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‘The Zo’ Relishes Being the Belichick Whisperer
Those calls can border on stream-of-consciousness poetry, like the time Zolak famously blurted out, after a game-winning touchdown pass by Tom Brady, “Unicorns! Show ponies! Where’s the beef?” During this year’s A.F.C. championship game, his analysis of one play was simply, “In your face.” When Brady threw the winning touchdown pass to Danny Amendola in that game, Zolak’s contribution was simply to exhale and sigh, “I love Tom Brady.”
In an organization that urges employees to say nothing, Zolak is liable to say anything, and Patriots fans love it.
Zolak’s defense-of-the-realm intensity and bawdy, high-energy personality make him extremely popular in New England, even though he threw only 248 passes in his eight-season N.F.L. career. But when the Patriots play the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl on Sunday, many in this region will mute their televisions and instead listen to Zo, as Zolak is known locally, and his partner, Bob Socci, give their interpretation of the game on 98.5 The Sports Hub.
“He’s one of us,” said Paul Kenney, a 57-year-old landscaper from Dedham, Mass.
And like the fans, Zolak fervently wants the Patriots to win. At halftime of the A.F.C. championship game, he got into an argument at the press box clam-chowder urn with Tony Boselli, a former N.F.L. offensive lineman and Zolak’s friendly rival on the Jaguars’ radio broadcasts. Boselli had the temerity to claim the referees favored the Pats. Worse, according to Zolak, Boselli had brushed off a dangerous illegal hit on tight end Rob Gronkowski, a Zolak favorite. On the postgame show, Zolak needled Boselli, wishing him a happy trip back to Jacksonville.
Roughly the same size as the 6-foot-6, 28-year-old Gronkowski, Zo was Gronk long before Gronkowski ever guzzled from a beer bong. Belichick was asked during a break in the taping of his show what Zolak, now 50, was like at that age.
Belichick paused, smiled and said diplomatically, “We’ve all matured.”
But while Zolak may sound like an over-the-top homer to a Patriots hater, his commentary is mostly fair and often instructive. That might explain why Belichick respects and trusts him enough to collaborate.
The two men met in 1996, when Belichick joined the Patriots’ staff as the assistant head coach to Bill Parcells, nominally responsible for the defensive backs. In that pre-dynastic iteration of the Patriots, Zolak was Drew Bledsoe’s rowdy backup and the extra hand who ran the scout team for Belichick’s defensive backs, impersonating the opposing quarterback in practices.
“I worked closer with him at that time than I did with Drew,” Belichick said during a break in the taping of the show. “He was great at it. He knew the game, he’s smart and he always had a great sense of humor. Everyone got along with him, plus he could throw the hell out of the ball.”
From the other side, Zolak witnessed Belichick’s mind-boggling attention to detail.
“If we were playing the Dolphins, I had to wear No. 13 just like Dan Marino,” Zolak said. “I had to have the sleeves cut off like Dan and wear the same face mask. Bill told me where Marino put his hands at his belt. He wanted the exact same mannerisms.”
Before a game against the Broncos that year, Belichick admonished Zolak for failing to accurately capture John Elway’s cadence at the line of scrimmage. “No, no, it’s ‘set HUT,’” Belichick instructed. To the coach, even something as microscopic as emphasizing the proper syllable in a scout-team drill was worth doing correctly.
Belichick is a teacher at heart, and his sessions with Zolak on the Belistrator are a chance to educate the public about the finer aspects of a complex game. The idea was originally Belichick’s, and he takes time each week to find a handful of plays that are illustrative — yet don’t reveal state secrets or expose a player to criticism.
Zolak started doing the Belichick Breakdowns nine years ago, at first filling in when Belichick needed a new host for the video program. Zolak admits that, as a player, he sometimes had to fight the temptation to doze off during film sessions.
And despite his decidedly un-Belichickian radio personality — Zolak likes to sing ’80s pop tunes at full volume and yell “‘Sup?” to his devoted listeners — he is far more savvy than his partying jock personae suggests. That makes him the perfect foil for Belichick, at least according to Matt Smith, the senior executive producer of their show.
“After that first session with Scott, Bill took me aside and said, ‘This is going to work out really well,’” Smith recalled. “He said, ‘I’m just telling you, it’s going to be really good.’”
Like Belichick’s father, Steve, who coached at the United States Naval Academy, Zolak’s father, Paul, was a coach at Ringgold High School near Pittsburgh, where he once coached a teenage Joe Montana. (Scott Zolak idolized Montana, but now argues that Brady is the best quarterback ever and adds, “It’s not even close.”)
But even with that deep football background, his own playing career and his later one as a broadcaster, Zolak said he still learned new things from Belichick.
In 2015, a few days after the Patriots beat the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX, the team was preparing to board buses for its championship parade in Boston when Belichick asked Zolak to join him for an off-air film session.
Belichick had heard that during the game, which the Patriots won on Malcolm Butler’s goal-line interception, Zolak had lambasted the Seattle coaching staff on the air. Zolak had labeled the decision to throw the ball instead of handing it to the bruising running back Marshawn Lynch the worst play call in Super Bowl history.
Belichick explained to Zolak why it was not. He showed Zolak a play earlier in the game where the Patriots had used the same defensive package, and stuffed Lynch for a loss. When the Seahawks saw that personnel grouping on the field at the end of the game, passing the ball made sense.
“He wanted me to know as a broadcaster why it wasn’t the worst call in the history of the Super Bowl,” Zolak said. “He wanted me to learn.”
Educating Zolak also means informing the public. Zolak will be more knowledgeable not only for game broadcasts, but also on his daily sports radio show, “Zolak and Bertrand,” an amusing four-hour symposium with his co-host Marc Bertrand and the producer Jim Louth. On the show, they discuss everything from sports to pop music to shark research (Zolak’s least favorite subject), and Zolak shines as the archetype of the guy people want to chug beer(s) with.
“Before one of the Super Bowls in Arizona, we were in a sushi restaurant,” Louth recalled one day last week. “Half the Patriots’ coaching staff was in there, and so was Manny Ramirez. This was when the Red Sox were really good. But the fans who came in were chanting, ‘Zo, Zo, Zo.’ I was looking around thinking, What is going on here?”
Decades ago, when Parcells coached the Patriots, he quipped that the outsize Zolak needed to understand the difference between “being a quarterback and being the Zo.”
But if being “the Zo” hindered him as a player, it has only enhanced his post-playing career.
Faithful listeners adore Zolak’s bombast, his Everyman outlook and his playing-day yarns of locker room fights and beery weekends. But when he discusses the current Patriots, there is a collective lean-in toward the radio, because fans know Zolak has access to Belichick.
But talking about the Patriots for four hours a day requires Zolak to strike a critical balance, and he is keenly aware how closely Belichick scrutinizes the flow of information out of Gillette Stadium.
“I have to be careful,” Zolak said. “I’m on the plane, I’m in the back rooms. I see stuff. I talk to people. But I know the line and I don’t cross it. I think Bill respects I have a job to do. And we address controversies, too. We know what drives people to listen.”
Zolak also knows that at least some of his popularity is a result of the Patriots’ unprecedented success. Without the Patriots being so good and driving up interest, the legend of Zo might not be so big.
“Yeah, big,” Zolak said smiling. “Big is a good word.”
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