Inside the risky play that wrecked college center Bill Belichick's leg

Excerpted from "BELICHICK: The Making of the Greatest Football Coach of All Time," by ESPN.com senior writer Ian O'Connor. Copyright @ 2018 by Ian O'Connor. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

Bill Belichick planted his hands around the football, lowered his head below his knees and peered through his helmet and the gap between his arched legs. He was a college sophomore at Wesleyan, in Middletown, Connecticut, and he was about to snap the ball on a practice play that would extinguish his love affair with the game.

On the field with Belichick that day was a senior, Tom Tokarz, who remembered Bill walking through the front door of the Chi Psi fraternity the year before wearing an Andover shirt, cutoff sweatpants, and soccer shoes with no socks. Belichick was holding a lacrosse stick, and he was accompanied by his good friend from Annapolis, Mark Fredland, who was already a member of the frat Bill was about to join.

Belichick didn't quite fit at rowdy Chi Psi, and yet he had something of a pied piper effect on fraternity enrollment. The year before, Fredland's freshman year, only four young men had pledged at Chi Psi, including a lacrosse player named Chris Diamond, who said "Greek life and the frats were out" while many students were consumed by the serious campus business of Vietnam protests. But in the fall of 1971, Diamond said Belichick was an endearing and popular enough figure to help recruit a Chi Psi class of some 20 members. "In a subtle way," Diamond said, "Bill was like an alpha male, and he attracted friends."

Among many other frat brothers and teammates, Bill later made the acquaintance of Scott Langner, the son of a Birmingham, Alabama, judge. Langner realized a childhood dream by playing freshman ball for the Crimson Tide and their legendary coach, Paul "Bear" Bryant. Langner's father played for the Tide, and his cousin David would become a legendary figure in the Alabama-Auburn rivalry by returning two blocked Bama punts for fourth-quarter touchdowns to give Auburn a 17-16 victory in the 1972 Iron Bowl.

Bear Bryant preferred his football players to be bigger than the 5-foot-8 Scott Langner, so the linebacker decided to transfer to a small-time school where he could crack the lineup. Someone recommended Wesleyan, of all places, and into Belichick's life he stepped.

"What I remember most," Langner said, "is Bill loved to eat . . . We always listened to music: the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers, Moody Blues and people like that. It was all hippie music."

Langner decided that Belichick, who also played squash at Wesleyan, wasn't much like the football players he knew at Alabama. "Bill was a serious person," he said. "He wasn't a jock, if you know what I mean. There weren't a lot of jocks [at Wesleyan]."

Langner was one of them, a thick, blond-haired hellion on and off the field. Though he got along just fine with Belichick, he had a bit of a problem with his teammate between the lines.

"Bill was a center," Langner said, "and I played linebacker. I hated centers."

It showed in practice. "Scotty would charge into Bill, and Scott was 215 pounds, while Bill was maybe 185," said Belichick's freshman coach, John Vino. "Langner would charge into him on long snaps or on any snaps ... Scott Langner was a terror, and when the ball was snapped you had to get out of his way. He didn't care if you were on his team or the other team. He just wanted to hit you."

He just wanted to make his fellow Cardinals see stars. Langner's quickness and strength more than made up for his lack of height, and he played with a kind of athletic ferocity rarely seen at a small liberal arts school considered an academic equal to some members of the Ivy League. Tokarz recalled that Langner "let out this bloodcurdling yell every time he hit somebody. He kind of terrorized some of the younger guys."

Wesleyan players called Langner "The Wave," an apparent reference to his Crimson Tide roots. Unlike The Wave, Belichick had plenty of roster climbing to do as a sophomore. Vino had him as a freshman in football and lacrosse, and he thought of Bill as a likable, brainy kid with a dry wit, average line skills and above-average consistency as a long-snapper. Bill also carried himself with a style that mirrored his times.

"His hair was very long," Vino said, "and so was mine. We were all like the Beatles at that time."

A couple of teammates described Belichick's bowl cut in the front and shoulder-length hair in the back as a Prince Valiant haircut.

That description came with a disclaimer.

"He had a Prince Val," said teammate Frank Levering, "but he was not quite as good looking as Prince Val."

Levering thought of Belichick as quiet and reserved, as someone who never volunteered anything.

"You could be right there, three feet away from him," Levering said, "and get the feeling he was not even aware of you."

