HOUSTON – The most famous pencil in the NFL – which may also be the only pencil in the NFL – is a wood-cased, Dixon Ticonderoga No. 2.
It sits, as always, stuffed behind the right ear of Matt Patricia, the defensive coordinator for the New England Patriots.
It’s become a notable, if odd, football image thanks to the camera time Patricia gets as he works the sideline, such as New England’s matchup with the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday in Super Bowl LI. Patricia casts a memorable figure: a burly guy, with a big bushy beard, a hat turned backward and a half-worn pencil in his ear.
The pencil isn’t just for show though. It’s there when Patricia is roaming the hallways of the Patriots’ facility, or when he is breaking down game footage in a quiet meeting room or even here on Monday, for no particular reason, as the 42-year-old met with the media. He apparently always has it.
“That way I know where it is at all times,” Patricia notes.
What Bill Belichick has done for the hooded sweatshirt, Patricia is doing for the humble pencil. Football is a game that is forever advancing forward. Technology is everywhere – big data systems, GPS devices on players, advanced metrics, virtual reality cameras, you name it.
Should Patricia want, he could do everything he needs on a Microsoft Surface Pro tablet that the company provides to the league as part of a promotional campaign. While Belichick this season famously swore off the tablets in a tirade against technology, Patricia still uses those, just not during the action of the game. If he needs to jot something down, he prefers to reach for some graphite (there is no actual lead in the pencils, according to the company).
Dixon Ticonderoga has been around for over 200 years, with facilities in the United States and around the globe. Generations of school children have used them. This is an industry that is effective, yet rarely exciting – no offense to the 11-step process that turns a 4-inch by 4-inch post of cedar into something ready for filling standardized test bubbles.
So when told Tuesday morning its pencils had reached the glamorous Super Bowl, executive assistant Donna Cochran said, “Wait, really?”
Based in the Orlando, Fla. area, it counts among its executives Lee Corso, the former college coach turned ESPN broadcaster. Corso holds one of the pencils in his hand when on the set of “College GameDay,” often pointing it for effect.
“Old school,” Patricia said with a laugh. “For me, its kind of funny. I am a technology guy, too.”
Of course he is. He graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York with a degree in aeronautical engineering. He is, literally, a rocket scientist, although he likes to keep it simple.
“I am an engineer by trade,” he said, which is true although he’s a football coach by profession.
Patricia worked as an engineer for Hoffman Air & Filtration Systems in East Syracuse, N.Y., which built among other things, blowers that add oxygen in wastewater treatment plants, oil refineries, chemical facilities and power plants. That was the mid-1990s, though.
A football player at RPI, Patricia decided he really wanted to coach. After a few stops he wound up in New England in 2004, a low-level staffer for Belichick. By 2014, he’d risen to defensive coordinator. He’s now one of the hottest head-coaching candidates in the league – the Pats ranked fourth in total defense this season. His preferred writing method hasn’t changed since he was a student.
“A lot of mechanical pencils through college,” he said.
Belichick gets credit here too for unknowingly pushing the pencil. One of the challenges Belichick gives young coaches is something called “padding.” A coach needs to watch an opponent’s play on film and draw it out on a pad of paper – not merely a diagram or a simple X and O, but an elaborate and painfully accurate rendition of what happened. It can routinely take 15 minutes per play. Then it’s on to the next one. And the next.
It’s a brutally precise task and serves multiple goals. First and foremost there is the accurate scouting. Belichick also figures someone who can handle padding automatically shows not just the football smarts but the mental focus to live up to his exacting standards. For the young coach, whether they realize it at the time or not, this is a lesson in fundamentals that can carry them forever.
“The time that is involved, when you look at it you’re like, ‘Wow, this is such a grind, it’s hard, it takes a long time,’ ” Patricia said. “But when you look back on it and you’ve been through the process, you see how valuable that was, how much you learned, how important it was for your process as a coach.”
And because Patricia was always drawing out plays when he got to New England, the pencil came in handy. He began putting them behind his ear and walking around that way all day long.
“I just found through those drawings, the good old fashion pencil [was best]. You can sharpen it really nice and just get that right deal,” Patricia said. “We are always writing things down. It’s just kind of handy.”
It wound up on the sideline and thus on national television a lot. He isn’t the only coach with a writing utensil out there. Others seem to prefer markers, highlighters and pens, though. No one else prominently rests a pencil by his headset.
“I like the pencil because the pencil works in all weather,” Patricia said. And if it gets dull, “you can just pick the wood and it’s all good.”
When he becomes a head coach, there is probably an endorsement deal in there somewhere. Dixon Ticonderoga CEO Tim Gomez is already looking to send Patricia some of the company’s signature 25-inch pencils and perhaps a six-foot promotional one.
Right now, Patricia serves as a point of inspiration for STEM Clubs (science, technology, engineering and math) across the country. Engineers have long changed the world, so football was inevitable. It’s nerds-no-more if a Super Bowl coach is one of them.
“I do get a lot of actually pretty cool letters from people who are either working in engineering or science or whatever and are just interested and curious with what I did,” he said. “It’s very flattering.”
And so there it is, the unlikely coach and his unlikely pencil, ready for another Super Bowl. He said the Patriots place a big order with Dixon Ticonderoga that not even an extended playoff run can exhaust.
“We’ve got a bunch of them,” Patricia said. “Our supply guys do a good job.”
They don’t miss a thing up in Foxborough.
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