Just outside the breakers, low enough to make out the silhouettes of the aviators, aircraft descend as they approach Naval Air Station North Island. Tourists on the gorgeous, golden sand gaze in wonder as the pilots skillfully touch down on a narrow strip just north of the beach.
Nicknamed “the birthplace of naval aviation” in 1963, North Island has been training pilots since 1917. Among the thousands of pilots to come through the base over the years were George Bellinger and his son, John. The elder Bellinger graduated from the Naval Academy in 1932, with John following in his father’s footsteps in 1956. Their legacy nearly convinced their grandson, SDSU star tight end Daniel Bellinger, to become a Midshipman out of high school.
“Very close,” Daniel Bellinger replied when asked how close he was to attending Navy. “I, definitely, had a tough time trying to decide. My grandpa was on my phone every day trying to push me to go to the Naval Academy. Both were great opportunities – to go to San Diego State or the Naval Academy – so I was blessed to have both. I was very close to going to the Naval Academy, but I couldn’t really beat the weather in San Diego, and it was close to home.”
Mostly due to the relationships he formed with the coaching staff, Bellinger chose to become an Aztec, even spurring an eleventh-hour offer from the University of California Berkeley. Cal’s head coach Justin Wilcox personally called Bellinger to try and lure him away from SDSU after the Las Vegas native had verbally committed.
Arriving on Campus
When Bellinger arrived on campus, he was not the hulking specimen who weighed in at 252 pounds at the Senior Bowl last week.
“I remember seeing this tall, skinny kid from Vegas come in,” former teammate and Arizona Cardinal Parker Houston said this week. “As a northern Nevada guy, I had to give him a hard time about it. But he came in ready to work and had good football IQ, so I was glad we had someone like him in our tight end room.”
In addition to Houston, Kahale Warring, now with the Jacksonville Jaguars, was on the roster, along with four players who had been with the program for a year and the crown jewel of the 2018 recruiting class, fellow freshman Nic McTear. The older players in the program taught him subtle tricks to the trade like how to take care of his body before and after practice, hand placement when blocking, and how to be precise with his footwork. Bellinger was an eager student.
Despite only weighing 220 pounds, he worked his way onto the field as the third tight end in jumbo sets. His first game came on the road against #24 Boise State. SDSU defeated the Broncos 19-13 behind one of the best defensive performances in school history and a 72 yard run by Jordan Byrd. Bellinger played the first two snaps of his career that day. His first play as an Aztec would be prescient of his career. Chase Jasmin scored a touchdown on a two-yard run, with Bellinger perfectly sealing a blitzing linebacker off the edge.
The pride of Palo Verde High would go on to play 57 more snaps as a true freshman, making his first start in the Frisco Bowl against Ohio University. In the offseason, he completely transformed his body. Most players use a redshirt season to gradually add weight. Bellinger only had seven months. Waking up at 4 or 5 AM most days, he would down a sandwich or drink a protein shake to increase his calorie intake. The gorging worked. He weighed 30 pounds heavier his sophomore year. “Adam Hall showed him he could get a lot more out of himself than Daniel believed possible,” Frank Bellinger, Daniel’s father, told EVT.
“Coach Hall did a great job,” Bellinger said. “When we first came … trying to get us mentally ready for Aztec football. He’s been preaching ever since we’ve been there that we don’t win [at SDSU] because of talent. We win based off grit and the hard work that we put in. … Coach Hall really pushes you to get there. If you don’t get there, he’s going to make sure that you hear it. His coaching is fantastic.”
Bellinger’s frame was not the only transformation. The offense switched to the spread formation. With Warring gone to the NFL, he formed a tight end duo with Houston starting 11 of the 13 games. The young tight end shook free from his blocking reputation, hauling in a pair of deep receptions late of the season. His 25-yard score against BYU at the end of 2019 was the final Aztec touchdown in Jack Murphy Stadium.
A Day that Lived in Infamy
When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, it changed the course of American history and the personal path of the Bellinger family. Believing they had struck a decisive blow to the US fleet, Japan’s high command thought the US would be on the defensive for at least six months. Instead, in less than eight weeks, the might of the United States was brought to bear on the bases on the outskirts of the Japanese Empire.
Leaving San Diego in January of 1942, the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown escorted a convoy tasked with dropping 5,000 marines off to strengthen the forces at America Samoa. After leaving Samoa at the end of the month, they sailed towards Jaluit Atoll, part of the Marshall Islands, to engage in the first offensive of the war.
Lt. George Bellinger flew in one of 28 planes – 11 torpedo bombers and 17 scout bombers – under the command of Curtis S. Smiley. They caught the base completely by surprise and met little resistance on their approach. Due to horrible weather conditions that limited visibility, they were forced to unload their payloads at under 1,000 feet and likely met antiaircraft fire.