Levering had played on a state championship high school team out of a small North Carolina town, and he thought many of his teammates there were far more gifted than Belichick.

In a football program that revolved around a singular mission -- trying (and often failing) to beat Williams and Amherst, the other members of the so-called Little Three academic powers -- Belichick did excel in conflict resolution.

"He was the mild one in that [frat] house," Vino said. "He was the voice of reason even when there was no reason. And if there was an argument on the field, he would be the arbitrator."

But on this one play in this one practice early in Belichick's sophomore year, his voice of reason was not heard. He was the center on a point-after attempt, and the Wesleyan coaches thought they'd spotted a weakness up the middle in the upcoming opponent's kicking unit. They wanted the first-string defense to get some work on this purported weakness against their own teammates, and Belichick, a backup, was identified as the specific point of attack.

Bill Macdermott, the head coach, had been a good player at Trinity College and was well-liked by his team. Macdermott was relentlessly enthusiastic and emotional and was almost always moved to tears by victories and defeats big and small. It became a running joke among the players: How long is it going to take this time for Mac to start bawling?

Macdermott's preferred side of the ball was offense, and he loved to grade his players after every play, every scrimmage. His staff included Herb Kenny, the Wesleyan basketball coach and former St. Bonaventure football player, and Pete Kostacopoulos, who was about to start a long and distinguished career as the Cardinals' head baseball coach. Kostacopoulos, or Kosty, ran the defense for Macdermott. Kosty was known to be a crusty type who chewed a lot of tobacco. Fellow assistants knew not to stand downwind from him when he was up in the press box.

Players had differing opinions of Macdermott and his assistants, their styles and expertise.

"But there were no villains on the coaching staff," Levering said.

The players respected Kostacopoulos's knowledge of the game and his ability to get the most out of them. Linebacker Art Conklin, for one, thought Kosty was a strategic genius, and one who let you know about it when you played like s---. Belichick struggled in one scrimmage while playing linebacker, according to Conklin, compelling Kosty to come up with this mocking evaluation on his postgame rating sheet: "Bill, the scrimmage started at 10 in the morning. It's now five o'clock, and you have yet to make a tackle."

So Kostacopoulos, a hard-ass, was acting as an overseer for this particular hard-ass play. "I happened to be standing behind the defense," he said -- standing there as his two toughest linebackers, Langner and Conklin, were getting ready to unload on Bill Belichick.

As he had at Andover, Belichick had established himself as a long-snapper who stayed after practice to work on his craft, and as a coach in training who saw things less insightful teammates didn't see. Tokarz played in the defensive secondary as a senior, and he recalled Belichick shouting out the opponent's pass play from the sideline before the snap. Belichick would notice that a receiver had lined up close to the sideline, signaling that he was going to run an in pattern. Sure enough, Belichick nailed the call and Tokarz was all over the intended receiver to force an incompletion. In many ways, Tokarz thought, his younger teammate was a more advanced football mind than some of the Wesleyan coaches.

Kenny said Belichick "did everything nobody else wanted to do," and never made a mental mistake no matter what position he was asked to hold down. If Kenny had any problem at all with Bill, it related to his Andover training.

"We treated the prep school kids a little differently than the public school kids," Kenny said. "We thought public school kids were a lot tougher than the preppies."

Kenny recalled that Belichick spent extra time with him after practice. Sometimes in the morning, Bill would stop in the assistant coach's office to go over a scouting report.

"That's unusual for a kid not playing much, especially at Wesleyan," Kenny said. "They don't have the free time to do what Billy did."

But even in the world of small-time college football, a backup is often deemed expendable and put in harm's way. On this day, multiple witnesses said Wesleyan was working on a dangerous technique that required multiple defensive players to engage the center. It was unclear how many reps were run at Belichick's expense, but it was clear to nearly every witness that this dress rehearsal was a really bad idea.

"It's a tough play to run live against your own team," Tokarz said. "I thought we might've done that dummy drill to practice that. Coach decided to do it live, and, yeah, it was unfortunate. We all thought that [it was a mistake]. I don't know anybody who thinks any different."

Lenny Femino, a 5-foot-5, 165-pound freshman from Salem, Massachusetts, who could bench-press 325 pounds, was off to the side watching from only ten feet away when he thought to himself, "Holy s---, this is practice. In a game, you've got to find your opponent's weak spot and hit the gap and go, but this is just practice ... I wouldn't want to be Bill right now."

