Gridiron Dawg rings up success in the NFL

Joe Judge is a bit of a ring collector, though you wouldn’t know it by looking at his hands.

There’s his wedding band, representing 10 years of marriage to his college sweetheart. His two college football national championship rings and a Super Bowl ring he earned as a coach, however, are locked away out of sight and out of mind. Because settling, Judge said, is not an option.

“The Super Bowl ring is in a safety deposit box, and that’s where it will stay until I pass it down to my sons,” he said. “Those are things you enjoy for a short time, but then you have to get focused and driven for the next season.”

Judge, a former gridiron Bulldog, recently completed his first season as special teams coach for the New England Patriots, helping lead the team to its fifth straight American Football Conference Championship berth. He joined the Patriots’ staff as an assistant special teams coach in 2012 and earned his ring in the team’s Super Bowl victory over the Seattle Seahawks in 2015.

New England, since winning its first Super Bowl in 2001, has become one of pro-football’s standard bearers for success. For the high-energy Judge, a self-proclaimed football junkie, reaching for that success is addictive. His special teams units—often ranked near the top in the NFL in kicking, returning and coverage—respond to that philosophy.

“It comes down ultimately to having good players, and we have smart, tough football players,” Judge said. “Our guys are very motivated, and they are bought-in. I look at it as my job to be a good teacher because I can’t just sit around being a cheerleader.”

When he’s not helping build the next Patriot’s title run, Judge spends his time in the Foxboro, Massachusetts, area, raising a family. But when he enters his New England home, wearing Patriots garb symbolizing how far he’s come, he sees evidence of where he’s been: vases full of cotton blossoms, decorative cowbells and a picture of the outline of Mississippi on the wall with a star locating Starkville.

A native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Judge came to Mississippi State as a backup quarterback in 2000, playing three seasons for Coach Jackie Sherrill and one for Sylvester Croom. He never broke through to starting quarterback but found his place on special teams, first as a holder for the place kicker and ultimately as special punt protection.

Judge knew he wanted to be a coach, so he started soaking up knowledge like a sponge, something that caught Sherrill’s attention right away, especially during special teams meetings.

“He paid attention, learned what I was teaching and grasped it better than the other players,” Sherrill said. “There was no question he was a true student of the game. I tell all my former players to find something they can do better than anyone else. Joe has the knowledge and insight to be a special teams coach. That’s why he has the job he has.”

Judge served two years as a graduate assistant for Croom, expanding that knowledge base. However, after graduation, football coaching jobs weren’t immediately forthcoming for the three-time letterman with a bachelor’s in history and a master’s in instructional technology. He served a brief stint as the kindergarten physical education teacher at West Point Elementary before he got a call to join the coaching staff at Birmingham Southern.

From there, his career took off, as he moved on to join Nick Saban’s staff at Alabama as an analyst. In his three years in Tuscaloosa, from 2009 to 2011, the Crimson Tide won two national championships.

Judge left Alabama for a special teams coaching job at Southern Mississippi, but after just a few months in Hattiesburg, Patriots’ head coach Bill Belichick, who had heard about Judge from Saban, came calling.

Belichick had nothing but praise for the 34-year-old, whom he promoted to lead the special teams unit in February 2015.

“Joe has his own style, but he’s very well prepared, very thorough, has great experience in the kicking game and all of the situations and techniques, both with the specialists and all the other positions on the field,” Belichick said. “Joe and I spend a lot of time together. I think he’s a great young coach.”

Transitioning from the college coaching lifestyle to the pros wasn’t difficult for Judge. He said coaching involves the same fundamentals and tireless hours of attention regardless of the level. It’s hardest on his wife, former MSU soccer captain Amber Meesey, and their four children.

“There are whole weeks during the season when I don’t see my children awake. They sometimes call our home ‘Mommy’s house’ and the stadium ‘Daddy’s house,’” he said. “Your family goes through the highs and lows with you. They feel the wins and losses just like you do. The key is to make sure they know they’re a part of it.”

Judge met Meesey, a Texas native, at Mississippi State and they started dating their freshman year. The two married and started their family in Starkville while Judge was earning his master’s, and he said it was a place he’d like to return to someday. He’s considering completing a doctoral degree in education at MSU and said his children are interested in one day following in their parents’ academic—and maybe even athletic—footsteps. He admits, though, it might be best if their athletic prowess came from their mom.

“She was a way better soccer player than I was a football player,” Judge said.

In the meantime, Judge said his family tries to visit Starkville as often as possible. They’ve even penciled in a trip for Super Bulldog Weekend in April, where Joe and Amber can share even more Bulldog tradition with their brood.

“MSU has given a lot more to me than I’ve given to it,” Judge said. “Hopefully, I’ll be able to return the favor at some point.”

By Zack Plair | Photos Provided