affinity for football history, but is likely to answer something like, “How do you take your coffee?” with a deadpanned, “We’re on to the Los Angeles Rams.’’
Still, it was fun trying to crack the code, to witness that first moment of fear when those around Belichick pondered how much to share, when retorts such as, “He’s an open book” (thanks Chris Hogan), were thrown up as quick diversions designed to avoid further queries.
In Hogan, however, we found a familiar pathway into one of the few non-football things we do know about Belichick: He loves lacrosse. But did you know he enjoys playing an occasional game of catch with his son Steve in the halls of Patriot Place? “He’s pretty good — he handles it OK,” said Hogan, who famously began his collegiate athletic career as a lacrosse star at Penn State, before closing out his eligibility with a year of football at Monmouth.
“We have a little bit of a rivalry going on, Penn State and Johns Hopkins are now in the same conference, and he’s great friends with Hopkins coach [Dave] Pietramala, has been for a long time,” Hogan said. “There’s not a lot of trash talking, I try not to trash talk the head coach, but I always let him know that when Coach Pietramala is here, he comes to a game or two, I let him know my guys are working hard and we’re excited to play Hopkins.”
We know Belichick’s son Steve, now the safeties coach on staff, played lacrosse at Rutgers, which brings us to another known fact: Belichick loves Rutgers football. So much so that even though his ties were forged with former coach Greg Schiano, he continues to host current coach Chris Ash on visits.
“I walked by Bill’s office the other day, in the locker room area, and I saw a box from Rutgers,” said defensive line coach Brendan Daly, a longtime friend of Ash’s. “I took a picture to send to Chris and said, ‘I see you’re sending Bill gear, I got nothing! Where’s mine?’ He knows Bill will wear it, and it might show up in a press conference.”
For one of those former Rutgers players on the team, Belichick’s devotion to family has stood out. Jason McCourty, a 10-year NFL veteran in his first year in New England, saw it right away, when the coach got emotional telling him how much he would enjoy spending this season alongside his twin brother Devin, and how much their mom Phyllis would enjoy it, as well.
“You see it, his sons Steve and Brian are both coaches on our staff, and you see them always talking,” Jason McCourty said. “You can see that relationship among them.”
Duron Harmon, a fellow Rutgers alum, saw it at the team’s family Halloween party, when he was taken by the way Belichick, a hard-boiled coach, interacted with his 2-year-old granddaughter Blakely (Steve’s daughter), who was having a ball in her Tigger costume.
“When he’s around her, he is a completely different guy,” said Harmon, a father of three. “I see joy. I see happiness. I see smiles. I see laughter. Literally, our families were sitting next to each other and I told my wife when we left, I was astonished, like, ‘Babe, I’ve never seen him like this.’ He was like a regular grandfather.”
At times, Belichick is a regular social animal. Older friends such as Phil Simms and Charlie Weis attest to it. Simms, his onetime quarterback when Simms played for the Giants and Belichick was their defensive coordinator, was in Boston to celebrate Belichick’s 60th birthday.
“I’ll tell you what — it wasn’t wallflowers. I’ll tell you that,” Simms said. “I can’t remember what we ate. I know we drank. There was a lot of dancing. People were a little out of control. What else do you want to know?”
Sadly, he would tell no more. But Weis, who was fortunate enough to have Jon Bon Jovi once perform at his charity event in New York, was able to convince Belichick to join him onstage to sing background vocals to “Wanted: Dead or Alive.” The pitch? Bon Jovi, a longtime friend of Belichick and Weis, Bill’s former offensive coordinator, promised a $50,000 donation if they’d do it.
“Our voices might have stunk but knowing the words wasn’t the problem, Bill knew them,” Weis recalled. “Having the words coming out sound worth a darn, that was the problem. But the two of us were up there in suits, singing ‘Wanted,’ with Jon Bon Jovi.”
That Belichick would do something for a friend is no surprise — clearly, he values loyalty. Otherwise, guys would spill so much more. But these things they promise — he’s funny, funnier than he ever lets on, and delivers some killer one-liners.
“I always tell myself write ’em down because this would be great to write about one day,” backup quarterback Brian Hoyer said, “My first three years here when I was young, I would think something was funny but I would look around to see, am I allowed to laugh at this? Now I just laugh out loud. He has great timing.”
“The guy studies football like 24/7, knows the game inside and out hands down, better than anyone I know, but I’ll tell you this, when he does have a joke, it’s usually a good one,” tight end Rob Gronkowski agreed. “I don’t remember off the top of my head. One-liners, he’s good at one-liners. Once a week, maybe every two weeks he can hit you with a one-liner and it’s pretty good.”
The 24/7 focus is so razor sharp, onetime Patriots assistant coach and current football analyst Chris Simms (Phil’s son) remembers passing his oblivious boss many times in the hallways of Gillette Stadium.
“It’d be just me and him and he didn’t know I was there until he looked up when I said hi,” Chris said. “He didn’t even flinch. We’re walking right into each other and then he’s like, ‘Oh, hey Chris.’ That’s what he is.”
Still, Chris would see him take the occasional break from the office: “Oh, he’s gonna get in the weight room for 30 minutes at least, I saw him on the elliptical. He’s going to be really mad at me for telling you that.”
No worries, we got confirmation. Former Patriot Willie McGinest, a Belichick favorite, said Belichick is pretty good on the weights as well, quipping, “That’s why he has the cutoff [sweat shirts] so the guns would be out.”
For McGinest, the little-known fact related to Belichick’s competitiveness, not limited to the football field. “I would get in sometimes at 5 in the morning, 5:30, and Bill would probably be coming right in too, but once he heard I was coming in early, he’d be there at 4:30,” McGinest said. “He just never rests.”
So that brought me to this, to a table where guard Joe Thuney was sitting, to take one more shot at finding out one thing I didn’t know about Belichick. Maybe he goes to caffeine to help stay so alert? A five-hour energy perhaps? Maybe some coffee?
“He drinks water,” Thuney said. “Not just water. But I’ve seen him drink water.
“There you go.”
Breaking news: Bill Belichick drinks water. Mission accomplished. Or not.
Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.