Editor’s note: This special Super Bowl coverage from Minnesota is a collaboration between Capital News Service and the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism at the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism.
BLOOMINGTON, Minnesota – The Johns Hopkins men’s lacrosse players were starstruck.
New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick was visiting their practice in Baltimore for the first time in the spring of 2007, and most of the players choked up when saying hello to one of the best-ever NFL coaches.
Since then, the players who have rotated through the program have become comfortable around Belichick. Belichick started visiting Johns Hopkins’ practices and games about three times per year after developing a friendship with coach Dave Pietramala in 2006, learning all of the players’ names and chatting with them individually.
An Annapolis, Maryland, native, Belichick played lacrosse and football at Wesleyan University. While he’s paved a legacy in coaching football and will try for his sixth Super Bowl on Sunday at 6:30 p.m. against the Philadelphia Eagles, Belichick has maintained his connection to lacrosse throughout his 42-year coaching career.
“There is a great passion that he has for the sport,” Pietramala told Capital News Service. “He’s very, very knowledgeable of the game.”
The offices of former Wesleyan University Athletic Director John Biddiscombe and men’s lacrosse coach Terry Jackson were next to each other when Belichick played at the college in the early 1970s Belichick would usually be in Jackson’s office when Biddiscombe arrived at work around 8 a.m., helping create practice plans and strategies for upcoming games.
Belichick was one of the best players on his Division III squad. He played at Annapolis High School, as well as at Phillips Academy in Massachusetts during a postgraduate year.
Biddiscombe said Belichick acted as an assistant coach, examining the game similarly to the way he broke down plays as a center and tight end for the football team. The 5-foot, 11-inch defenseman asked the coaching staff about defensive changes and suggested adjustments if the opposing offense set up its formation differently than the Cardinals planned.
“His talent, particularly his size limitations,” Biddiscombe said, “really stirred him more to lacrosse.”
Patriots wide receiver Chris Hogan, who played lacrosse at Pennsylvania State University, said hand-eye coordination, physicality and stamina are the main skills that correlate between football and lacrosse.
Hogan said Belichick brought up his lacrosse background when the Ramapo, New Jersey, native signed with New England in 2016.
“Any opportunity that we have to promote a game we both love,” Hogan told a small group of reporters here, “it’s a great opportunity.”
When he coached with the Detroit Lions in 1976-77, Belichick also helped coach lacrosse during the spring at a local prep school.
Belichick often played lacrosse in his backyard with his three children, Steve, Amanda and Brian, when they were growing up. He was available often during spring lacrosse season because it didn’t overlap with football.
All three of Belichick’s children played in college, and Amanda Belichick is now Holy Cross’ women’s lacrosse coach.
Belichick’s children’s passion for lacrosse grew when Bill Belichick joined the Patriots as an assistant head coach and defensive backs coach in 1996, and his family moved from Cleveland to Boston, where lacrosse was more popular.
One year later, the Belichick family moved near Long Island, New York, when Belichick took the same job with the New York Jets, and his children competed against some of the top youth lacrosse players in the country.
“Every coach has great points, but at the end of the day for me, what my dad said was the bottom line,” Steve Belichick, who’s now the Patriots safeties coach, said in an interview with reporters. “He has a good track record.”
Lacrosse is one of the main ways Bill Belichick bonded with his children, and they continue to bounce ideas off each other now, as Brian Belichick joined his father and brother on New England’s staff as a coaching assistant in June.
“It’s certainly helps me give a good perspective on things (Steve) sees as an assistant coach,” Bill Belichick said. “He’s certainly a lot closer to the age of the players than I am. He has a good feel for things … I might need to address that I missed because I don’t see the point of view that he sees.”
Bill Belichick, who occasionally wears Johns Hopkins gear, discussed his Baltimore roots with Pietramala after Johns Hopkins won the 2005 national championship.
Since then, the pair has visited each other’s practices, discussed the top professional and college lacrosse players and shared lacrosse strategy
With the 2017 NCAA men’s lacrosse Final Four in Gillette Stadium, Belichick practiced alongside the teams and delivered a speech to Ohio State. Belichick often also presents motivational speeches to the Johns Hopkins squad when he visits.
One of Bill Belichick’s favorite memories came about a decade ago, Pietramala said, when he warmed up former goalkeeper Jesse Schwartzman.
Schwartzman couldn’t tell if Bill Belichick, a righty, was right- or left-handed when he took shots because he was so skillful with his stick.
Moments like those are one of the reasons Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said lacrosse is one of the four things that make Belichick smile.
“I marvel that he still has that burning passion for lacrosse,” Biddiscombe said.