Football fans across America know Bill Belichick as the scowling, no-nonsense NFL head coach who frantically paces the sidelines during New England Patriots games.
But when he watches the legendary figure during Sunday night’s Super Bowl against the Atlanta Falcons, Frank Levering might recall Belichick as the quiet, long-haired guy who was his teammate at a small Connecticut college during the 1970s.
“When I first met Bill Belichick, he had what they call a Prince Val haircut,” recalled Levering, an Ararat, Virginia, resident who operates Levering Orchard there.
“He had hair coming down his shoulders on the back side,” Levering said in describing the style named for the title character in the “Prince Valiant” comic strip.
Many of the players at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, sported similar looks at that time, the local man said of a long-haired group of muscle-bound athletes.
“It was like Vikings or something,” Levering added. “In a place like Wesleyan, you could get away with it — if you were playing for Bear Bryant (at the University of Alabama), you couldn’t.”
Levering arrived at the Connecticut institution fresh off his playing days at Mount Airy High School, where he was a standout offensive tackle. The Bears were pretty good overall at that time, including capturing a state championship in 1968 and losing in the state title game the next season.
“We had a very good offensive line,” Levering said of the unit that also included present city residents Johnny Wood and Coley Burton.
“I played baseball and football at Mount Airy High — I was co-captain of the baseball team.”
After graduating from high school in 1970, the next rung of Levering’s athletic career loomed to the north.
“Oddly enough, I got recruited, if you can believe that,” the local man said of how he arrived at Wesleyan University, with a family tie also playing a role.
“My brother-in-law, my sister’s husband, was a history professor at that time at Wesleyan,” Levering said of the private liberal arts college founded in 1831.
Its football schedule included the likes of Amherst College, Williams College and the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, which was coached by the great Otto Graham during Levering’s time at Wesleyan. After a game with the Coast Guard, Levering got to shake the hand of Graham, best known as a star quarterback with the Cleveland Browns.
“I thought I had died and gone to heaven,” Levering said.
After landing at the Connecticut school, Levering settled into his familiar role on the offensive line, playing at one of the guard positions.
This would put him into close proximity with Bill Belichick, the center for the Cardinals.
“When I first met Bill, he was a year behind me,” Levering said of Belichick, now 64, who was born in Nashville, Tennessee, and raised in Annapolis, Maryland.
“He was pretty good-sized, not a super-big kid,” said the orchardist, who weighed about 190 pounds himself. Unlike today’s college linemen who typically top the scales at 300-plus pounds, Wesleyan’s squad was Lilliputian in comparison.
“I think the biggest guy was probably 225 pounds,” Levering said.
“What I remember most about him was he was not a great athlete,” the local man said of Belichick. “We had better athletes at Mount Airy High School.”
While most football coaches, or coaches to be, tend to be boisterous or outspoken individuals, this was not the case with Belichick.
“He was very quiet, very shy,” Levering said in looking back. “He did not speak until spoken to first.”
That changed on the field at times, when Belichick did display leadership traits that provided a hint for the future.
“When practicing, he would say things that sounded like a coach,” Levering said, pointing out that this was hereditary.
“Bill was the son of a coach.” The elder Belichick was an assistant coach for the Navy Midshipmen based in Annapolis.
“He dropped off the team eventually,” Levering said of Bill Belichick, which according to a biography of the coach was due to Belichick becoming disillusioned with college football. This led to him transferring to the lacrosse team at Wesleyan.
Belichick basically went right into the pro football ranks after his time at Wesleyan University, joining the then-Baltimore Colts as a special assistant. He served as an assistant with several other NFL teams until landing his first head coaching job with the Cleveland Browns in 1991.
Levering’s former teammate took the helm of the New England Patriots in 2000 and now is the longest-tenured head coach in the league, garnering a host of championships along the way.
“It’s just so amazing to me that this guy I used to play with has gone to six Super Bowls and won four,” the local resident remarked.
Levering is surprised by Belichick’s success, “not because he didn’t have it in him.” The amazement surrounds the fact that the Patriots’ coach was such a low-key individual in his younger days.
“He seemed just like an ordinary guy,” Levering recalled. “You think about what it takes to get to that level … he’s at the very highest level of football coaching.”
Has his detractors
Though he does exhibit a good bit of pride over what the man he played beside on the offensive line at Wesleyan has accomplished, Levering does acknowledge the ample presence of Belichick critics.
His link to the coach comes up in conversations with people from time to time.
“The first thing somebody will say is they hate him,” Levering said.
Belichick’s reticent demeanor at press conferences does not exactly ingratiate him to the media or fans, and the Patriots’ image has been tarnished by scandals over the years.
One was “Spygate” in 2007, when the Patriots videotaped the division-rival New York Jets’ defensive coaches’ signals from an unauthorized location and subsequently were disciplined by the league.
“And then you look at ‘Deflategate,’” Levering said of a scandal stemming from the Patriots using footballs that were deliberately under-inflated during a January 2015 playoff thumping of the Indianapolis Colts.
While that incident led to New England quarterback Tom Brady being suspended for the first four games this season, Levering believes Brady’s coach also bears some culpability.
“It’s hard to imagine a guy as smart as Belichick didn’t know about that,” he said of the situation with the footballs.
“Unfortunately, I think it’s tarnished Bill’s reputation a little bit — but I still pull for him.”
Some anti-Patriot fervor was evident two years ago when Levering was on the West Coast and watched the Super Bowl in a room full of people as the New England Patriots faced the Seattle Seahawks .
“There wasn’t a single Patriots fan,” Levering said of those viewing that game, which New England captured in a shocking manner with a last-minute interception as the Seahawks drove for the winning touchdown.
“And I felt great because the Patriots had won.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.