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Film captures father's glory

Belichick revisits NFL in '41

FOXBOROUGH -- Bill Belichick may be the best at what he does in the 21st-century NFL, but there is a certain twinkle in his eye reserved for the leather-helmet days of the old National Football League.

Leather helmets like the circa 1940s one the Patriots coach whipped out yesterday to show the small media contingent gathered for his final press conference before Monday night's game against the Jets.

Besides the old helmet, Belichick had with him a pair of roughed-up, high-top Spot-Bilt shoes that his father Steve wore in his playing days.

Perhaps they were the ones the elder Belichick, who died Nov. 19, was wearing when he ripped off a 77-yard punt return for a touchdown against the Green Bay Packers Oct. 26, 1941.

It was the lone score that day for the Detroit Lions in a 24-7 loss, and it came in the first professional game for Steve Belichick, in his only season in the NFL.

It was the sixth game of the season for the Lions. For the five previous contests, Steve Belichick was the equipment manager. On this day, six weeks before the ''date which will live in infamy," he was a fullback making cuts past would-be tacklers along the left sideline that Michael Vick would be proud to make, on the only punt return of his career. Two weeks later, Belichick scored two rushing touchdowns against the Giants.

The pride and admiration of Bill Belichick was certainly evident as he played film clips from the Packer game, though he admitted to never having the type of moves his father displayed on the long return.

''Those genes ended up somewhere else," joked Belichick, who earned three letters as a center and tight end for Wesleyan.

Belichick got an undiluted dose of the football coaching gene, however, and that is never more evident than when he is breaking down game film, something his father taught him at an early age.

It's as if Steve Belichick is in the Patriots film room at Gillette Stadium, and not just on the screen blocking for Byron ''Whizzer" White -- already a Rhodes Scholar, but two decades from being named a Supreme Court Justice -- in the Lions' classic single-wing offense.

His son virtually beams when he rewinds the film and puts the laser pointer on the Packers pulling trio of blockers, which in that offense included the so-called quarterback, who is more Stephen Neal than Tom Brady. It's an embryonic version of the Packer sweep made famous years later under Vince Lombardi, according to Belichick.

The names roll off the tongue as it does to all who have studied the legendary play.

''There! That's Jerry Kramer. That's [Fuzzy] Thurston. That's [Jim] Taylor or [Paul] Hornung," Belichick said, as he pointed out players on Curly Lambeau's Packers, who filled the roles of the aforementioned names 25 years later when Lombardi led the team.

Belichick also revels in the plays that have White and the Packers Don Hutson matched up on pass routes. In those days, games were hyped as matchups between players like White, nicknamed Whizzer because of the way he used to whiz by defenders, and Hutson, the first receiver in the league to run pass patterns and a Belichick favorite.

With players playing both ways, a Tom Brady-Peyton Manning matchup would indeed be just that. Well it would be if the two were better athletes. In that day the best athlete, and primary ballhandler was the halfback, who was part punter, part runner, and part passer. Pocket quarterbacks didn't exist. Belichick, by the way, thinks Vick would be ''awesome" in the single wing.

''Tom [Brady] . . . he couldn't play," Belichick said. ''Johnny Unitas could have never played then. He couldn't run."

And run is what the players on the film did as Belichick admired the style and trickery of the series of deft, sleight-of-hand plays that make today's reverses look rather simplistic. He stopped the film to spotlight the Notre Dame ''box," the ''spinner series," and the clever guard option pitch, which he joked would be a little difficult for the likes of Neal and Logan Mankins to pull off.

As if dusting off the '41 Lions isn't a deep enough trip into the vault, Belichick started the session with clips of his father blocking for tailback Bruce Smith, the 1941 Heisman Trophy winner out of Minnesota.

Steve Belichick and Smith were members of the service team at the Naval Station at Great Lakes, Ill., in 1942. That all-star squad, assembled mostly as a recruiting tool for the service, posted an 8-3-1 record that season, playing the likes of Notre Dame, Michigan, Iowa, and Illinois. The Bluejackets tied the Fighting Irish, 13-13, and were blanked, 9-0, by the Wolverines, but shut out the Hawkeyes (25-0) and Fighting Illini (6-0).

A 6-0 lead in those days is like a 1-0 lead in soccer, Belichick cracked.

It was a different game. A different world.

Bill Belichick was more than 10 years from being born, but yesterday, and any day he gets lost in the historic footage . . . he was there.

For an hour, at least, quarterback Brooks Bollinger and the New York Jets, next on the Patriots schedule, would have to take a back seat to history.

Jerome Solomon can be reached at jsolomon@globe.com.

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