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100 Things Giants Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die
By Dave Buscema
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2012 Dave Buscema
All rights reserved.
The Duke and his Dad: The Mara Family Legacy
The 9-year-old boy departed the Sunday Mass with his family earlier that fall day in 1925, then they checked on his father's new business. Timothy Mara later told his son, Wellington, the franchise's price would have been worth it for "an empty store with chairs in it in New York."
When the family arrived, Wellington sat not in a chair but on the end of a bench full of imposing men. He saw not an empty store but a stadium with 27,000 people. And they all cheered for his father's new franchise, the New York Football Giants.
The 9-year-old's ears perked up when he heard a coach bark at players as he shoved them into the Giants' first game in New York, a 14–0 loss to Frankford.
For the rest of his life, Wellington Mara told this story.
"'Get in there and give 'em hell!'" the coach said.
"Boy," the 9-year-old thought, "this is a really rough game."
It was a rough game. A rough sport. It remains so in the 86 years since Mara followed his father into the Polo Grounds and a family legacy.
So let's start by looking through the eyes of Wellington Mara because, through all those years when he took over the franchise his father founded, there was always a glimpse of that 9-year-old boy.
* * *
Tim Mara did not set out to own a football team or eventually take his place in the inaugural Hall of Fame class. The legal bookmaker who grew up watching his parents scrape to make ends meet in the Lower East Side attempted to purchase part of boxer Gene Tunney's contract. That did not happen, but another conversation started about how the National Football League sought to start a team in New York City.
The price was right and Mara, despite his lack of football knowledge, founded a team that endured the struggling early days of the NFL, the Great Depression, and eventually grew large enough in stature and wealth to live up to the name Mara adopted from the city's National League baseball team.
Mara lost money early but helped save the franchise by setting up an exhibition game against Chicago and its legendary star Red Grange. Fans flocked to that game, and through the years Mara made several other moves to draw in more, including a short stint for Jim Thorpe as well as the purchase of an entire team for popular quarterback Benny Friedman.
Friedman helped turn the franchise around — and helped show Mara's philanthropic side as the Giants earned $115,000 in a charity exhibition game against Notre Dame and its Four Horsemen in 1930. The money went to the unemployed as posters besieged fans to "Smash that line! The Bread Line."
There were shameful early days, too. In 1926, Mara's Giants refused to take the field until Sol Butler, an African American player for the visiting Canton Bulldogs, agreed that he would not play, according to the accounts of African American newspapers and historians.
The Giants were also part of the league's unofficial ban on players of color, failing to sign their first black player until 1948, when Mara told Emlen Tunnell he would give him a tryout since the safety "had the guts" to seek one unannounced. Tunnell and the Mara family bonded, and the team later hired Tunnell as the first African American assistant coach in the NFL.
* * *
Wellington, 14, and his brother, Jack, 22, became the team's owners in name only in 1930 when their father attempted to protect his team from creditors during desperate financial times. The sons eventually took over the day-to-day operations and did not let go — except when Wellington served in the navy — until their deaths 40 years apart.
"His father wanted him to go to law school after his graduation from Fordham in 1937," John Mara said in his eulogy of his father, Wellington, in 2005. "'Just give me one more year with the team,' he pleaded. My grandfather agreed, and that number turned into 68."
Nearly everything there is to know, or suggestions on what to do, as a Giants fan can be seen through the eyes of that 9-year-old boy who became an 89-year-old patriarch.
Mara led the football side, his brother, Jack, led the business side. Nicknamed "The Duke of Wellington" by players when he started hanging around as a boy, The Duke grew into an NFL legend, whose nickname now adorns the official game ball in tribute.
He became as respected as he was present, always quietly taking in the action, looking for ways to improve the franchise without interfering with the team as it worked on the field.
The Duke was there for the famous Sneakers Game in 1934. He scouted Hall of Famer Tuffy Leemans in the '30s while in high school, and he drafted fellow Hall of Famers Frank Gifford and Roosevelt Brown in the '50s. He traded for stars that led the Giants to six championship games in the late '50s and early '60s, including Andy Robustelli, Y.A. Tittle, Dick Lynch, Del Shofner, and so many others.
