Most Americans are familiar with the New England Patriots football team and their coach Bill Belichick. However, only a few people have heard of Coach Belichick’s right-hand man and long-time friend—Berj Najarian. As the Patriot’s Director of Football and Head Coach of Administration, Mr. Najarian is often at Coach Belichick’s side and remains a close confidant.
Granted, this season did not go well for the Patriots as their 7 - 9 season resulted in the team missing the post-season playoffs for the first time since 2008. Nevertheless, something remarkable occurred this season when Cam Newton (who replaced Tom Brady as quarterback) responded to Berj Najarian’s current plight to try and help the Armenian people who have suffered greatly during its recent war with Azerbaijan. I am not going to get into the details of the war here, but for more information one can simply go online and find a plethora of current reports.
Cam Newton used his post-game interview to talk about and display the Patriot’s “My Cleats, My Cause” campaign. 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, stone crucifix, 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.
As for Najarian, he stays out of the limelight. He does not do interviews or talk about what he does for the Patriots. He is mostly a quiet, behind-the-scenes type of guy who remains humble yet focused. The Patriot’s owner, Robert Craft, described Berj Najarian as the team’s hidden weapon. Like many American Armenians, Berj has never forgotten to water his roots and pay his respects to his Armenian ancestors.
Najarian did make 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.”
If this is what the “Patriot Way” represents, I am all for it!
Many thanks to Manouk Akopyan for his excellent research and writing. I used several excerpts of his article to reproduce the above.
Bruce David Badrigian