Cam Newton was pacing the SoFi Stadium sideline flashing his megawatt smile and waiting for the clock to run out when Berj Najarian, the team’s director of football and head coach administration, called on the star quarterback to command the TV camera for his post-game interview.
The plethora of positive moments the Patriots had been accustomed to during their dynasty dwindled and dispersed this past season. After handing the Los Angeles Chargers a 45-0 defeat on Dec. 6, there was a modicum of excitement and playoff hope for New England. It dissolved soon after, though, as the franchise finished with a 7-9 record and missed the postseason for the first time since 2008.
The last year has been an unusual one for everyone on the planet, especially for Newton, the Patriots in the post-Tom Brady era, as well as Najarian, who’s been billed by Patriots owner Bob Kraft as the team’s hidden weapon and characterized as a consigliere by former coach Bill O’Brien.
Immediately before his CBS interview, Newton glanced down and noticed Najarian’s shoes as part of the NFL’s “My Cause, My Cleats” campaign.Najarian’s custom design featured a church, cross-stone, Mount Ararat and the tricolors of the Armenian flag as a commemoration to his culture. Designed by Western Massachusetts-based airbrush artist Joseph Ventura, the footwear donned phrases like Recognize Artsakh, #PeaceForArmenians and a call for donations to Armenia Fund emblazoned on it. Little did anyone know that the shoes would soon become a NFL record-breaking item and a cultural phenomenon. Berj Najarian’s custom cleats designed by Joseph Ventura (Photo provided by Berj Najarian, courtesy of the New England Patriots)
Armenia is still piecing itself back together in the wake of a 44-day war waged by Azerbaijan and Turkey in the Republic of Artsakh. Several thousand soldiers died, and thousands of Armenians were displaced after sacred, centuries-old land, churches and history were lost in a ceasefire agreement arranged by Russia.
Despite the lack of national coverage from mainstream news outlets, Newton and the Patriots were very much aware of the conflict. During the season, Najarian presented a history of the Genocide-surviving nation and explained the current events as part of the team’s internal social justice campaign.
As a show of support, the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award nominee Newton literally took the shoes off Najarian’s feet and draped the cleats around his neck for the sports world to see while he was breaking down his team’s win. Newton’s nod to Najarian and Armenians was the latest showcase of The Patriot Way that coach Bill Belichick has forever fostered while building the franchise many have tried to model throughout the millennium.
“Awareness around the war was lacking, and I wanted to bring attention to it by telling the story of the Armenian identity through the shoes,” Najarian told The Armenian Weekly in an interview.
“I don’t wear my Armenian heritage on my sleeve in front of the team, but it hit me hard once the war was started by the perpetrators. It was an attack on everyone’s identity.”
The 50-year-old Najarian is considered Belichick’s closest confidant and his blind-side protector. Najarian is not a coach, but rather a behind-the-scenes fixer for all things football, logistics and day-to-day operations. From procuring music playlists at practice and assigning seating on team flights to acting as Belichik’s personal PR man and wall, there isn’t a task too small or tall that Najarian hasn’t tackled, all while seemingly joined at the hip with the greatest coach of all time en route to helping win six Super Bowl titles.
According to the Patriots media guide, Najarian “acts as a liaison across football and non-football departments. He manages several elements of head coach Belichick’s off-field agenda, including football and stadium operations, player and staff communications, scheduling and personal requests. In addition, Najarian manages various special projects in coaching and player personnel.” Najarian’s decades-long standing in the organization has garnered the respect of everyone who’s walked through Gillette Stadium.
With increased dialogue taking place throughout the NFL around social justice reforms after the death of George Floyd, Belichick, as well as Patriots players like defensive back Devin McCourty and special teams ace Matthew Slater, diversified their scope and used their platforms to champion Najarian by speaking out against a war being fought thousands of miles away.
The Boston area, specifically Watertown, has one of the largest Armenian populations outside of Armenia. Los Angeles, the site of which Newton’s gesture went viral throughout the global diaspora, is the nation’s most populous Armenian locale.