Conklin, the 5-foot-10, 210-pound linebacker out of Newtown, Connecticut, said that Kenny had devised a new scheme to block kicks, and that it involved putting two tackles in front of the center, with a third defensive player positioned behind those tackles.

"It was 100 percent Herb," Conklin said, "and [Macdermott] just blew the whistle."

The linebacker said that Langner dropped down as one of the tackles next to a teammate named Bill Wilson, and that, by design, the two set their sights on Belichick.

Helmet lowered and eyes facing his holder and kicker, Belichick was made vulnerable by the nature of the task. He snapped the ball and then braced himself to be hit.

"As soon as the snap occurred," Conklin said, "they were supposed to wrap their arms around [Belichick's] legs and [rise up and] get into his shoulder pads and knock him over, and I was supposed to run over him and get directly onto the kicker and block the PAT. It wasn't just one time -- we must've done that ten times, twelve times. ... It was stupid, and I think it was illegal. We did it over and over and over again. I ran over Bill, like I said, a dozen times. ... The next day Bill was in a cast."

Kostacopoulos remembered the sequence this way: "We were working against PATs, and one of our players submarined him, and he got [Belichick's] knee and he got hurt. I remember the play ... I know people talked about two guys converging on him. It wasn't a drill. It was a technique that this person on defense -- I don't remember who it was, but he was going to submarine his way in there and give the center a hard time."

Kenny worked on special teams, and decades later he said he didn't remember running this play over and over the way Conklin described it. Though he said the technique in question wasn't new in college football circles, he conceded, "It was probably new to us." Kenny recalled that another Wesleyan player was initially snapping the ball during the PAT practice before he replaced that player with Belichick.

"I said, 'Come on, Billy, you've got to come snap,'" Kenny said. "He was a little reluctant. He got hurt, and he always blamed me."

Conklin said the coaches repeated the PAT block attempt so often that day that he couldn't recall the specific play that injured Belichick. Whichever play it was, one player said the sound of contact and pain instantly rose above the collisions taking place up and down the line of scrimmage and brought everything to a halt.

"You heard it," Lenny Femino said, "and you heard Bill. I remember him screaming. The screaming was awful. He was flopping on the ground. It was not good. ... You didn't see the broken leg. I just heard it and you knew he was injured and you knew it was bad and everything stopped."

Others who were there described Belichick's injury as a serious knee injury. Tokarz confirmed Conklin's account that three defensive players, not two, had crashed into Belichick and that one went high and two went low, leaving Bill done for the year.

"Bill was an excellent snapper; he was the right guy to do that," Tokarz said. "And you've got three guys blowing him up in practice trying to block the kick. ... The guys who hit him felt terrible. They felt horrible, all three guys."

By all accounts, Belichick was raging mad over this unnecessary injury caused by a hazardous technique. Jackson, his lacrosse coach, said Bill had a temper that most people never saw, and that Jackson himself saw only once or twice. Once was Belichick's reaction to this play and this season-ending injury. Bill was so angry, he didn't bother returning to the team for his junior year. (He did return as a senior as a backup tight end/defensive end.)

"It tore up Bill's knee while they used him as a guinea pig," Jackson said. "Tore up his knee and forced him to give up football. He was hot under the collar. He was burning inside. He never forgave those coaches. ... He just never spoke to those football coaches again. He explained to me what had happened, and I can't say I blamed him."

Kenny disputed that account. He said Belichick was mad at him for "maybe about a week," and that he did not feel moved to apologize to his player.

"That's just football," he said. "That's what happens. I never apologized, and we got along well after that."

Either way, Conklin said Belichick never complained to school officials about the events that led to his injury, nor did he involve his father in the matter. Don Russell, the former Wesleyan football coach who was now the athletic director, confirmed that Belichick never brought the incident to him and never mentioned it in any conversations decades later.

"They could've made a stink to the university," Conklin said of Belichick and his father, "but Bill sucked it up and accepted a lost season.

"He just took it and never said another word."

Excerpted from "BELICHICK: The Making of the Greatest Football Coach of All Time," by ESPN.com senior writer Ian O'Connor. Copyright @ 2018 by Ian O'Connor. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.