FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Too often we see Bill Belichick on autopilot.

Short, terse answers to media questions. Bland, cliched answers to other media questions.

There are times when he opens up, especially when asked something about NFL history, or even cracks a joke or a smile but too often he seems annoyed at having to spend time with the media.

And then there are times like Wednesday morning, when a very human Belichick showed up.

Meeting with a small group of New England media, Belichick opened the first two minutes of his press conference with a heartfelt tribute to Don Brocher, the Patriots’ equipment manager for the last 41 years.

Brocher passed away in the early hours of New Year’s Day after a battle with leukemia.

“I want to say, as a football team, an organization, we’re saddened by the loss of Donnie,” said Belichick. “You know, in a game where – we saw all the changes that were made Monday throughout the league – for somebody to be here for 40 years doing the job that he did for so many owners, coaches, general mangers, you name it, players, it was really a tribute to his dedication, consistency, dependability, the quality of work that he did.”

Belichick spoke highly of Brocher, who turned 60 on Nov. 23, and lived in Norton, Mass., with his wife, Laurie.

He spoke about the time, just six months ago, that Brocher sat in the head coach’s office, talking about how good he was feeling, that he was looking forward to another couple of years on the job and what he was looking forward to do beyond that.

But in August, Brocher didn’t travel with the team for a preseason game in Tampa, snapping a string of 834 consecutive Patriots games that he had worked.

He had started with the team as a ballboy in 1972 and was hired full time as an assistant equipment manager that fall. He was promoted to equipment manager in February 1994, shortly after Robert Kraft bought the team.

The Patriots issued a statement on Tuesday in which Kraft offered his condolences.

“He had fought this deadly disease so valiantly all season long,” said Kraft in the statement. “We were all optimistic that he would defeat it and fully recover. He was back on our sidelines just two weeks ago for our game against the 49ers and I can’t remember ever seeing him happier. I am glad I had that opportunity to thank him once again for his loyalty and countless contributions to the team.”

Belichick spoke about seeing Brocher at the 49ers game, played on Dec. 16 at Gillette Stadium.

“I don’t think anybody really has a sense of the physical and mental toughness he displayed that night by being here and doing his job and being here for us in that type of situation,” said Belichick. “That was kind of Donnie. He was never one to complain, never one to talk about how he was doing. He was just there to help the rest of us.

“We’ll miss him.”

From there Belichick spoke about how the Patriots, as a team, were going to use these next two days of practice during their playoff bye week to work hard to get better.

“We’ll try to focus on our improvement, execution, communication, different areas that we feel we need to work on,” he said.

Asked what specific areas he was referring to, Belichick slipped back to coach-mode.

“We’ve identified a lot of things,” he said. “Offense, defense, special teams, running game, passing game individual things. There are things we can all do better.

“Whatever level they’re at, we’re trying to make it better.”

Belichick spoke some about the Patriots’ defense, about what stats matter most (wins and points) and he commented briefly on the news of Ray Lewis’ retirement (“tremendous player, tremendous career”).

But it was much of the same ol’, same ol’ from Belichick.

That’s why his tribute to Brocher was nice to hear.

It reminded us all that Belichick does care about things other than just winning and football.

Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at:

mlowe@pressherald.com

Twitter: MikeLowePPH