Slater is the son of Rams Hall of Fame player Jackie Slater and a UCLA alum who was born and bred in Los Angeles. He said it’s tragic and sad to witness what transpired in Armenia, and he’s doing his best to bring attention to the atrocities.
“It’s been great to have Berj open up with something like this, and to learn about his family and Armenian history. It really means a great deal,” Slater, a team captain who’s played on the team since 2008, told The Armenian Weekly. “For us, the key has been sticking together and supporting each other, trying to learn, trying to listen, and trying to love. 2020 presented a number of challenges for all of us. That’s at the root of what Berj is trying to do, and we understand that.”
Belichick has even surprisingly veered off his vanilla demeanor and stick-to-football attitude to stand by his right-hand man. “I hope that our country will take action against Turkey and Azerbaijan for their unprovoked and deadly attacks on Armenians,” Belichick said unprompted during a Nov. 18 press conference. “We’ve seen that when a humanitarian crisis and things like that, like ethnic cleaning, go unpunished, that they just continue to happen. I hope that we can put a stop to that.”
Belichick’s bond with Najarian is a special one dating back to their days with the New York Jets, when Belichick was a coach and Najarian was a PR representative for the team. As soon as Belichick got his gig in Foxborough in 2000, he brought Najarian along with him.
“I have learned that throughout Armenian history, regardless of any adversity or tragedy, the Armenian people have continued to thrive and persevere,” added Belichick, who shares an office next to Najarian. “I hope and pray for peace, justice and the safety of the brave soldiers that are fighting for their nation’s recognition and freedom.”
Najarian was standing a few feet away and was blown away by the backing he received from his boss, who even honored Najarian and commemorated the Armenian Genocide during his White House visit in 2015 by wearing a pin.
“For him to do everything, and the opportunities that he’s given me, I try to repay him every day with the work I do,” said Najarian. “He’s one of the most important people of my entire life. Bill’s seen a certain way on TV. He’s focused and serious when it comes to work, but he has a huge heart.”
President Donald Trump apparently took notice of Belichick’s non-football related efforts. The President was supposed to bestow the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Belichick this week, but it was an honor the coach ultimately declined. Whether or not the reason for Belichick’s honor from Trump was related to the coach’s remarks in support of Armenia is not entirely clear.
“I was flattered by out of respect for what the honor represents and admiration for prior recipients,” Belichick said in a statement. “Subsequently, the tragic events of [the pro-Trump rioters breaking into the US Capitol on Jan. 6] occurred and the decision has been made not to move forward with the award. Above all, I am an American citizen with great reverence for our nation’s values, freedom and democracy.”
Najarian declined to comment on Belichick’s decision to pass on the president’s prestigious award.
In somewhat of a Belichickian move he’s helped cultivate, Najarian has not been much of a talker throughout his career. He’s rarely made himself available for interviews, even for extended profiles for publications like The New York Times and Boston Globe.
Najarian made an exception to branch out of his comfort zone for the campaign, especially after Newton gave great attention to the cleats and its potential in the auction. Najarian even created an Instagram channel and curated content specifically for the cause. Countless compatriots as well as Patriots players past and present took notice.
“Armenia needs our help,” pass rusher Chase Winovich tweeted on Thanksgiving Eve in support of the first Christian nation. Eleven-year veteran wide receiver Julian Edelman also used his platform on social media to raise awareness around the shoes. So did Brady.
All of the efforts led toward a climactic conclusion to the auction on Jan. 6, the date of Epiphany, when the Armenian Apostolic Church celebrated Christmas.
The in-demand shoes were listed at $13,400 from a total of 74 bids. A bidding battle that looked like a classic overtime game then ensued.
As the day unfolded, 67 new offers came in, including a last minute back-and-forth contest that ultimately drove the donation to its final tally of a whopping 141 bids and $43,300—a record for the NFL’s “My Cause My Cleats,” which started back in 2016. The entire sum has already been transferred to the Armenia Fund.
