What we learned from talking to Paul Rabil about Bill Belichick

"Coach is consistently curious and he modeled that for me right away."

Paul Rabil, Bill Belichick
Paul Rabil and Bill Belichick attend their Championship Chat. –Paul Rabil

When two-time MLL MVP Paul Rabil was a senior midfielder at Johns Hopkins, he had a request for Hopkins men’s lacrosse coach Dave Pietramala.

“As a captain of the team, I asked coach Pietramala if [New England Patriots] coach [Bill] Belichick would have some time for me to sit down with him and pick his brain,” Rabil told Boston.com.

Belichick — a longtime friend of Pietramala — had just finished addressing the team during a practice, but Rabil was interested in continuing the discussion.

“From my perspective, there’s very few, if anyone, who has navigated the professional athletics market better than coach Belichick,” Rabil said. “He’s inspirational, he’s motivational, and he’s got a track record that’s unmatched. For me, I had always kind of learned through conversation and was always fairly inquisitive, so [coach Pietramala] put that ask in and [coach Belichick] obliged.”

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Rabil said he and Belichick spent about 45 minutes chatting about predictable topics, like Belichick’s experience as a head coach, quarterback Tom Brady’s leadership skills, and retired linebacker Tedy Bruschi’s impact as a captain. But Rabil said he also tried to ask some more generally applicable questions, like, “What do great athletes do differently than average athletes?” and “How do you impart a pre-existing, established culture onto incoming players?”

From their conversation, Rabil said he had two major takeaways:

1. “For the most part, what we imagine holds true.”

In one sense, Belichick lived up to prototype Rabil had pre-constructed in his head: “He’s the ultimate competitor and he has a work ethic that continually improves his regimen and efficiency.”

2. “It wasn’t just a one-way meeting.”

Their interactions, however, were not simply limited to Rabil peppering Belichick with questions. Belichick started probing Rabil about things like how he thinks about games, how he prepares, how he handles loss, and how he thinks about practice.

“To watch him turn that meeting around into a two-way conversation showed that this guy has no ego — even for someone who’s at the top,” Rabil said. “Coach [Belichick] is consistently curious and he modeled that for me right away.”

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Their initial conversation in 2008 would serve as a springboard for a friendship. Rabil and Belichick have continued to keep in touch via text messages and email and visit each other at least once or twice a year.

Some memories from the past decade:

1. Belichick didn’t hold back when addressing the Hopkins lacrosse team.

“He didn’t give like pep talk or anything,” Rabil said. “He was just like, ‘You guys looked pretty s***** in this area of practice.’ So we were like, ‘Whoa, what is he talking about? Should we laugh?’ and he was like, ‘You’re Division I players. Why can’t you catch and throw in a 4-on-4 situation?'”

2. Rabil grew up in the D.C. area as a Washington Redskins fan. When he graduated from Hopkins, however, Belichick gifted him a box of Patriots gear.

“I converted,” Rabil said.

3. When Belichick invited Rabil to a home game against the Indianapolis Colts, Rabil assumed the coach would be hunkered down and unavailable for most of the day. But that wasn’t the case.

“I expected him to be as I used to be as an athlete, you know, tucked away in the zone from the start of the day to the end of the game,” Rabil said. “When I landed though, he was just like, ‘Oh come on by the office.’ This was like five hours outside of game time. We just caught up, and he was cool, calm, and collected.”

Rabil said the pair did a quick workout — Belichick hopped on the treadmill, while he used the weight room — before heading down to the field.

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“He gave me a Patriots sideline pass, so I was not only able to watch the game, but I was also able to be in the locker room when he did his pregame, halftime, and postgame talks,” Rabil said. “I saw the strategy behind it, which was really helpful for me, as I’m constantly looking at what other great teams do to try and incorporate it into what we do on our side of the ball.”

During halftime, Rabil noticed Belichick keeps things rather even-keeled.

“I think what you see on the television is a stoic Bill Belichick, and he’s like that in the locker room as well, which I think is really critical because in sports,” Rabil said. “I think they were up by some 17 or 21 points at halftime, and there was no impassioned speech like, ‘Hey, they’re going to come back. We got to be ready for it.’ But it also wasn’t like, ‘Hey, we’re doing everything great. Let’s keep on going.'”

“The conversation he was having with the defense, offense, and special teams — because they were all separated — was as if they were tied or behind,” he continued. “There was this notion of ‘OK, let’s try to treat this game and these moments as objectively as possible. Let’s not think about the score when addressing where we can improve.’ It was just a sign of such supreme emotional intelligence.”

The Patriots ended up winning by a large margin. After the game, Rabil and Belichick hit the field with their lacrosse sticks.

4. Belichick likes to say Rabil would have made a good safety in the NFL.

“I thought I was going to be a good receiver,” Rabil said. “We started talking a little bit more about it, lightheartedly, and then eventually, he kind of looked to me and said, ‘Hey man, you’re playing for Team USA right now. If you ever wanted to try out, I’d invite you to the team, but I think you’re in a good position in lacrosse.’ That’s kind of how that idea ended.”

Despite the obvious crossover between football and lacrosse — contact, skill positions, hand-eye coordination, etc. — Rabil said he thinks their relationship is in a much better place as individuals involved with two separate leagues. Even though Belichick was someone who discouraged Rabil from pursuing football, he’ll still occasionally tease him about passing up on the opportunity.

5. Rabil said he genuinely can’t tell if Belichick is right-handed or left-handed when playing lacrosse. Belichick once said one of the greatest compliments he’s received in life was when the Hopkins goalie couldn’t tell if he was a righty or a lefty.

“I’ll be honest,” Rabil said. “I don’t know either. He’s pretty stone cold when you ask him, so I’ve prodded a little bit and said like, ‘You’re a righty’ and tried to see if I can get a reaction out of him, but it doesn’t work. He’s committed to his skill set being ambidextrous, so I’m buying it.”

6. When Belichick and Rabil both attended the NCAA men’s lacrosse semifinal game between Hopkins and Maryland in 2015, Belichick didn’t skip a beat.

“He knows pretty much as much about lacrosse as I do, but that’s why he’s such a great coach,” Rabil said. “He can figure stuff out pretty quickly, so he knows all the terminology — much different than when I try to talk shop about football. It’s very lopsided. But that’s what you would expect. I’d imagine you know Brad Stevens would say the same thing with Bill coming to a Celtics game.”

7. In 2017, they launched their annual “Championship Chat,” which features an open discussion about strategy, physical performance, and mental work. The event is dedicated to raising money for their two respective foundations.

During the 2018 “Championship Chat,” Belichick revealed the two “non-negotiables” of successful teams are “great work ethic” and “mental and physical toughness.” He also touched on the importance of forging meaningful bonds.

“The strength of the team is built through interpersonal relationships, through face-to-face conversations, through interactions — not SnapFace, your face, my face, InstantFace, or any other face,” Belichick told the crowd. “That chemistry is built through interactions and the ups and downs and suffering defeats and having victories and learning from those and communicating with each other.”