ATLANTA — Even when he was nothing more than "Bill's kid," there was always a sense within Gillette Stadium that Steve Belichick would one day follow in his father's footsteps.
"There was a lot of talk over whether or not he would get into coaching one day," said 11th-year special teamer Matthew Slater, who joined the Patriots in 2008 when the younger Belichick was a mere 21. "It’s been pretty neat to watch that progression and see him grow as a man and have a family and now coaching, but it was almost inevitable when you look back. Coaching is in his blood.”
For the longest-tenured Patriots, watching Belichick grow from a young kid into a full-fledged member of the coaching staff has been a treat. But nobody has seen the progression as clearly as the safeties, for whom Belichick has served as position coach for the last three seasons.
To them, Belichick isn't just a coach but a peer, and his journey has been their own.
At 31, Belichick is the same age as Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung, a year older than Nate Ebner and just three years older than Duron Harmon. A former Rutgers lacrosse player who spent a year as a walk-on long-snapper for the football team, Belichick also knew Harmon and the McCourty twins in college, before any of them joined the Patriots.
Around that time, Belichick got to know Chung after he was drafted by the Patriots in 2009. Even back in those days, the players could tell he was destined to become a coach.
“He sounds just like his dad," Devin McCourty said. "Steve’s been very eager to learn. He came in as quality control, staying up late breaking down all the film, and it’s awesome to see him take over his own room, coach us in the safety group and really give us all the coaching points that he’s learned from his dad but also from his time coaching and with all the other Patriot greats."
Belichick officially joined the Patriots staff as an assistant in 2012 and four years later earned a promotion to safeties coach. By that point, he had nearly a decade of shared experience with most of the safeties on the roster, which made for a unique dynamic within the position group.
“It’s really cool -- we can all kind of relate to each other," Belichick said. "We’re around a similar time in our lives where we can relate to that stuff too.”
Where many player-coach relationships tend to have a top-down power structure, Belichick has learned as much from his players as they have learned from him. A dedicated student of the game, Belichick is always willing to listen to his players' advice in hopes of becoming a better coach. In return, he has a wealth of knowledge from his lifetime of experience around the game that he can share with his players.
Belichick said that McCourty in particular has been a huge help as he's worked to establish his coaching career. Though their relationship has evolved over the years — “Mine and Devin’s player-coach relationship is much different than mine and Devin’s student-student relationship at Rutgers, I’ll put it like that,” he said — they have developed a mutual respect as they have grown from two college kids in New Jersey to two professionals seeking their third Super Bowl title together.
"If you’d told me that it was going to play out like this I would have been extremely excited," Belichick said. "It’s been pretty cool, I’ve been fortunate to have an opportunity to coach a player like Devin, he’s been unbelievable for me as a coach to learn from and have him to lean on in the room. It’s been very beneficial for me."
Mac Cerullo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Mac on Twitter at @MacCerullo.