NEW BEDFORD - Three years ago, Matthew Estrella landed the kind of job any sports fan growing up in New England dreams about: Roaming the sidelines of the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, elbow to elbow with Belichick, Brady, and Bruschi, video camera in hand.
As the team's official video assistant, Estrella plays a key role in Coach Bill Belichick's meticulous pregame preparations. And Estrella, a "video guy" who had majored in communications media at Fitchburg State College, loves the job, his father, Richard Estrella, said yesterday outside the family's home in New Bedford.
But now Matthew Estrella, 26, is at the center of a sports scandal, accused of videotaping the signals sent by the New York Jets defensive coaches during last Sunday's 38-14 rout by the Patriots.
It is the last thing anyone expected for Estrella, described by relatives and a former professor as a straight arrow who plays by the rules. The "video guy" has now become the highly sought-after target of other cameramen, TV crews from New York and Boston who have staked out his apartment in Fall River and his family's house in New Bedford.
"This is a real distraction for him," said Richard Estrella, who wore a Patriots jersey yesterday. "He's a pretty good kid. I just hope it turns out for the best."
Richard Estrella said his son was back where he wanted to be yesterday: working with the team in Foxborough, helping the Pats prepare for their showdown Sunday with the powerful San Diego Chargers.
"He's got a job to do," Richard Estrella said. "He's got to get ready for San Diego."
Before severe penalties - a total of $750,000 in fines and the loss of one or two 2008 draft picks - were levied against the Patriots and Belichick himself by the NFL last night, Estrella said he believed his son would be cleared of any wrongdoing.
"Everything will come out in the open," Richard Estrella said. "He's fine."
Professor Charles Roberts, who taught Matthew Estrella at Fitchburg State, described him as a "really nice kid" who "always did what he said he was going to do."
"I don't want Matt to end up taking a hit for anybody," Roberts said yesterday. "I'm sure he was doing his job, much as he did when he was here, and he was being a good guy."
Estrella joined the Patriots as an intern in June 2004 after completing an internship at WCVB-TV in Boston, where he worked on the news magazine "Chronicle," Richard Estrella said. A brief entry in the Patriots media guide is Belichickian in its description of Estrella's job: ". . . he assists Jimmy Dee and Fernando Neto in editing game and practice tapes for use by the coaches, scouts and players."
And, Richard Estrella said, "He loves it."
Next to the photo of a smiling Matthew Estrella in the media guide is a small drawing of the Vince Lombardi trophy, indicating Estrella was there when the Patriots won Super Bowl XXXIX.
Last Sunday, Estrella was in his usual spot on the sidelines when NFL security confiscated his video camera.
Since then, he has been vilified and defended by sports fans and talk radio hosts across the country. Some have accused him of willfully taking part in subterfuge, while others have said he was only doing what many other football teams have done on the sly, perhaps at the behest of his boss.
Belichick has refused to elaborate on the allegations, beyond a brief prepared apology to the players, owners, and staff, which he read aloud Wednesday.
Richard Estrella said he and his son are "Belichick Juniors," averse to talking about anything not pertaining to football, like the Pats' laconic coach.
Outside the apartment complex in Fall River where Matthew Estrella and his wife, Karen, live, reporters have been camped out for days, said Tony Costa, who lives in the building.
They have been ringing Costa's bell from early morning until late at night, he said. But Costa said he did not know Estrella and had not heard of the videotaping scandal. No one answered at Matthew Estrella's door yesterday. "It's been a headache," he said. "People have been around all the time."
At Fitchburg State, faculty have been marveling at the appearance of their young graduate at the center of the scandal.
"We've obviously been talking about it here," said communications professor John Chetro-Szivos. "We're shocked his name got in the ESPN report. Just shocked."
Yesterday, the Estrellas made clear they will stick up for Matt despite the heavy NFL penalties.
"I love my son," Matthew Estrella's mother, Jane, said yesterday. "He's a great young man."
Michael Levenson can be reached at email@example.com.