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Tara Sullivan

Before Bill Belichick was coach of the Patriots, he was a boy sharing football with his mother, Jeannette

Bill Belichick and son Steve (background) talked fondly on Jeannette Belichick following her death this past week.
Bill Belichick and son Steve (background) talked fondly on Jeannette Belichick following her death this past week.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Oh, to have been a fly on that wall.

Think of it. Bill Belichick snuggling up on the living room couch with a day’s worth of football ahead, his young brain still but a sponge for what would become his life’s work. What did he see? Did he take notes, write scouting reports, diagram plays? Was the future already clear for the eventual eight-time (and counting) Super Bowl-winning coach?

It was a scene the Patriots coach was moved to remember this past week, not so much for what was on the screen in front of him, but for who was in the room beside him.

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His mom, Jeannette.

One of the less-than-predictable twists to Belichick’s road to football greatness is how much of the game he shared with his mother, whose support of his obvious passion was just as formative as that of her husband, Steve. Though it is Steve’s long, respected career as a scout that is most often cited as the inspiration for their only child to follow, the reality the coach shared upon his mother’s death this past week painted a slightly different, yet still very touching picture.

“You know, my dad was away a lot on scouting trips, and so I always kind of grew up with her on the weekends, on football weekends, at home,” he recalled. "We watched hundreds of games together, whether it was Navy games or listened to them on the radio or watched other games that were on TV and so forth when my dad was away on Friday night, Saturday, and sometimes Sunday morning, depending on how far he had to travel for the games that he was scouting.

“Football season for me as a kid was my dad getting home late during the week and my mom on the weekends to watch football games. And we became very close and shared those experiences together.”

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Belichick’s willingness to share some memories of his mom struck me as particularly poignant, not simply because he is legendarily monosyllabic about most things emotional, but because there is almost no one among us who couldn’t empathize with his sorrow or connect with his love for his mom.

To credit her example for the right way to live a life, to express unending gratitude for the sacrifices she made for her family, to boast of her startling intellect as something he tried so hard to match, all of it made me wish I had gotten to know Jeannette Belichick. Or maybe had her as a teacher back in her classroom days, a student to one of the seven languages she learned to speak, or just to hear stories of the translating of maps she did during the war effort of the 1940s.

I didn’t know her, but I count myself lucky enough to have had a mom who sounds just like her. Mine wasn’t blessed to see 98, the age that prompted Jeannette’s 68-year-old son to remark on her “very long and happy life” and be comforted that she is “with my dad now.”

My own mom has been gone for 12 years now. But like Belichick, when I think of my youngest days watching football, when my dad was driving up to the Yale Bowl with his Giants season tickets, it was my mom who encouraged my viewing, my mom who sat with me and let me teach her the rules of the game, ones she’d never seen growing up 3,000 miles away in Limerick, Ireland.

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For her, as well as my dad, life was always about finding what you love and diving in, headfirst if needed. Like Jeannette, she lived by amazing example.

The oldest of eight children raised in very modest surroundings, my mom managed to graduate high school despite being needed to help out at home, joining just a tiny handful of young women to earn that diploma. She bravely moved to England to attend nursing school, then off to America to seek a career, where ultimately, she would find love, too.

I remember so vividly her thirst for education, stories of a childhood spent reading with a flashlight at night under the covers, or ignoring the nuns who said she’d missed too much school to pass Ireland’s required “leaving certificate” at the end of secondary school and acing the exam anyway, of interviewing her for a fourth-grade school project on immigration and hearing how much it meant to become an American, wishing now I had held onto that old cassette tape.

Bill Belichick escorted his mother, Jeannette, during the funeral services for his father, Bill in 2005.
Bill Belichick escorted his mother, Jeannette, during the funeral services for his father, Bill in 2005.MATTHEW S. GUNBY/Associated Press

We are all a product of those who came before us, of those who raise us, of those who set the path. Bill Belichick has more than forged his own way, destined as he is to go down as the greatest coach in NFL history. Jeannette belongs on his plaque, too, for her legacy of support and unconditional love. Just listen to the words of her grandsons Steve and Brian, both of whom work for their dad on the Patriots staff, or think of her granddaughter Amanda, who followed Bill’s path, as well, as the head lacrosse coach at Holy Cross.

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“I was excited that my daughter was able to meet her and spend some time with her before she passed. That meant a lot to me and my wife. That was really great. She was a very special person‚” Steve, the Patriots’ outside linebackers coach, said. “She was just so loving and so selfless. She put everybody ahead of herself. Everything she did was geared toward helping other people and loving her family.”

“She made you feel like you were the most important person in the world to her,” added Brian, who coaches the Patriots’ safeties. “She was a great influence on me and influencing me on how to treat other people, how to bring great energy every day [and] be positive.”

That’s the message their dad shared Thursday, when he opened a video conference postponed from the previous day with a tribute to his mom. It was in response to a later question that he spoke of her background in academics, chiding himself for failing to measure up, particularly in the one foreign language he did try to study, “just ‘un peu’ of French, and that’s about it,” he said.

Translation: A little.

“Unfortunately, those language skills didn’t rub off on her son,” he said, “and one language is really about all I have.”

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As fluent as he is in the language of football and all its complexities, however, and you know she’s guiding him still.


Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.