But not many people have declined the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“Very few have done it, whether it was out of modesty or for special circumstances,” said E. Fletcher McClellan, a professor of political science at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania who has written about the history of the medal.
Mr. Belichick’s refusal to accept the award “is by far the most public and significant rejection,” Professor McClellan said.
Here are the others who have turned down presidential honors.
In 1946, President Harry S. Truman awarded the medal, then known simply as the Medal of Freedom, to Moe Berg, a former Major League Baseball catcher who played for the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Boston Red Sox and was fluent in at least half a dozen languages, including German and Japanese.
His gift for languages and fast wit made him an ideal spy during World War II, when he was tasked with learning whether the Nazis were making an atomic bomb.
The mission was so risky that Berg was given a cyanide tablet that he could swallow in case he was caught, according to “The Catcher Was a Spy” by Nicholas Dawidoff.
When Berg learned he had been awarded the Medal of Freedom, he declined to accept it.
In a note to a colonel, he said the story of his “humble contribution” could not be divulged.
“The medal embarrasses me,” he added, according to Mr. Dawidoff’s book.
She added: “He did not spy and risk his life every day for his country for a medal. He did it so Nazism could be defeated.”
Berg’s sister later accepted the medal on his behalf and donated it to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
President John F. Kennedy created the Presidential Medal of Freedom as it is known today.
When Truman established the Medal of Freedom during his administration, it was meant to honor people who had demonstrated notable service during war.
In February 1963, Kennedy reintroduced it as the Presidential Medal of Freedom, an honor that would be bestowed at the discretion of the president for various types of service and achievements.
He and Jacqueline Kennedy, the first lady, designed the new medal together, said Kyle Kopko, an adjunct professor at Elizabethtown College who has helped to maintain a database of recipients.
President Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963, before the new medal was unveiled.
When President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded the medal to him posthumously, he sought to include Ms. Kennedy in the honor.
She declined to accept it, however, most likely because she wanted to make her husband “the focal point of the honor,” Professor Kopko said.
Since 1963, more than 600 medals have been awarded, Professor McClellan said.
He said he was hard-pressed to think of others who had rejected the award.
“If there was a phone call to a figure who was told, ‘You’re getting the medal,’ and that figure said, ‘No thanks,’ we don’t have any record of that,” Professor McClellan said.
President Truman famously said he would rather get the Medal of Honor, a military honor, than be president.
But in 1971, he blocked an attempt by the House of Representatives to give him the medal.
In a letter to Congress, he wrote, “I do not consider that I have done anything which should be the reason of any award, Congressional or otherwise.”
The Medal of Honor, the country’s highest award for military valor in action, is traditionally presented by the sitting president.
Truman served as an artillery officer during World War I, but his note to Congress suggested that he felt that accepting an award meant for “combat bravery” would detract from the honor, according to a May 1971 article in The New York Times.
“This does not mean I do not appreciate what you and others have done, because I do appreciate the kind things that have been said and the proposal to have the award offered to me,” Truman wrote. “Therefore, I close by saying thanks, but I will not accept a Congressional Medal of Honor.”