He watched the Giants move from the Polo Grounds to Yankee Stadium, ushered them into Giants Stadium, and walked out of his son John's meeting on the future New Meadowlands Stadium by saying it had all become too complicated.
He was loved for his gentle spirit, admired for his faith, and respected for his earnest, even-handed ability to keep peace in a brutal sport.
From long-time trainer John Johnson remembering his old friend "Well" throwing Polaroid pictures of plays down from the Yankee Stadium press box to the field with weighted socks, to raucous tight end Jeremy Shockey rushing to the beloved owner's bedside before his death, Mara embodied the family business credo of "Once a Giant, Always a Giant."
"The Maras treated my wife and I like we were kings and queens," Tittle said, echoing the sentiments of so many Giants over the years. "The Mara family has always cared for their players, period. Period. They treat us so nice. That's the main thing, I think. Class organization, and the family is, too."
* * *
Mara loved the game almost as much as the people, but he wisely knew which order to maintain. His son, John, the team's current co-owner, once recalled a game when he was screaming while watching a player, wondering what on earth he was doing.
He felt his dad's hand on his shoulder.
"What he's doing is the best that he can," the father told his son.
There would be the glory of the '50s, when the Giants helped football reach across the city, then through the country while playing in one of the most famous games in the sport's history — the 1958 NFL Championship Game against the Colts.
There would be the relationships, as always, like Mara had with Gifford, who in 2003 threw a surprise party for The Duke. Knowing Mara's humility would keep him from attending such a party, Gifford told him the event was for Gifford's wife, Kathie Lee. Of course, Mara attended and everyone finally got to say thank you.
"He was as close to me as my father," Gifford said. "And then later he became like a brother. When I went into the Hall of Fame, he was my sponsor; when he went into the Hall of Fame, I was his. He was one of my dearest friends; he made a difference in my life."
He made a difference in so many lives, from the parking lot attendants to the Hall of Famers. Or at least he always tried. Lawrence Taylor often said through his bouts with drug abuse that Mara treated him better than he did himself. Former running back Joe Morris remembered Mara gently telling him he needed to "take care of yourself" as he battled weight problems after his career.
The 9-year-old was surely still in Mara when he helped the Giants sacrifice personal revenue for the good of the league in the early '60s when New York's large market could have commanded a much bigger share of the emerging television world. But Mara said they should all stick together. The result of such sacrifice might be of use to note for current owners and players.
The franchise and the league became worth well more than a store with some empty chairs.
While the Giants grew, Mara's ego did not. When fans wrote to him, he took time to respond, often calming an angry correspondent by writing back "in sorrow more than anger."
There were more joyful exchanges with Donald Thum, a fan who wrote the Giants owner for three decades and eventually became one more friend of Well's.
Mara endured the awful stretch in the 1970s when Giants fans, sick of losing during a stint of 18 playoff-free appearances, questioned his motives and burned him in effigy. Even Mara's eventual rebuke came with self-recrimination. "People said we were cheap and didn't care if we won because all our games were sold out," Mara told The New York Times years later. "That got under my skin. We weren't cheap. We were just stupid."
He endured the pain of embarrassing public battles with his nephew, Tim — his brother Jack's son — who inherited the team after his father's death in the '60s.
The Duke celebrated in the '80s when the Maras hired general manager George Young, who later brought in coach Bill Parcells and drafted the players who helped the Giants finally win one Super Bowl title, then another.
Mara savored his final championship on "this field of painted mud," as he said, after the 2000 NFC title game victory over Minnesota. When the Giants shocked the Patriots seven years later, everyone said the underdog team would have been one of Mara's favorites.
Center Shaun O'Hara keeps the funeral card of his former boss hanging in his locker because he can still remember the times Mara stopped by just to tell him he recognized the pain he endured when he battled an injury. "Just things like that kind of hit you hard," O'Hara said. "The fact that he knew what you were going through, took the time to acknowledge it, and thank me."
There are similarities in John Mara's understated manner, demand for accountability of effort from his team, and loyalty for his coach, as he showed to Tom Coughlin in 2010 by quickly squashing rumors about his job being in jeopardy.
But Giants fans who remember Wellington Mara's loyalty couldn't help but wish there were still those 9-year-old boy's eyes peeking behind the face of an old patriarch when the team moved to its new $1.6 billion stadium — and said it could only be financed by charging thousands of dollars for Personal Seat License fees that forced decade-old fans out of the stadium.
