When Fisher DeBerry and his Air Force Falcons arrived in Annapolis, Md., every other season, he knew he would meet a gregarious, smiling Navy assistant coach named Steve.
Steve was known for his devotion to film study. He sought, and found, precious secrets in those flickering football images. He served as Navy assistant for 33 seasons (1956-89), laboring quietly and diligently behind the scenes. He never pursued the head job.
On Fridays, Steve took a break from film study to welcome Midshipmen opponents to the Navy campus. He always was there to say hello to DeBerry and the Falcons.
"I was in awe of him as a football coach," DeBerry says. "I would have loved to have studied at his feet. I'll always remember how congenial and how nice he was."
DeBerry is told Steve sounds much different from his son. You might have heard of Steve's son:
"Oh, yes," DeBerry says, laughing. "Different is an understatement, but you know Bill is Bill. A great coach and very focused and a very no-nonsense guy."
On Sunday, a glum man wearing a tattered hoodie will roam the sidelines at Mile High. This man resents celebrity, refuses to enter the dangerous realm of introspection and remains a mystery, even after decades in the most public of jobs.
This man ranks as an American Genius, right up there with Willa Cather and Michael Jordan and Steve Jobs and Jimi Hendrix. Bill Belichick, eternal frown on face, stands between the Denver Broncos and the Super Bowl.
The genesis of his genius began in Annapolis. Fathers and sons don't always truly mesh. There are so many complications, so many possibilities for strife.
Steven and Bill truly meshed. Both were hopelessly enthralled by the science of football.
Bill was just 7 when he started joining his father and the Midshipmen each Tuesday night for detailed film study. He didn't sit in a corner. He sat in the middle of Midshipmen and watched with the same unyielding intensity as his father, known as a master of scouting opponents.
When Bill was 10, he already asked Steve probing questions about the safety's run-support responsibilities. Bill would become a quality high school and small-college center, but his body was nothing special.
The greatness was in his mind. He was relentless at 7 in his quest for football wisdom. He never lost his relentlessness.
In a way, Steve's son crafted the happiest of football stories. He's led the Patriots to six AFC titles, and he's favored to win his seventh Sunday. He's won, as Giants defensive coordinator and Patriots head coach, six Super Bowls and came achingly close to winning another two.
And yet ..
Belichick has struggled, and failed, to travel from American Genius to American Hero. He's long wandered close to, and at times beyond, the rule barriers of the NFL. After being busted for videoing the defensive signals of his opponents, a scandal known as Spygate, he declined to show repentance. His mistake, he said, came in his "interpretation" of the rules.
He's the ultimate football success story, but his mark on American culture remains small. Vince Lombardi was larger than life. Belichick, against all odds, is smaller than life.
Belichick still, after all the decades, adores the game, and he can surprise you with his exuberance. In an NFL Films documentary, Belichick was seen talking before a game with former Ravens superstar Ed Reed.
"You're the greatest free safety I've ever seen play this game," Belichick told Reed. "You're awesome."
Awesome. Not a word you expect to hear from Mr. Grumpy.
Belichick, football's ultimate enthusiast, has failed to earn the affection of the average American. He doesn't care.
He's too busy studying those flickering images, seeking the same secrets once sought by a nice, congenial man named Steve.