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The most obvious example of that old-fashioned emphasis on team came before the first of New England's three Super Bowl victories. The league asked Belichick, according to tradition, whether he wanted to introduce his offensive or defensive team to the crowd and the nation at the start of the game, and he said, Neither--he wanted to introduce the entire team. The league officials argued against it, because that was not the way it had been done, and they told him he had to choose. Belichick is nothing if not stubborn--stubborn when he is right and sometimes just as stubborn when he is wrong--and he refused to budge, so, finally, the league caved.
Out they came, all the Patriots, joyously and confidently, and it was not just other players and coaches who got it immediately, that this introduction was something different, designed to show that this was a team and everyone was a part of it. It was also undoubtedly understood by much of the vast television audience, exhausted not merely by players' excessive egos but also by broadcasters who failed to blow the whistle on them. The Patriots were not necessarily America's Team, but they were an easy team for ordinary football fans to like in the new era of football.
Bill Belichick was a star who did not want to be a star, a celebrity in search of privacy and the right to do his job without any public interference. He feared the celebrity culture, which was particularly dangerous to football, a sport based entirely on the concept of team, where as many as 40 players might play important roles in any given victory, but the television camera might celebrate the deeds of only one or two. Thus a great deal of time and energy in the world of the New England Patriots went into selecting players who were not prone to displays of ego and self. This did not mean Belichick was without ego--far from it. His ego was exceptional, and it was reflected by his almost unique determination. He liked being the best and wanted credit for being the best. But his ego was about the doing, it was fused into a larger purpose, that of his team winning. It was never about the narcissistic celebration of self.
He was about coaching; he did not exist in a world of 100 new friendships, created instantly by his success, or friendships with other celebrities. His friends were people he had known in grade school, high school, college and his early coaching days. His friendships were based on trust, and they were kept private if at all possible. He shielded family and friends alike from public scrutiny. He did not do particularly well with the media, lacking the desire and skill to create artificial intimacy. He did not do small talk well. He did substance much better.
Belichick had done very well academically at Annapolis High and had been the starting center on the football team. He wanted to play some college ball, but he and his father were well aware of Bill's physical limitations, so they decided that he should go to a good, small private school. A lot of hard work and planning had gone into putting aside the money for his college expenses, and the game plan was this: In his senior year he would apply to four colleges-- Yale, Dartmouth, Amherst and Williams. If he got into one of them, he would go to college immediately. If he didn't, he would do a fifth, or postgraduate, year of high school at either Lawrenceville in New Jersey or Andover in Massachusetts, where the family had connections. It turned out he did not get into any of the four colleges (his combined SATs were about 1200), so he set out for Andover, his choice because one of the assistant coaches at Navy, Dick Duden, had been a great player at Andover and then Annapolis, and because the head coach at Andover was Steve Sorota, a man who was himself a quiet kind of legend.
Steve Sorota coached for 41 years at Andover and was much loved by several generations of men who competed under him in football and in track. He had been a blue-collar kid, growing up in the nearby mill town of Lowell, Mass. His family roots were in Poland. Sorota's father had worked in the Gillette factory in Andover, and the family had been quite poor. But, like Steve Belichick, Sorota was fast and strong, and he was a talented, if not very big, running back at Lowell High. His services had been coveted by several college scouts, including one working for Jim Crowley, the coach at Fordham, then a rising football power. In those days--the early 1930s-- Crowley had put together several great teams, which played before sellout crowds in the vast Polo Grounds in New York City. Sorota's time at Fordham overlapped with that of Vince Lombardi, who would be a star on teams that featured the famed Seven Blocks of Granite.
SOROTA GRADUATED from Fordham in 1936, and in the spring of his senior year Phillips Academy in Andover, near his hometown, was looking for an assistant football coach. Those were the worst days of the Depression, and jobs were hard to come by. Sorota went up to Andover that spring, stayed for a week and in effect auditioned for the job before they finally gave it to him. The offer was thrilling because it meant that Sorota and his fianc�e could get married. He started at the school in the fall of 1936 at, she remembered, a salary of about $1,000 a year, and he became head coach three years later. He coached there through three wars: World War II, Korea and Vietnam. In that time the school changed dramatically, and perhaps more important, so did the attitude of the young men toward authority. By the late 1960s, when a dean or a coach made the rules, it was no longer a given that the young men would automatically obey them. In those years Steve Sorota barely changed at all; he had always been a formidable authority figure, but luckily, given the dramatic social changes taking place around him, he wore his authority lightly. His power came from his intelligence, his subtlety and his kindness. He was uncommonly sensitive to the emotional vulnerability of adolescent boys, who were often dealing with all kinds of problems and doubts, almost none of them readily visible to a coach. He tried to lessen the pressure that competing in football might bring. He coached by persuasion, not orders and yelling. He would always explain to his players, in a calm voice, what they needed to do in a given game, and which part of their mission he expected them to figure out and execute on their own.
When he had first arrived at Andover, the school's headmaster, Claude Moore Fuess, had given him marching orders very different from those given to most new coaches: "Your job is to teach, not to win a lot of football games." That, Sorota would later say, was the perfect message for a young coach, because it meant that his job depended not on his won-lost record, which actually turned out to be exceptional, but on his teaching, which he did with great skill, and on his effect on the young men, which was exemplary, for he reached into the deepest part of them, their character, and helped shape it. The headmaster's challenge allowed him to let his young players find their own way. He did not, like so many high school coaches, call the plays for his quarterbacks; instead he allowed them to make these decisions on the field. That was something that might have gotten him fired elsewhere.
In the years right after the war he received a tantalizing offer from one of the area's better colleges to become the head coach. It was a big program, and it would mean more than twice as much money as he was making, and he spoke of it at some length with his wife, but, in the end, he turned the offer down. He already had everything he needed, he told her.
He was protective of his kids; he did not want college recruiters or scouts or media people around. There was, he suspected, already enough pressure on them. He wanted to create an atmosphere in which football was played well, where excellence was valued, but where the game was always fun. There was never to be too heavy a price to be paid if you made a mistake.