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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Nothing could have prepared him

FOXBOROUGH -- The coach has been tested in ways even he could not have envisioned. Bill Belichick is a thoughtful man who prefers not to be surprised; his fastidious preparation routinely sets him apart from his peers. Yet how do you plan for a stroke, a sudden retirement, a series of devastating injuries, the death of the man who taught you everything?

Sometime, perhaps when New England's football season finally ends, whether it is tonight in Denver against the Broncos, or next weekend against the Colts or Steelers, or Feb. 5 at Super Bowl XL in Detroit, Belichick may step back and acknowledge this season has been the most challenging of his tenure here. But that will have to wait. This is hardly the time to glance back, or peek ahead.

Those of us who peer inside the insular world of the New England Patriots and marvel at their solidarity through the drawn curtains are not required to maintain the single-minded focus the players adopt this time of year. Outsiders are free to indulge in hypotheticals.

If the Patriots win another Super Bowl, it will be the most spectacular feat they've accomplished in their glittering history. They will have succeeded without former offensive guru Charlie Weis and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel. They will have won with Tedy Bruschi having missed the first six games of the season while he recovered from a stroke that temporarily left him unable to walk and see clearly. They would have survived the loss of Ted Johnson, who called it quits, and Joe Andruzzi, who left town as a free agent. They would have survived season-ending injuries to Rodney Harrison, Matt Light, and Randall Gay, who all figured prominently in Belichick's game plan.

And yes, they will have won without Steve Belichick, Bill's father and mentor, who died of heart failure Nov. 19, the night before the Patriots played the New Orleans Saints. Belichick coached that Sunday, left the team briefly the following week to deliver a moving eulogy in Annapolis, Md., then went back to his football team. His father, above all, would understand that's how it must be done.

''My life didn't stop, and it can't stop," Belichick said earlier this week. ''I guess I'm moving on. I'm moving on with a lot of memories that will stay with me, but I have to keep going.

''A lot of people have told me [it will hit me later]. It very well could."

The teachings of Steve Belichick have clearly never left his son, who learned to identify the nuances of the game by accompanying his father to work. Steve Belichick believed you should not draw attention to yourself. When you lose, you should not single out individuals. His son dutifully implemented that philosophy, which he absorbed as a young man growing up on the campus of the Naval Academy.

Belichick has long deflected attention, yet has become reluctantly famous in spite of it. The less he embraces his celebrity, the bigger an icon he becomes. Any hint of his human side captivates the public. When Doug Flutie drop kicks the football, and the coach grins, it is news. ''Belichick smiles! Film at 11!"

''You might as well embrace it because it's part of the job," Belichick said with a shrug. ''I can't change how people view me. I'm used to it.

''I grew up around football. You know when you go for it on fourth and 1 and it doesn't work that a lot of people are going to have something to say about it. I saw that every day at the Naval Academy. Not just with my father, but with the quarterback, the running back, the other coaches."

The foundation of the Patriots' success is their talented players. Yet the cement that Belichick used to make sure that foundation remained cohesive was imported from Annapolis, where Steve Belichick was a teacher, a junior varsity football coach, and the advance scout for the varsity.

His son recounts catching spirals from Heisman Trophy winner Roger Staubach after practice with the same enthusiasm he undoubtedly felt as an 11-year-old boy brushing shoulders with his idols.

''[Staubach] was awesome," Bill Belichick gushed. ''He was early to practice, and late getting off the field. When a guy made a bad play, he was the first to encourage him. If you watch Tom Brady, he's the same way. He's always helping someone out.

''Everybody always wanted a piece of Staubach. He had to get to class and get his work done, like everyone else, but he'd still make time for people, just like Tom does now."

In those days, Navy played Michigan and Southern Cal, and occasionally beat them. In 1963, the Midshipmen upended Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, and rival Army before ending their season with a loss to Texas in the Cotton Bowl.

''The '63 Cotton Bowl team was special," Belichick said. ''Tom Lynch was on that team. He went on to be an admiral. They all stayed very, very close. They shared a very strong bond. I've heard a lot from those players in the last month or so, since my dad passed away.

''My dad always said Tom Lynch was the best leader he's ever seen. When you are 11 years old, you have no idea what you're looking at, but when you get older you understand."

Lynch, the center on that '63 squad, is still a football fan. He watches New England, and cannot make the quantum leap that the little boy who shagged balls in Annapolis is the man whose football knowledge has made the Patriots the envy of the NFL.

''Every time I see him, I say, 'Man, that's little Billy,' " Lynch said. ''I love him to death, but it's hard for me to rate Billy Belichick with Vince Lombardi, and yet I know he's done even more than Vince Lombardi.

''I remember him running around the field. But he was just a little kid. We were nice to him, of course, and we said hello, but did we look at him and think he would be a great coach? How could we? We didn't know back then that he was breaking down film on Sunday afternoons in the living room with his father."

''At the time, I didn't know Billy was so taken with football," Staubach said. ''But he idolized his dad. Steve Belichick was a jewel. He could be tough, but he made sure we were prepared better than anyone for every game, and Billy was always at his hip.

''I used to toss the ball around a little bit with Billy after practice. It would have been a bad idea not to be nice to Steve Belichick's son."

The 11-year-old boy made mental notes of the Midshipmen's camaraderie, their discipline, their work ethic. He memorized their statistics. As role models go, he chose an exemplary collection of young men.

''It was a great environment to grow up in," Belichick said. ''They were respectful, courteous, very team-oriented. There was no swearing at the coach, no dancing in the end zone. There was no pouting because someone didn't throw you the ball. That didn't exist. Not in my world."

His world would later include Al Laramore, his coach at Annapolis High School, whose rigid rules were not unlike the regulations at the Academy.

''He was a guy nobody really liked, but everybody feared and respected," Belichick said. ''Everyone was treated the same. If you cut class, it didn't matter whether you were the first-string quarterback or the fifth-string safety, you were kicked off. That's how we did things. No exceptions."

In David Halberstam's fascinating book, ''The Education of a Coach," the author discusses Belichick's struggle with Lawrence Taylor, the immensely talented Giants linebacker who was brilliant on Sundays, but operated by his own set of rules the rest of the week. According to Halberstam, Belichick, who was an assistant with the Giants, felt there would be a price to pay someday for allowing Taylor's transgressions to go unchecked. Ultimately there was, but not before Taylor amassed a Hall of Fame résumé.

Halberstam wrote, ''At Cleveland, Belichick inherited some veteran players who wanted to bend the rules just a little. Because he had been softened slightly by the Taylor experience, he allowed them to do it. The difference was Taylor always gave you something back, more often than not an inspired game; it was different in Cleveland, where what you got back was players who found out they could bend the rules only to show other players that rules could be bent. What Belichick decided after he left Cleveland was that if he ever got another head coaching job, there would be one set of rules for everyone."

The next head coaching job was with the Patriots. The rules have been as uniform as those midshipmen's uniforms ever since.

''Bill has put the team ahead of the individual in New England," Staubach said. ''I'm sure he saw how well that worked at Navy. If you can convey that message, miracles can happen."

''Team is everything," Lynch said. ''Billy absorbed that, I guess. In this day and age, if you can take pro athletes who are making a kazillion dollars and get them to buy into that, you have done something special.

''To suggest that we had something to do with it at the Naval Academy, well, I'm honored and humbled. We did it unknowingly. We had no idea we were making such an impression on a young man who has gone on to such greatness."

The boy was certain he was witnessing greatness in its purest form at Navy. As that boy grew into a man, one of the most successful coaches of his time, he has seen nothing to make him change his mind.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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