Teenage Patriots excelled before Belichick – and in other sports

Rob Gronkowski's senior year bio in the Woodland Hills varsity basketball media guide.

FOXBORO, Mass. (WPRI) – A little more than eight years before an unproven kid was unexpectedly thrust into action of an NFL football game against the New York Jets, school was in session at the all-boys Junipero Serra High School in San Mateo, California.

It was the spring of 1993, and the tall, wiry starting catcher for the junior varsity baseball team was sitting in his tenth grade Spanish class, until someone knocked on the classroom door.

“Can I see Tom Brady?” Tom Monaghan asked the teacher.

Monaghan, who taught Brady in an ethics class at Serra, as it’s often called, was also the school’s varsity baseball coach that season and was scrambling after both of his varsity catchers landed in detention on the day of a tournament game.

“He comes out of class and I said, ‘Hey Tom, we need you to catch the tournament game for the varsity today,’” Monaghan recalled. “He turned kind of ashen and deer-eyed me a bit and asked, ‘Really?’ I said, ‘Yes, we need you today; those other guys got in trouble.’ He ended up starting the game, playing well and we won the game and that ended up being his first-ever varsity experience.”

If there is such a thing as the “Patriot Way,” it might be best described in the 2001 management book “Good To Great” by Jim Collins. Here are the first three steps of the linear process outlined by Collins:

Step 1 – Get the right people on the bus.

Step 2 – Get the right people in the right seats.

Step 3 – Get the wrong people off the bus.

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Robert Kraft handed the bus keys over to Bill Belichick in January 2000, and it’s been his to drive ever since. It’s why Belichick drafts guys like Devin McCourty much higher than expected, and also why he trades away Pro Bowl linebackers like Jamie Collins in the middle of a season. The key, obviously, was drafting quarterback Tom Brady in April 2000, the most important person occupying the bus’s most important seat.

So in the spirit of finding the right people, what could be more fun than doing an expansive background check by analyzing some of the current Patriots and what kind of impact they made in other sports they played besides football?

Bill Belichick was not driving the school bus that brought the Serra High School varsity baseball team to rival Bellarmine College Prep in San Jose for a league championship game during the spring of 1995.

“Bellarmine’s field had a parking lot behind the outfield fence,” explained Pete Jensen, who coached Tom Brady in baseball during his senior year at Serra.

“Tommy, who was a left-handed hitter, hit two home runs that day to right field,” Jensen said. “Both of them hit the parked bus. Our bus driver was asleep inside the bus for the first one and when the ball hit the bus he almost had a heart attack.”

Eventually, Brady got drafted by the Montreal Expos in the 18th round of the 1995 Major League Baseball Draft.

Later that summer, the Patriots got some luck from a journeyman major leaguer named F.P. Santangelo after the Expos worked out Brady in San Francisco prior to a game against the Giants at Candlestick Park.

“He sat there with us in the clubhouse for a half an hour and we actually convinced him to not play baseball and to play football for Michigan,” said the host, who was supposed to be urging Brady to sign with Montreal for scout John Hughes.

“I told him, ‘You’re good looking and you’ll probably have a good time on campus,'” recalled Santangelo. “‘Why would you want to sit on a bus for ten hours and make $800 a month?’”

Santangelo sold Brady; he signed with Michigan to play football.

“You could just tell by looking at him during freshman baseball tryouts at Serra that he could be special,” Monaghan added. “Great arm, the way he carried himself, he passed the eye test.”

“He was a leader by example,” Jensen said. “He was a leader by good play and competitiveness, he worked harder than everybody, and wanted everybody to be better.”

Tom Brady wasn’t a great baseball player; he was a quarterback who was great at baseball.

While Brady was at Serra, safety Devin McCourty was still enjoying recess. By the time Brady was winning Super Bowls with the Patriots, McCourty was playing basketball at Saint Joseph Regional High School in Montvale, New Jersey.

“He could hit the outside shot and was very effective driving to the basket,” said Michael Doherty, McCourty’s head basketball coach at Saint Joseph’s. “He was an outstanding defensive player but most importantly he was just really savvy and smart.”

If Bill Belichick coached basketball and had to wear a suit, he would begrudgingly keep the sleeves intact on his Tom Ford but happily coach a player with McCourty’s versatility.

“He was very adaptable, very team-oriented,” Doherty added. “Devin was definitely talented enough to have a bigger role for us as a sophomore on the varsity, but being the type of kid that he was, he deferred to older kids with the notion of, I’ll get my shot.”

Cornerback Malcolm Butler would have loved to have played varsity basketball in high school, but was cut.

“He was tenacious, he could jump, he was a great defender but only had one hand, he could go right. If you needed a defensive stop, though, you could go to him – he wanted to guard everybody. We just had a lot of talented guards,” said Kelvin Carter, an assistant coach on Butler’s junior varsity basketball team at Vicksburg High School in Mississippi. “He played football in the ninth grade but he wasn’t that serious about it until he got cut from basketball. The orange pill had him going. He thought he was a basketball player.”

He’s not.

He is a Super Bowl hero, a Pro Bowler and an All-Pro. He also had something that is an absolute must for being a top-flight NFL cornerback: confidence before seeing results.

“Even after he stopped playing basketball he’d come down the hallway on the way to the field house as we were heading into the gym and let everyone know that he could whoop anyone [in basketball],” added Carter.

Receiver Danny Amendola made the varsity baseball team at The Woodlands High School in Texas, which is roughly 40 miles north of NRG Stadium where the Patriots will play the Falcons on Sunday.

