There are few advantages to being slow at getting your work done.
But if you’re a writer covering the Patriots, there is one.
In the fall and early winter, long after the sun sets, writers who suck at being fast will exit the media room at Gillette Stadium and take a right toward the “blue gate.”
About 30 feet later, they’ll pass alongside a brick wall with narrow windows about eight feet up. You can’t really see anything that’s going on in there – the angle from the ground means you’re just looking up at the room’s ceiling.
But some nights, often around 7:30 p.m., there’s a head in the window. It’s Bill Belichick’s. It’s clear by the bob of his head, he’s on a treadmill.
The machine is obviously set to a modest pace. Not glacial but it can’t be high-intensity-interval-training going on, either. There are no headphones, if I recall correctly.
His expression is as dour as you’d expect. I don’t think he can see us passersby as we scurry past, half-smirking, half-scared to get caught looking.
It’s wholly unremarkable. There may be a thousand older gentlemen on treadmills at 7:30 on a fall evening all around New England.
But none of them are greatest coach in NFL history plodding along, 13 or 14 hours after they arrived at the office. His record is unmatched. His legend is secure. His poker face and hooded sweatshirt are iconic as Landry’s hat, Shula’s jaw, Noll’s windbreaker and the gap between Lombardi’s front teeth.
He’s got nothing to prove, nobody to impress. And he just grinds on.
It won’t surprise me if the treadmills are moved, the windows are shaded or my eyes are sewn shut now that I’ve revealed this. But I take the risk because today – Tuesday, April 16 – Bill Belichick turns 67. And it’s moments like that when you contemplate what makes him tick. What makes him different. What still drives him?
And you wonder how long he will keep plodding on, a 5-foot-10, barrel-bodied, grandfather who has been by turns respected, reviled and revered.
Now, 70 is on the horizon and – having entered the NFL in 1975 – 50 years in the league isn’t really that absurdly far off either. One of the few people on the planet who knows when Belichick’s current contract runs through – Robert Kraft – said last March that he hoped Belichick coaches “until his 80s.”
This is the time of year that actually reinforces how far away retirement seems for Belichick. There is just a full-on annual embrace of this process, it seems, between getting out to colleges to press flesh and scout talent, working the draft, manipulating trades then bringing in a crop of rookie players, putting them on the field and teaching them.
Mike Shanahan, who’ll turn 67 later this year, has been out of active coaching since 2013. He is still in it, unofficially, through his son, Kyle, the 49ers head coach. As a peer and close friend of Belichick for about 35 years, he seemed a good bet to give perspective on Belichick.
“For me, it was never work,” Shanahan said Monday from Colorado. “You get up early and you stay late and you just got used to those hours. You enjoyed the game so much you didn’t get tired of it.
“I don’t think everybody really enjoys the game in its finest details the way Bill does,” Shanahan added. “He enjoys having the edge on everybody that he goes against. In-season or offseason. How he attacks a game. How he attacks personnel. He wants his organization to be the best, top-to-bottom and to leave no stone unturned because there are people expecting that.”
In Ian O’Connor’s book Belichick, it was related that all one needed to do was tell Belichick the date and time of day and he’d be able to tell say where he’d be and what he’d be doing. That’s how much the NFL calendar is a part of his routine.
I asked Shanahan why that repetitiveness wouldn’t get boring.
“You realize this game is day by day and everybody looks at the next season,” Shanahan explained. “Bill’s approaching it that way has probably helped (keep it fresh). I imagine he thinks, ‘If I want to win games or win championships, I better take care of business today,’ and I think he’s always done that when it comes to everything – free agency, draft, putting his staff together, changing defenses or changing an offensive scheme you have to constantly be on top of it.”
Maybe what “drives” Belichick to keep going is that coaching, for him, requires no drive at all. It isn’t drudgery. It isn’t tedious. It isn’t ever really the same. And the sour parts – press conferences, for instance – are offset and then some by the teaching, the building, the learning and the competition.
And the use of a state-of-the-art treadmill. At any time of day.
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