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Full speed ahead for Belichick, just a chip off the Navy block

If you start on the visiting team's sideline at tonight's AFC championship game, and trace the roots far enough - from the stadium in Foxborough, Mass., past his house in Nantucket, through old jobs in Cleveland and New York - you'll eventually end up at a handsome two-bedroom house in a quiet, secluded corner of Annapolis.

For a half century, this was a multilingual home. The lady of the house spoke four languages, even taught Spanish at Hiram College in Ohio a lifetime ago. And the two men spoke a language all their own, a hybrid of X's and O's and coachspeak that usually only the two Belichick men understood completely.

"Bill was only 9 or 10 years old and he'd be breaking down film," Jeannette Belichick, 85, said last week. "Steve would go over it and tell him this could've been better or that could've been better. But usually there was very little room for criticism. He understood football at a very young age, even his father was surprised."

A half century ago, the Patriots' Bill Belichick, who might be just two weeks away from a fourth Super Bowl title as a head coach, was just a pudgy little kid attached to his father's hip and soaking up everything Annapolis and the Naval Academy had to offer - about life and about football.

"He was raised in a world of a football and world of men who loved what they did and really enjoyed a sense of camaraderie," said author David Halberstam, who penned the Belichick biography The Education of a Coach in 2005. "I think he really loved the fact that his father was so happy and had these wonderful friends. I think his father came from a world that he liked and wanted to be a part of."

Steve Belichick was perhaps the best football mind that no one knew. Raised by American immigrants during the Depression, Steve played a season with the Detroit Lions and started in coaching immediately. He eventually found his way to Annapolis, where he was a scout and assistant coach for Navy from 1956 until his retirement in 1989.

Bill Belichick was only 3 when his family moved to Annapolis. The values and discipline ingrained in academy culture is all Belichick knew growing up.

"They were respectful, courteous, very team-oriented," Belichick told The Boston Globe last year. "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."

Father and son

A young Belichick would tag along with his father to Navy football practice and later make occasional road trips to help scout opponents. Though Belichick fondly recalls tossing a ball around with Roger Staubach, his real football education came from the likes of Lee Corso, Navy's offensive coordinator, and Wayne Hardin, the former head coach, who took time to explain the Midshipmen's complicated attack.

But more than any other teacher, it was Steve Belichick who'd watch his eager son grow into his star pupil. Life was football and family and the two usually blurred together. Belichick learned to subscribe to the no-nonsense, toe-the-line manner his father preached.

At Steve Belichick's funeral in November 2005, former Mids captain Tom Lynch - who later served as school superintendent - told the gathered crowd of a day when players were glued to TV reports of the Cuban missile crisis. For Navy men, it looked like "World War III," Lynch said, as Navy ships appeared headed for a showdown with the Soviets.

Somewhere in the background was Steve Belichick, fuming and about to have a crisis of his own. "Smoke was coming out of his ears," Lynch said that day. "And he said, 'Don't these people know we have Pitt this weekend?' "

Bill Belichick attended high school at a fragile time in the city's history, just as the black high school was integrated with the white school.

"The schools were only a few blocks apart, but they fit the neighborhoods," Belichick once told The Globe. "When integration began, it was rough. ... There would be three fire alarms a day, cherry bombs going off in the toilets. Things would calm down for a while, and then some incident would occur to stir people up."

Before his junior year, Belichick moved from Bates High to Annapolis High and played football for Al Laramore. Big Al was the kind of coach players would run through a wall for - especially if he ordered them to.

Still on the chubby side, Belichick lined up at center in a simple offense that was faithful to the 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust era. The plays were much simpler than what Belichick saw at Navy practices. Still, he was much better at envisioning the plays than executing them.

"Bill was not a wonderful athlete," said his mother, Jeannette. "He was a great help to the coach, telling the others what to do. But he was slow, like his mother. ... He knew where he was supposed to be, but it was hard for him to get there."

In the classroom, too, Belichick escaped notice. Like his father, the younger Belichick preferred anonymity. Fred Stauffer taught Belichick in math and served as the school's athletic director for 30 years.

"He was not one of those students who stood out," Stauffer said. "You remember the super kids, the ones who caused you problems. But Bill was an average student who did what you asked him to do."

When Belichick had finished his schooling and was looking for a career in football, he didn't have to look far. He got his NFL start in 1975 with the Baltimore Colts, earning $25 a week and working 18 hours a day. While he didn't have a fancy title, he did have plenty of responsibilities.

