Despite how he comes across in the media, he’s normal. He jokes. He laughs. He’s actually funny. He’s got a great personality. He’s sarcastic. He’ll bust your chops. He’s just a normal guy. As weird as people want to make him out to be . . . the guy is smart. He’s just like a cool dude. I like Bill.
The thing I enjoyed most about playing for Bill was that he was a teacher. The man is so full of knowledge and understanding of the game and his players. He really gave us a lot of freedom. He wasn’t one of those coaches that hounded you all of the time. Now, he was tough on the rookies. But as far as the veteran players, he gave you a lot of freedom. With that freedom came a lot of responsibility. You had to know what to do and perform on a consistent basis.
If you don’t love football, then I think he’s very tough to play for. If you’re just along for the ride, he’s going to weed you out.
Rodney Harrison played safety for six seasons with the Patriots and won two Super Bowls with the team. He is now an analyst for NBC’s Football Night in America and host of Safety Blitz With Rodney Harrison on NBC Sports Radio.
— As told to Shira Springer (Interview has been edited and condensed.)
LESLEY VISSER on the Prep School Effect
I first met Bill Belichick in 1979, when he was an assistant with the New York Giants and I was the young (mostly terrified) NFL reporter for the Globe. Like so many blessings of my life, the late Globe sportswriter Will McDonough made it happen. Will would point out to me up-and-comers and other people I ought to know; he also gave me George Young, Bill Parcells, and Al Davis — three cornerstones of my love and knowledge for the game. (Taking the bus with John Madden would come much later.) On a cold day at Giants Stadium, Will pointed across the field and said, out of the side of his mouth, “That guy’s going to be good.” Wind whipping in my face, I crossed at the 50-yard line and introduced myself. Belichick, part of the legendary staff of Ray Perkins, the taskmaster who’d been with the Patriots, seemed surprised at my extended hand. We talked lacrosse — I had grown up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Belichick in Annapolis, where he loved all things Navy and lacrosse — and the conversation ended quickly.
I’ve had many dealings with Bill over the last three decades — pregame, postgame, while producing features, during conversations. Sometimes he’s been great (once, when he was the head coach in Cleveland, he actually persuaded Andre Rison to meet me, on time, for an interview at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, where Rison’s girlfriend, rapper Lisa Lopes, had previously taken him). Sometimes he’s been brutal (oh, the dreaded halftime interview). The famed NFL general manager Ernie Accorsi, who hired 38-year-old Belichick as the head coach of the Browns in 1991, once said: “Almost better than anyone, Bill learned from his mistakes. He learned how to win Super Bowls.”
Have you ever had people whom you knew at one time, and now they’re remote to you? That’s how I feel about Bill Belichick. I don’t really know him anymore, but there were years when he would send me a personal Christmas card, signed in the lower right corner. I always flattered myself that I kind of understood him. At various times in my own upbringing, I had a private school education, from the Calvert School in Baltimore to Derby Academy in Hingham. There is a courtliness and a handshake that you learn very early, and I always thought that Belichick, a product of Phillips Academy, Andover, had that. Though it might seem unimaginable, I can promise you there was a time when Belichick wore a shirt (probably white) with a collar and a tie and didn’t mumble. He almost certainly said “Yes, sir” and “No, sir” to his teachers and looked them in the eye.
Maybe Belichick has always been socially awkward (one friend calls talking to him an “epic slog”), but I don’t think that’s the depth of what’s going on. Somewhere in there, I see prep school manners. Manners? Belichick? Am I crazy? But Belichick didn’t go to Andover so he could then play football at Alabama or LSU; he went there to get into a better school. Like Wesleyan. While at Andover, he made a lifelong friend in Ernie Adams, a guy with no ego who loved Latin, football, and naval history.
Bill Belichick might look like some boorish media-phobe, but underneath it, I think he’s a savvy prep school kid.