Before winning last season’s Super Bowl, Tony Dungy was a coach best remembered for his moving eulogy at the funeral of his son, who had taken his own life a year earlier.
Long before coaching the New England Patriots to 18 straight wins, but losing this year’s Super Bowl, the fiercely stubborn and occasionally boorish Bill Belichick delivered a tribute every bit as emotional.
However, 15 years ago this month there were no television cameras in the room and the only microphone was at the podium from where the young head coach of the Cleveland Browns honored long-time sportscaster Nev Chandler as he began withering away from cancer.
If you had a glass, he said holding up his empty water glass and you put in “a dash of class and a dash of kindness,” stirred in some warmth and his love for family, put in big doses of passion and professionalism, then stirred it all up, “you’d have Nev in your glass.”
He continued, “This man is one of the most decent men I’ve ever met. The world needs more Nevs.”
It was a stunning moment on a cold, snowy night inside a suburban Holiday Inn south of Cleveland. This was a man who had managed to alienate almost everyone—from the team’s owner to the daily newspaper’s beat reporter.
Looking out at the couple hundred folks who had braved a storm to roast the play-by-play voice of Belichick’s team, I saw the same wet eyes Nev was noticing through his own tears.
Sitting back down in the seat next to mine along the dais that evening, the most misunderstood coach in the National Football League smiled and asked how he’d done. Amazed that he asked, I glanced toward Nev and asked the coach to decide for himself.
Belichick looked across the dais, then stared down. I truly don’t believe he had any idea how much his words meant to Nev’s wife and children seated just a few feet away. Nine years later, he did.
On January 29, 2002, Belichick strolled out on the Superdome floor in New Orleans to coach his first Super Bowl with the Patriots. He glanced at my name tag and grinned.
“Nev would’ve loved this,” Belichick said, breezing by without making much eye contact and not breaking stride.
It didn’t matter.
My preconceived notion of this future Hall of Famer had nothing to do with football; nor was it shaped, as it once had been, by his being too flip to too many folks on too many awkward occasions like Sunday’s post-game interview with Chris Myers of the FOX Super Bowl broadcast team.
Brief to the point of rudeness and answering none of Myers’ questions with any substance, I realized what the perception of tens of millions of viewers would be.
Yet despite the season opening “Spygate” scandal (Belichick authorized the illegal videotaping of opponents’ defensive signals and was fined $500,000), I know there is more good in Bill Belichick than meets the average eye.
Knowing a fellow who had almost no chance of cheating death 15 years ago, William Stephen Belichick drove through a snowstorm to speak with unforgettable eloquence.
If given the choice between a meaningful network interview before millions, or an evening honoring a friend before hundreds, the gentleman who arguably is history’s greatest coach would undoubtedly make the right call.