From Suffolk to the Super Bowl
Published 7:17 pm Saturday, September 13, 2014
Drive, sacrifice and the desire to be part of a football program have helped Ivan Fears become part of one of the most successful franchises in NFL history.
Fears, who grew up in Suffolk, currently serves as the running backs coach for the New England Patriots, a team he has now been with for over 17 years.
He is entering his 38th year of coaching football, including his 24th in the NFL, but was clear that his present run with the Patriots, beginning in 1999, has been the highlight of his career.
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“We’ve been able to turn this thing around,” Fears said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to be here when we were down and watch it develop into one of the best programs around.”
The Patriots went 8-8 in 1999, then 5-11 in 2000 during head coach Bill Belichick’s first year with the team. The next year, they went 11-5 and won Super Bowl XXXVI, beginning an era of unparalleled Patriots success that has included 11 division championships, five conference championships and three Super Bowl wins.
Fears has been a key contributor to this success.
“Ivan has been here longer than any of us and for good reason,” Belichick said. “He is an outstanding teacher and motivator. I think every one of his players, whether he has been in the league 10 weeks or 10 years, would say Ivan knows how to get the most out of them. Ivan is one of the consistent, dependable rocks of our coaching staff.”
He was a receivers coach in the NFL until switching over to running backs in 2002. In 2001, he helped receivers Troy Brown and David Patten have career years.
Since then, his impact on the running attack has helped New England finish among the top 10 teams in offense in nine out of the last 10 seasons.
Long before he was guiding NFL players, Fears got his own playing career rolling locally. Though born in Portsmouth, he was raised in the Suffolk community of Belleville.
He said playing high school football was the thing to do then, and his older brother, Dennis Fears, served as a role model.
“He was pretty successful as a running back, and I got the bug after that,” Ivan Fears said.
His first opportunity came at John Yeates High School.
“I got a chance to play as an eighth-grader there on the junior varsity team for a couple years,” he said.
He moved up to varsity his sophomore year, playing running back, a position he held for the remainder of his playing days.
Fears was an all-state selection as a senior and was named Player of the Year in the Peanut District each of his last two years.
He was recruited by larger schools like the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech, but ended up accepting an offer from the College of William & Mary, preferring the smaller size and proximity to home.
Fears suffered a knee injury in his freshman year but then completely blew it out in his junior season. The doctor told him he wouldn’t clear him to play anymore.
“It was kind of a hard year for me,” he said.
Fears wanted to be part of the program, and Tribe coach Jim Root asked him be a student coach.
“After my senior year, during the spring right before graduation, (Root) asked me to join the staff,” Fears said.
He coached receivers in 1977 and then quarterbacks in 1978-79 before being hired on at Syracuse University as a receivers coach, where he worked from 1980-1990.
When Syracuse head coach Dick MacPherson was hired on with the Patriots, “He asked me to join him, and I followed him to New England,” Fears said.
Fears coached receivers there through 1992 and then with the Chicago Bears through 1998 until returning to the Patriots.
He was hesitant to share how long he spends at work during the season because he did not think it would seem believable, underscoring how competitive the league is.
“There’s no punch-out clock,” he said. “Whatever it takes to get the work done, that’s how long you’re going to be there.”
But his habit of working days that begin before 5 a.m. and end around 11 p.m. also underscores his passion for the game and desire to fulfill that fundamental job requirement — win.
And the Patriots have had plenty of firsthand experience with that.