Thomas Dimitroff began his NFL career on the ground floor in the truest sense.
Dimitroff, general manager of the Atlanta Falcons, got his start working on the grounds crew for the Cleveland Browns, pulling tarps, mowing and raking, painting lines on the practice fields and the like. What’s more, those Browns were coached by Bill Belichick, whose New England Patriots will face the Falcons in Super Bowl LI on Sunday at NRG Stadium.
Despite his meager beginnings, Dimitroff had a leg up on his career as an NFL talent evaluator. His late father, Tom Sr., was a longtime scout for the Browns.
“I went to Japan for a few months with a buddy and coached a corporate team,” said Dimitroff, 50, who grew up in Canada and played defensive back for the University of Guelph in Ontario, before briefly scouting in the Canadian Football League and World League.
He came back to the U.S., lived with his parents in Cleveland, and pondered his next move. His dad basically told him that if he wanted to get a job in the NFL, which had been the young man’s lifelong dream, it was now or never. So he took a job on the grounds crew, and that’s where he met up-and-coming Browns scout Scott Pioli, now his assistant general manager in Atlanta.
Dimitroff would work the practice fields during the day, then watch tape at night to keep his evaluation skills sharp.
“Here I’d have paint all over me, smelling like I’d been traveling Europe for 10 days, and Scott and I would just talk football,” Dimitroff said. “That was the beginning of a really cool and deep relationship with Scott.”
Fast-forward two decades and Dimitroff, Pioli and Belichick are central figures in the most intertwined of Super Bowls. The two Atlanta executives had helped assemble the Patriots — Pioli was GM in New England, drafting Tom Brady, and Dimitroff worked for him — and Belichick gave both of them their start in the pros.
Said Belichick of Dimitroff: “He works hard. He knows the game. He did a real good job for us with skill players, defensive backs, receivers, linebackers, running backs, things like that. I’d say the stamp on the team, the thing that I would notice the most is just the speed, the team speed that the Falcons have.”
The ultra-fit and stylish Dimitroff is a fascinating character, a guy with a hipster vibe who resides at the opposite end of the sartorial spectrum from the hoodie-shrouded Belichick. Not only is he a longtime vegan who only recently introduced fish into his diet, but Dimitroff is a passionate cyclist who was fielding congratulatory texts from Lance Armstrong and others during the NFC championship game against Green Bay. As Sports Illustrated humorously noted a few years ago, Dimitroff is likely the only NFL GM who shaves his legs.
“I do love cycling,” he said. “It keeps me sane.”
Dimitroff has endured lots of undulations in his Tour de Falcons. He has had notable successes, drafting franchise fixtures such as quarterback Matt Ryan, receiver Julio Jones, tackle Jake Matthews, cornerback Desmond Trufant, and running back Devonta Freeman. He also has had brutal hill climbs, including going 10-22 in the 2013 and 2014 seasons, which resulted in coach Mike Smith, his good friend, losing his job.
Last season, their first under Coach Dan Quinn, the Falcons started 5-0 before hitting the wall and going 3-8 the rest of the way. Another brutal hill to pedal. By comparison, this season has been a gentle glide, with the team going 11-5, leading the league in scoring, securing the No. 2 seed, and beating Seattle and the Packers to reach the Super Bowl for the second time in franchise history.
“During these last three years, people would say, ‘Well, you signed up for this,’” Dimitroff said. “I say, ‘I believe when I signed up for this, I signed up for a year on the hot seat, not three.’ So I’m very appreciative of [Falcons owner Arthur Blank] for having faith in me, and Dan Quinn for 100% accepting this partnership at the outset. We’ve worked on it, and it’s been a really easy bond.”
Dimitroff’s father died of kidney cancer at age 60 in 1996. Father and son had distinctly different personalities, and would frequently butt heads.
“He was a meat-and-potatoes man’s man all the way,” Dimitroff recalled. “Tough, hard-nosed football coach. I remember when he first realized that I was vegetarian, he wouldn’t let up. But as he started realizing my personality, which is I feel, humbly speaking, principled and focused and dedicated to whatever I’m focused on.”
Toward the end of Tom’s life, the two had a series of meaningful conversations, with the father encouraging his son to stay the course and stick to his beliefs.
“My dad meant the world to me as far as my mentor,” Dimitroff said. “People ask me, ‘What coach meant the most to you?’ And my dad, as hard-assed as he was, I respected everything he taught me along the way. It wasn’t always an easy journey with him.
“So I think he would be very much, ‘Well done, son. Well done.’ ”
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer