The first time I met Bill Belichick was New Year's Eve day 2002, in a cemetery in Saddlebrook, N.J. There was nowhere else in the world I could have been that day. But less than 48 hours after his defending world champion Patriots had lost an AFC East tiebreaker and a chance to enter the playoffs and defend their title, Belichick chose to drive from New England to honor a fallen friend.
Joel Buchsbaum was the greatest scout in the history of independent talent evaluation, an industry we created at Pro Football Weekly back in 1969. There was a time when no one but the NFL teams and a chunk of our devoted PFW readers paid any attention to the NFL's college draft. Even after ESPN began televising it and other non-NFL-affiliated scouts like Kiper and Mayock joined the fray, nobody could touch Joel. From 1978 until Dec. 29, 2002, his legion of fans and every one of the 32 NFL teams paid close attention to everything Joel had to say on the draft.
Then suddenly he was gone. It was never clear whether it was a heart attack or pneumonia that took him, but at age 48, on the last day of the 2002 regular season, he was found dead on the floor of his Brooklyn apartment. As I wrote at the time, I wasn't sure if he was my little brother or my oldest son, but he wasn't just an employee, he was family, and losing him was devastating. I found out over the next few days that his death moved a number of folks I would have never guessed as deeply as it moved me.
I was working as a color commentator on the Chicago Bears' radio broadcast of their final '02 game, a Sunday-night affair against the Bucs, when I got the news just before halftime. I called Joel's mom, Frances, who was his only living immediate family and promised her I'd be there as soon as I could get to Brooklyn on Monday. I finished the game, tore up my column for the next morning's issue of PFW and rewrote my tribute to Joel, drove back to Chicago from Champaign, Ill., where the Bears had played their home games that year, cried with my wife and then took off for Brooklyn.
Unknown to me, alarms started going off in New England at the same time. I knew which teams Joel was closer to than others but never asked the names of his sources. This is something I would otherwise never reveal, but Belichick himself stood up at a memorial service we had for Joel at the combine here in Indy about a month later and unabashedly told a room full of owners, general managers, coaches and media that Joel was one of his best friends and for years they had started and ended almost every day at around 5:30 a.m. and midnight with a phone call to talk football. Apparently, when that Sunday night and then the next morning passed without a call from Joel, he was concerned, and a call to our offices Monday morning confirmed his worst fears.
That Tuesday, Frances insisted I ride from her apartment to the cemetery with her, her sister and a few cousins in the family limo. It seemed we drove forever from Brooklyn, and once we entered the cemetery, we went through a ridiculous maze until we arrived at the gravesite. There couldn't have been more than 20 people there, and I hadn't slept in 48 hours, so at first I didn't notice the cluster of four men in suits and overcoats standing about 20 feet back from the rest of the group. But when I looked a second time, I realized it was Joel Bussert, director of player personnel for the NFL; Ernie Accorsi, then GM of the Giants; Scott Pioli; and Bill Belichick.
Of course, I went over to say hello — I'd met Bussert and Accorsi before — and when I held out my hand to Pioli and Belichick and said, "I'm Hub," Bill said, "Of course, I know. Joel really believed he was part of your family, and I really appreciate you being here."
To say I was floored gives new meaning to the word "understatement." The five of us visited for maybe five minutes, and I told them all I could. We commiserated with each other, promised to stay in touch, and I went back to tend to Joel's mom. When she asked me who those men were, I just told her they were some of Joel's best friends.
I spoke to each of them over the next six weeks or so as we worked to put together a fitting tribute to Joel at the Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, and communicated more with Berj Najarian, Belichick's assistant, to make sure everything was right. I had no idea if Belichick would want to speak or reveal any of the details of his relationship with Joel until Berj made it clear to me that not only did he wish to speak, he'd like to be the first. As I've already said, the room was packed, and while certainly one of the saddest, that day was the most memorable of my 35 years on the NFL beat, thanks in large part to Bill Belichick.
This story isn't going where you think. In the nine years that have passed since then, Belichick, Pioli and I have become friends, but it's very much personal, at arm's length and nothing to do with football. We've spoken no more than a handful of times, and maybe once a year, if that, there's an email or a note to wish each other well or perhaps express congratulations on some accomplishment. What I know about Bill Belichick is that he is, in fact, a man I deeply respect.
Much will be written this week about the "Patriot Way" and the "Belichick Way," and some media are guaranteed to relive "Spygate," the propriety of bringing in Josh McDaniels for the playoffs, and the reputation of the Pats for, at times, being "less than open or cooperative with the media." That's all well and good. Those things and others have happened, and folks have to judge them as they will.
But I'm here to tell you I know that Bill Belichick, as much as a great football coach, is a man who is more than fair to those who are fair to him, who honors his friends and the people he works with and, most importantly, who was there for my extended family when we needed each other and who has been there ever since. I would trust him with anything, in particular my family, and to me that's all that really counts about anybody.