“He played some outfield and second base. He certainly had a football mentality,” said Ron Eastman, who coached Amendola in baseball at The Woodlands.

Amendola told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in a 2010 article that he got tossed from a few high school baseball games for running into the catcher. Aggressiveness aside, Eastman believes Amendola could have played Division 1 college baseball.

“If we did anything with a stopwatch, Danny would not stop until he beat everyone else at the drill. Very competitive, very mentally tough,” Eastman said.

A little less than an hour south of The Woodlands is where Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett played his high school basketball.

“He was a man among boys, to go with a high basketball intellect. An incredible high school player – in fact Duke invited him for a visit,” said Jeffrey Durnford, Bennett’s basketball coach at Alief Taylor High School in Houston.

Bennett was so good he even toyed with the idea of entering the 2005 NBA Draft when high school players were still allowed to go directly to the pros. He ultimately decided not to declare, and went to Texas A&M on a football scholarship.

Durnford went on to say, “He’d say some provocative stuff even at that age, stuff about issues at our school or issues in the world. I taught him algebra his freshman year. He was a smart kid, a very quick study and he always picked up stuff quickly on the fly.”

Don’t you have to be that way to play offense for the Patriots?

“He liked to joke around, but he knew when to work and knew when to play. Some opposing coaches would ask me if he was tough to coach but it was just the opposite,” Durnford said.

Bennett has stayed connected to the community in Houston over the years, recently approaching his former high school about donating money to help the art program.

“He felt like giving that kind of money might help to spur some other kids who have some interest and help develop their talent,” Durnford said. “He’s really grown up to be quite a successful young man and has a vision beyond football, which is nice to hear.”

Not a huge surprise considering Bennett’s penchant for animation that’s been on display routinely during his inaugural season in New England.

What was a surprise? That Patriots offensive lineman Shaquille Olajuwon Mason did not play one dribble of high school basketball.

What wasn’t a surprise at all? The hobbies Rob Gronkowski listed on the varsity basketball media guide during his senior season at Woodland Hills High School in Pittsburgh:

#50 Robert Gronkowski

Hobbies: working out, playing sports, chicks

Perfection on a pamphlet.

“He’s a very charismatic guy. The guys loved him. He was a team leader. He had a nice mid-range jump shot and was a beast inside,” said Aaron Tipton, Gronkowski’s basketball coach during his senior year in Pittsburgh. “When I found out he was coming to Woodland Hills, I did research on Phil Jackson’s triangle offense so I could get him the ball.”

Prior to his time at Woodland Hills, Gronkowski played three years of basketball for Chuck Swierski at Williamsville North High School in Buffalo, New York.

“We couldn’t get in our gym one day because desks and chairs were set up for kids to take midterms, so our sister school, Williamsville East, said we could go to their gym to practice if we wanted,” Swierski said. “So we’re doing one of our normal drills and a pass goes to Rob from the top of the key and he goes up for a two-handed dunk and comes down with the rim in his hand.”

The gym went nuts.

“We stopped practice and just took pictures,” Swierski said. “He [Rob] just made a silly kind of ‘haha’ laugh and said, ‘That’s cool.'”

Prior to the smartphone era, Rob Gronkowski shattered a backboard at a high school basketball practice.
Prior to the smartphone era, Rob Gronkowski shattered a backboard at a high school basketball practice.

And that was far from the only time that Gronk made a high school gymnasium erupt.

Swierski continued, “So we’re playing a home game and we have 68 points – now it’s not a blowout, but it’s not a particularly close game either. So he [Gronkowski] gets fouled and goes to the free throw line. He hits the first one to get us to 69 and the place goes nuts because he’s playing into it. On his next free throw, he purposely chucks the ball off the backboard and misses so the score would stay at 69 and then runs back on defense pointing at the scoreboard.”

Certainly one of Coach Swierski’s more vivid memories of Gronk, but he has made a couple of more since Rob began his Hall of Fame career with the Patriots.

“I’ve gone to see him in Boston and he has taken us out to dinner,” Swierski said. “One time before a Patriots-Bills game in Buffalo, Gronk was warming up catching passes from Brady. He didn’t know that myself and a couple other of his former coaches were going to be there, but we knew a guy and got down onto the field.”

Swierski continued, “Somewhere along the way he looked to the side and saw us. He immediately pulled himself out of the drill, ran over, slapped us and said, ‘Hey coach! Great to see you, thanks for coming,’ which was something he didn’t have to do. It made me feel – I don’t know if special is the word – appreciated? It was just one of the coolest things.”

In “Good To Great,” Collins preaches getting the right people on the bus before figuring out where to drive it. During the fall of 2000, the manifest of Bill Belichick’s team bus was slowly beginning to take shape.

“It was probably the fall of [Brady’s] first experience with the Patriots and I was at a Serra football game on a Saturday afternoon,” Tom Monaghan remembers. “I’m in the end zone and I see Mr. Brady [Tom Brady Sr.] standing there. So I go over to congratulate him on Tom’s making the Patriots and I’m not sure if this is a direct quote but he said something along the lines of, ‘Yeah, you know, it’ll be a good experience for him, he’ll be around for a little while, maybe have a cup of coffee in the NFL, and life will go from there.’”

On Sunday evening, the former catcher for Junipero Serra High School and Bill Belichick will step off of an actual bus at NRG Stadium in Houston, where they will try to become football immortals by winning the Patriots a fifth Lombardi Trophy.

If they lose – well, there’s always Gronk’s Party Bus.

Mark Dondero (MDondero@wpri.com) is a sports reporter for Eyewitness News. Follow him on Twitter: @MarkDondero

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