Improper Bostonian– It’s hard to surprise Bill Belichick. He’s prepared for the first two minutes of a preseason game. He’s prepared for a two-minute drill during an October practice. And he’s prepared for the final two minutes of a Super Bowl. But he didn’t see a moment in early May coming. And the result was what all those people close to the Patriots coach say is a common sight away from work: A smile. A big smile.
Three months after winning his fourth Super Bowl as coach of the New England Patriots, Belichick rolls up the sleeves of his gray hoodie and scribbles a few notes on a sheet of paper. He’s in the back corner of a hotel reception room near Gillette Stadium, and his girlfriend Linda Holliday, executive director of the Bill Belichick Foundation, is introducing him at the podium. Belichick trots to the front of the room to deliver a speech to some of the 18 scholarship winners and nine grant recipients from his foundation, which gave out more than $100,000 in its inaugural year to football and lacrosse players and organizations. He’s relaxed, at ease, reminiscing about how football helped his father avoid life as a coal miner, cracking jokes about the winter snow and how “everyone’s got me outdressed today.” He might as well be a politician making a stump speech in New Hampshire. Then he asks the recipients to speak about how the money helped their work. And that’s when it happens.
Aimee Dixon from Fields of Growth stands up and surprises the 63-year-old coach with some news: Her lacrosse organization is about to break ground on the Bill Belichick Multi-Sport Complex in Uganda, made possible by a $10,000 grant. A genuine smile stretches over his entire face, spanning from ear to jowl. It’s a bit of a “wow” moment for Belichick, but it only lasts a few seconds. Before he can even enjoy it, he’s moved past it, quizzing Dixon about the logistics of her organization.
‘I’m sure that nobody will recognize that name there,” Belichick says two months later, relaxing on a bench near the Sankaty Head lighthouse in Nantucket, where he’s had a home for decades. “Honored by some place I’ve never been to, so that’s pretty cool.”
But the motivation behind Belichick’s latest charitable foray isn’t name recognition. If he wanted his name on buildings, he could pay to put it there. The famously private man has made many philanthropic gestures through the years, and, with his former wife, he once operated a nonprofit that fought homelessness. But he’s sought very little attention for his past efforts.
The Bill Belichick Foundation is a little more personal, which is why he’s agreed to his first magazine cover shoot in 15 years in an effort to spread the word about his charity. “We kind of found a way to give back to two sports that have been really good to me and my family—football and lacrosse.”
To say sports have been good to the most famous football coach in the world is an understatement. He spent part of his childhood tagging along with his father, who was an assistant coach and scout for the Navy football team. He tracked plays while sitting next to his dad before he even turned 10. He went on to play lacrosse and football at Annapolis High School and Phillips Academy in Andover, and football was his ticket to Wesleyan University, where he ended up serving as captain of the lacrosse team. Sports shaped who Belichick is, and he was fortunate enough to have easy access to them—something he knows not everyone has.
A few years ago, Belichick and Holliday heard from one of her friends in Georgia who was struggling to raise funds for equipment, coaches and uniforms for a youth lacrosse team. Holliday knew the traditionally Northeastern sport was on the precipice of national growth, but in some cases it needed an extra boost.
“I asked Bill, ‘Have you ever thought about doing this?’ He said, ‘I thought about it, but it’s hard,’ ” Holliday recalls. “For his 60th birthday, I said, ‘This is it.’ In lieu of gifts, let’s have everyone give to the foundation, and that was the Belichick Foundation coming to life.”
Applications for grants and scholarships soon started rolling in. Each included a personal essay, and Belichick sounds a lot like a football coach on cut-down day when he talks about selecting the scholarship winners. But while he can’t bump the NFL roster up above 53 players, he could bump the awards up above the $50,000 planned last year. And he did just that, doubling the amount of money he expected to give directly to players and organizations.
“We started with one number, and then we read the applications and decided we had to do more,” Belichick says. “You can’t say no to these things, so it ends up being a little more.”
Increasing the award money was an easy decision thanks to the charity’s early success. The first fundraiser—a raffle for two luxury-suite seats next to Holliday for a December 2013 game as well as some signed swag and an on-field pregame meeting with Belichick—raised more than $40,000. A number of events have followed, including an event at the Boston Harbor Hotel last year that raised more than $125,000 and featured Belichick breaking down game film with former players Troy Brown and Tedy Bruschi.
While Belichick is using his football fame to support the foundation, it was a no-brainer that a project this personal had to include lacrosse, a sport that has provided many highlights in his life. “Probably one of the biggest compliments I’ve ever gotten in my life would’ve been in 2005. I went down to a Johns Hopkins practice. Jesse Schwartzman was the goalie, and he’s now the goalie for the Denver Outlaws and he’s the goalie on the U.S. world team, so he’s pretty good,” recalls Belichick, who counts the mystery of his handedness as a particular point of pride. “I was shooting on him as part of warmups and practice. And when it was over, [coach Dave] Pietramala asked him, ‘So is he a righty or a lefty?’ And Jesse was like, ‘I can’t really tell.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah.’ ”
All of Belichick’s children followed in his footsteps by playing lacrosse in college, and his daughter, Amanda, was recently named the lacrosse coach at Holy Cross. Belichick’s passion for the sport was apparent early on to Holliday, who says she didn’t even know what the game was when they first met. A couple months after they started dating, Belichick took her to see his son play at Northfield Mount Hermon School in Gill, and they saw his daughter play at Wesleyan later the same day.
“I’m this Florida girl with a pair of blue jeans and a jacket.… It’s snowing cats and dogs, and they’re playing lacrosse in their shorts. Bill’s trying to explain to me the rules of lacrosse in the snow in April,” Holliday says. “Just when I thought I had a little bit of a sense of rules for men’s lacrosse, we go to see his daughter play, and he says, ‘This one’s a little different.’ And I’m like, ‘You gotta be kidding me.’ ”
Belichick has been particularly active on the lacrosse side of the foundation. He hosted 120 kids and their coaches and parents at the NCAA lacrosse tournament in Philadelphia, and he donates 75 Boston Cannons tickets a game to local youth teams. The foundation is a sponsor of the upcoming FIL World Indoor Lacrosse Championship in Syracuse, and it collaborated with Moses Brown, a private school in Providence, to match the $6,000 the players raised with Grounders for the Game, a program in which players earn a donation for the Providence After School Alliance with each ground ball they scoop up in a game. Belichick raves about incentivizing the hustle plays: “It’s the dirty work that doesn’t really show up on the stat sheet at the end of the game. It makes the difference between winning and losing.”
Each grant, he’s learned, makes a difference too. “Even getting a letter and hearing from someone who said, ‘With this money, we were able to buy uniforms, and instead of having 15 kids out playing, we have 32 kids.’ Even though you’re not there, and you can’t see it, you can visualize it, and of course that makes you feel really good.” Belichick says. “It’s great to give back. I think the beneficiary is the giver sometimes.”
And there will be more beneficiaries: Applications are already in for this year’s scholarships and grants, and a big fundraiser is planned for Sept. 30 at the Seaport World Trade Center, which will again feature Belichick breaking down game film. Although there’s a hope that Belichick’s kids might eventually take over the foundation, he says he’s not in this for any personal legacy building. It’s simply about making an impact on others through sports, whether it’s chatting with kids at a lacrosse game or funding a new field in Uganda. And both are enough to satisfy the legendary coach—and put a smile on his face.