"To get a feel for who he is today, for what kind of coach he is, you just have to look at how he started," said Bruce Laird, a Colts defensive back from 1972 to 1981. "He was basically Ted Marchibroda's chauffeur, his Man Friday. He was willing to do anything that was asked of him, and he picked everything up so quickly. He was like a sponge."

While his job eventually evolved into scouting teams and doing the work of an assistant coach, Belichick left the Colts after just one year to become a special teams assistant with the Detroit Lions. He coached in Denver and for the New York Giants before Art Modell hired him as head coach of the Cleveland Browns in 1991. At each stop, those principles and ideals that were forged in Annapolis continued to guide him - even alienating him, at times, from others.

Kevin Byrne, the Ravens' senior vice president, was with Belichick for five seasons in Cleveland, and says even then, no one would question the coach's dedication and discipline. At the time, Steve Belichick was newly retired from Navy and was a regular visitor to the Browns' facilities.

"But they were really polar opposites in a lot of respects," Byrne said. "It was hard to find a more gregarious person than Steve Belichick. [He was] outgoing, friendly, loved to tell stories. He was light-hearted and a lot of fun to share a meal with. But Bill, you could tell he delighted in his dad's stories, but he wasn't going to add to it. That wasn't his style."

Matter of style

In fact, Bill Belichick, 54, was - and is - almost devoid of style, his individuality defined by his lack of flair. Perceived as colorless and cold, Belichick is a publicist's nightmare. He paces the sideline dressed all in gray, and sees no need to cater to media, fans or his players for validation.

"He doesn't do the things that people want," Halberstam said. "He almost deliberately doesn't do the things that would make his life easier. He doesn't know how to play to popularity; it's alien to him. He doesn't care how things might play out; he does what he thinks is right."

Halberstam spent a lot of time around father and son and says the apparent polarity in character is probably more pronounced by circumstances. Neither Belichick sought the spotlight. While Steve Belichick was able to coach in the shadows for so many years, his son wasn't afforded that luxury.

In fact, the only time those outside of the academy walls really took notice of Steve Belichick was in the closing moments of the Patriots' third Super Bowl win, in 2005. Father sought out son to celebrate the win over the Philadelphia Eagles, and the two were caught in the same Gatorade shower. It was a beautiful final scene, the kind a movie director would freeze on the screen before fading to black.

Nine months later, the most important and influential man Bill Belichick ever knew died of heart failure in his Annapolis home. Steve Belichick was 86.

Belichick's mother still lives in Annapolis and still watches most Navy games from the stands. Reminders that one of the NFL's best coaches was raised in this small military town are hard to find.

His old high school changed buildings 30 years ago. Upstairs in the library is where they keep the old yearbooks. Belichick graduated in 1970. There, in the lower right-hand corner of one page is Belichick's youthful face. Beside it, a quote he selected from poet Abraham Cowley: "I would not fear nor wish my fate, but boldly say each night, tomorrow let my sun his beams display, or in clouds hide them; I have lived today."

"He's basically a very, very good person," Jeannette Belichick said. "I'm more proud of that than the fact he's famous. I'm so glad he's successful, but when they say, 'Are you proud of him?' I'm proud that he's such a good person."

And even though no one wants to draw attention to it, she knows exactly where he gets it from.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

Rick Maese -- Points After

Demanding a recount: So, The Sporting News says the Orioles are the worst franchise in baseball? In no world that includes the Kansas City Royals and Tampa Bay Devil Rays can the Orioles be considered the absolute worst. And if you want to make the argument that they've squandered the most money in recent years, then what about the Chicago Cubs? The Cubs - like The Sun, owned by the Tribune Co. - just signed a football player to a $10 million contract.

Head games: The New York Times reported last week that when former NFL player Andre Waters killed himself last year, his brain looked like that of an 85-year-old. Waters was 44. Somewhat less surprising, NFL execs still have nothing to say about how player concussions seem to resurface in retirement as forms of brain damage. Supposedly, the NFL is conducting its own research. When they finally do talk, expect to see some sand flying. That tends to happen when you've had your head in the sand for so long.

Taking a stand: It's good to see that baseball is finally serious about its steroid problem. Serious enough that Sammy Sosa is on the verge of a minor league contract with the Rangers ... that Barry Bonds is a couple of dotted I's away from returning to the Giants ... and that Guillermo Mota was rewarded with a $5 million contract with the Mets. Zero tolerance, zero competence - easy to confuse the two.

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