“The entire experience went absolutely above and beyond my expectations,” said Najarian. “It was incredible and humbling to be a part of this. I was just the middleman and vehicle for the extreme generosity.” Najarian has since connected with the donor, but the winning bidder has opted to remain anonymous for now.
In comparison, Brady’s shoes finished at $10,300 and 26 bids, while Belichick’s were sold for $4,250 after 22 bids. NFL officials told The Armenian Weekly that Najarian’s record-setting auction bested Brady’s cleats record of $31,025 in 2017.
“Without more awareness of the humanitarian and human rights issues Armenians have suffered, there won’t be action for change,” said Najarian. “The donation is all about the recipients in Artsakh. The Armenian people suffered immensely through no fault of their own.”
The Artsakh War started when Azerbaijan attempted to gain control of the mountainous region internationally known as Nagorno-Karabakh. A heavier war between both sides also took place in 1994. The location has been populated and controlled by ethnic Armenians for centuries, but it sits inside Azerbaijan’s borders after the territory was annexed by Joseph Stalin after World War I.
“I’m passionate and proud of my heritage, history and identity,” said Najarian, who previously challenged President Barack Obama during his White House visits to use the word ‘genocide’ in reference to Armenia’s history to prevent further atrocities. “We’re seeing [Azerbaijan and Turkey] trying to repeat and rewrite history. I am fortunate to have everything my grandfather taught me still embedded in me. He was constantly on my mind during these efforts. He and his generation survived and re-created and that example of the Armenian spirit still lives on.”
The harrowing scenes and stories from the last few months were all too familiar for Najarian.
His grandfather Papken Kechichian lost both of his parents at the age of 10 during the Armenian Genocide of 1915 when over 1.5 million Amenians were killed by the Ottoman Empire. He was forced to live in an orphanage in Aleppo, Syria until he could start a family years later in France and then the US. Persevering past persecution has allowed for the Armenian culture and identity to run strong through the Najarian bloodlines. His father was a child psychiatrist who set up clinics that still exist today in the country after a devastating earthquake in 1988 ravaged the region and killed over 25,000 Armenians.
Najarian grew up in Long Island and graduated from Boston University. He was involved in the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF) and Camp Haiastan in Franklin, Mass. He even authored sports stories for The Armenian Weekly during his college years writing about the AYF, the organization in which his parents Louis and Elenne Najarian first met.
Najarian said his love for his own culture has allowed for him to weave that same fabric within the Patriots, all while preaching Belichick’s “Do Your Job” mantra.
“Our team culture is strong, and it’s been built by a lot of people over a long period of time. It carries on,” said Najarian.
“I’m fortunate and thankful to work for the Kraft family and coach Belichick, and be around the players. It was a collective effort of rallying around each other. It was special. I’m already looking for what’s next. There is a lot more work to be done for Armenia.”
Whether or not Newton’s starting services will be needed in New England next season remains to be seen, but the former league MVP and Super Bowl signal-caller showed his leadership skills and perhaps planted a firmer foothold within the organization when he portrayed the Patriot Way to perfection, all while scoring a new nation of fans along the way.
“Cam representing Berj’s cause and what’s going on in Armenia is huge,” said Slater. “I appreciate him for that. I think it speaks to how we approach this thing, and that’s as a family.”
Armenians back in the homeland will now have an opportunity to show their admiration of Najarian and company by portraying their fandom for the franchise. The Patriots sent a shipment of clothes totaling nearly 300 items to help Armenians brave the winter months. Most of the items were from Najarian’s personal collection.
“Even though we are a tiny country on the map, Armenians have an enormous and rich history,” said Najarian. “Now it’s about helping the present so the future could be bright.”
Najarian’s cleats campaign was designed to help stop Armenia’s tragic history from repeating itself.
What started as a mission at the balls of his feet ended up as one of the NFL’s improbable feats.