By Kevin McNamara-PROVIDENCE — As the NFL’s annual free-agent derby opened last March, Bill Belichick was a busy man.
The Patriots coach huddled with personnel staff in his office at Gillette Stadium and weighed a host of moves. On the first day of free agency, the Pats rolled out a five-year, $65-million contract to land defensive back Stephon Gilmore. On the second, Belichick gave up his first-round pick in the NFL Draft in exchange for Saints wide receiver Brandin Cooks.
At the same time, Tim Gray was coaching the coach. In between phone calls on those critical days with other general managers, Belichick popped into a sound studio at Gillette to narrate Gray’s latest documentary film, “D-Day: Over Normandy.” The film makes its world premiere on Saturday at 1 p.m. at Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Providence.
“He was upstairs making calls and still took the time for us. He knocked it out of the park,” said Gray. “I remember telling my wife that night, ‘I was coaching Bill Belichick today.’”
So how does someone making his 19th documentary, most featuring the remembrances of World War II veterans, get Bill Belichick to help out? Gray has a certain skill in this department. Tom Selleck, Dan Aykroyd and Matthew Broderick have assisted on other projects, all of which Belichick was a fan of.
The Patriots coach grew up in Annapolis, Md., in the shadow of his father, Steve, a football coach at the Naval Academy and World War II Navy veteran. Patriots fans know all about the football impact Steve Belichick made on his Super Bowl champion son. What they may not appreciate is the bond shared by a veteran of the “Greatest Generation” and their families.
“Like millions of other men of his generation, my father, who passed away in 2005, served his country in World War II. Dad was in the United States Navy. He spent time in both Europe and the Pacific,” Belichick says at the start of the film.
This film is a different one for Gray because it features never-before-seen images from a drone that crews flew all over the Normandy region. Anyone who’s visited the French coast leaves wide-eyed at the majesty and height of the cliffs that the Allied Expeditionary Forces had to conquer, despite intense protection from the German army. The drone flies over present-day Utah and Omaha Beach, including the gripping Pointe du Hoc area where bombed out pill boxes that once housed German fighters highlight the ravages of the battle that took place on June 6, 1944.
Belichick’s narration is interspersed with interviews of the many D-Day veterans that Gray and his crew have procured over the last decade. He took five Rhode Island veterans back to the battle fields and the striking American cemetery that overlooks Omaha Beach and has returned several times since.
“You see what these guys were up against and there’s no way they should have succeeded,” Gray says. “I went over and just got hooked on the history, the challenges and the beauty of the area. I also met some incredible veterans and heroes.”
That’s a point that Gray says Belichick clearly appreciates as well. As the coach says in the film “the men and women of the World War II generation, such as my father, are responsible for all that we have today, including my own opportunity to be a professional football coach.”
After making his first film, “D-Day: The Price of Freedom” back in 2006, Gray sent a copy to Belichick at Gillette Stadium on a whim. He quickly received a note of thanks in return. “Now it’s become a tradition: I send him a preview copy of what we do and he watches it. He’s my Siskel and Ebert,” Gray says.
Before this project began, Gray decided to offer the coach the narrator role. “He immediately responded that he’d be honored to do it,” Gray said. “Bill is a military history guy, he knows the Battle of Midway, Pearl Harbor, the ins and outs of D-Day. He knows his stuff.”
Belichick and Patriots owner Robert Kraft have attended events benefitting the World War II Foundation, the non-profit that’s committed to educating future generations about the sacrifices of the World War II heroes. They’ve also hosted some of the men featured in Gray’s films for Patriots games in Foxboro.
“It’s personal for him,” Gray said. “He has a deep respect for his Dad and what those vets accomplished under unbelievable circumstances.”
Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich will speak before and after the film’s premiere on Saturday at the Vets. Tickets are $15 and veterans are admitted free with proper ID.