With their mission, a success, the squadron returned to the Yorktown. Several of the planes had fewer than two gallons of gas in their tanks when they landed back on board. Out of the 28 planes, six did not return, including Bellinger’s bomber. To the left is a photo of the newspaper clipping announcing that he was missing in action.
The raid of the Marshall Island was not a strategic success, but it ended a string of victories for the Japanese after Pearl Harbor and served as a morale boost for the war effort.
14 years after losing his father, John Bellinger graduated from his father’s alma mater. He flew the Lockheed P-3 Orion in Vietnam. He was stationed in Coronado when his son, Frank, was born. A self-proclaimed “Navy brat,” Frank attended all of Daniel Bellinger’s games his senior season except the Aztecs’ trip to Hawaii. He was on-hand to watch his son at the Senior Bowl last week in Mobile, Alabama. Frank’s advice to Daniel as he navigates the draft process has been to act like a Bellinger.
Junior and Senior Seasons
While applied in areas far less important than his grandfathers, Daniel Bellinger showed his family’s character in his final two years at SDSU. Following a coaching change and the hiring of Jeff Hecklinski as the new offensive coordinator, the world tested positive for Covid.
Only a year removed from the discipline of waking up before dawn to start his calorie intake for the day, Bellinger was faced with another test. He had to learn a new playbook through Zoom while quarantining in his home except to go practice and get his essential needs from the store.
In the shortened 2020 season, Bellinger finished with 21 receptions in a disappointing 4-4 season for the Aztecs. With 14 of his receptions coming in the final four games of the season, he appeared poised for a breakout year in 2021.
All offseason, the talk from everyone was how dangerous of a receiver Bellinger was. Every quarterback in the QB competition, defensive players, and coaches raved about the matchup nightmare the senior Team Captain had grown into. Six to eight targets a game was the stated goal for Bellinger as he developed into a threat after the catch and in passes of all depths.
As the season progressed and the same issues in the passing game remained, however, the promise of Bellinger’s season never materialized. His preseason goal of being more dangerous after the catch was realized. He improved his yards after catch per reception from 2.6 in 2020 to 9.1 in 2021. With limited opportunities to catch passes, however, his overall stats did not improve significantly.
For some, the disparity between potential and actuality would have been seen as a broken promise that would linger and lead to divisiveness inside the locker room. But not for Daniel. He is, after all, a Bellinger.
“It can get frustrating, but personally, I did not let it get frustrating,” Bellinger explained about his lack of targets. “There were several conversations with coach Heck[linski] and coach Savai’i. … I talked to them one-on-one, ‘I can get the ball 100 times. I can get the ball zero times. Whatever gets us the win, gets us the win.’ … It was not my personal goals that mattered the most, it was the team that mattered the most. (Winning) was exciting. … It wasn’t as frustrating as some people may think. It’s easy to sit there and say, ‘I’m not getting touches. I’m not getting the ball.’ At the end of the day, you look in the mirror and say, ‘I’m a leader on a winning team. There’s nothing more I could ask for.’”
Next Steps in his Career
The fewer targets and receptions during his career on the Mesa did not cost him opportunities in the NFL. Bellinger was invited to the Senior Bowl, the premier college football showcase. Shortly thereafter, he was given the chance to participate in the NFL Scouting Combine. These events, plus SDSU’s Pro Day, provide him as good a chance to audition for the next level as he could have had anywhere in the country.
“I think he had a really good career at SDSU,” Houston said. “As a run-first offense, he proved he could block anyone he went against. I know he can be a good receiving tight end as well. He tracks the ball well, and it’s going to take more than one guy to bring him down.”
At the Senior Bowl, Bellinger’s teammates voted him the top tight end on his team. He mingled with the best players in the country and fully realized he belonged among their ranks. The Combine is next at the beginning of March and SDSU’s Pro Day a few weeks after that. If all goes well, he will hear his name called in the draft in late April.
“I try and text him as much as I can to see how things are going and how he’s doing,” Houston added. “If I could pass on one piece of knowledge, it would be, ‘It’s a different world in the NFL, but at the same time, it’s just football. Prove to them why you deserve a contract. Do it the Blood In, Blood Out Way, and you’ll have a great career.’ … Belli is a great guy. I can’t wait to add his NFL jersey to the collection.”
The past four generations of Bellingers have graced San Diego. The first three lived at Naval Air Station North Island, with the latest stationed 13 miles northeast at SDSU. With the character, work ethic, and leadership displayed the past four seasons as an Aztec, the youngest Bellinger has brought pride to his family’s name. Coming from a heritage of naval aviators, Daniel Bellinger’s NFL career is about to takeoff.