As the Giants entered the 2011 calendar year, the NFL dealt with concerns of a lockout off the field and the effects of concussions sustained on it.
The 9-year-old boy was right all those years ago.
The game can really be rough.
But it can be a lot easier to remember the joy it causes when you think of the 89-year-old patriarch who took care of the game by caring about the people who loved it as much as he did.
"I've figured it out," former punter and broadcaster Dave Jennings once told The New York Times. "Wellington Mara was the greatest Giant of them all."
Mourning The Duke
When Wellington Mara died in 2005, he took a piece of the organization's soul with him — one that fans, players, and staff still miss.
The Giants won the game two days before Mara died on a last-second touchdown pass from Eli Manning to Amani Toomer. In the locker room, the players chanted "Duke! Duke! Duke!"
In the first home game after Mara's death, Kate Mara, one of The Duke's 40 grandchildren, sang the national anthem in an emotional moment.
Then Tiki Barber, days after appearing at the owner's bedside, rushed for 206 yards against Washington in a 36–0 win. After the victory, the Giants presented the game ball to Wellington's son, John, the oldest of his 11 children, and the man who would take the reins.
"I think a lot of people just felt like," O'Hara said. "'You know what? We won that game for him.'"CHAPTER 2
Lawrence Taylor vs. LT
The nightmares came as if in fast-forward, sometimes at a speed the mind could not comprehend. The snarling, storming presence of awrence Taylor appeared in a blink like no linebacker before or since. In these nightmares that turned into reality on Sundays, Taylor was an unprecedented force known simply as "LT."
"I'm coming to get you!" he might yell in warning. "I'm going to kick your a--!"
The blocker? A formality. LT was on the quarterback or running back in an instant. He flew into view, unleashing an attack that went from stalking to conquest with a shocking jolt.
It was terrifying by football standards, because the hit so often came abruptly from a blind side, LT recklessly flinging his entire 6'3", 240-pound body onto his victim's back, his right hand clubbing down in his famous tomahawk motion, an attempt to devour the ball along with the ball carrier.
The nightmares began for opponents in LT's rookie season in the NFL, and warning ripples went out around the league. The No. 2 draft pick behind running back George Rogers angered his teammates by requesting the ridiculous sum of $250,000 a year. But when he started playing, he prompted even more ludicrous statements from those so viciously introduced to him.
"Who is this guy?" Steelers Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw later remembered thinking after facing LT in Taylor's rookie year, 1981. "He dang near killed me. He kept coming from my blind side and just ripped my ribs to pieces."
Packers offensive coordinator Bob Schnelker knew who the guy was before his team even played Taylor for the first time, comparing the 21-year-old rookie to all-time greats Dick Butkus and Ray Nitschke.
"Guys, let me tell ya, I've seen Butkus, I've seen Nitschke, I've seen 'em all," Schnelker told his team according to LT: Over the Edge, Taylor's 2003 autobiography. "He's better than all of 'em." Schnelker was proven right.
LT caused those nightmares his whole career, whether it was offensive linemen who prepared to play dirty just to get him the heck off their side of the field to quarterbacks who played with one eye staring downfield, the other twitching as it nervously scanned for No. 56.
"Where's LT?" they would all stammer before a play. "Where's LT?"
"He is the Michael Jordan of football," Giants teammate George Martin said the week of Taylor's Hall of Fame election in 1999. "There is just that dominance."
LT did not just dominate the NFL from his outside linebacker position. He altered it. "He changed the position of outside linebacker, plain and simple," former teammate and offensive lineman Karl Nelson said. "The typical linebacker dropped back into pass coverage. ... LT totally changed that. The outside linebacker became the blitzing position.
"The offenses had to change their offense because of LT. When I came into the league, running backs were responsible for outside linebackers. If you waited to do that with LT, give him a three-, four- step head start, he'd kill you. Started doing fan protection, get a big guy on LT quicker. It changed offenses."
Giants running back Joe Morris remembered watching LT in an early practice and shaking his head. "I've got to block this guy one- on-one? What the hell? He's running over tackles," the 5'7" Morris remembered thinking. "Didn't make sense to me. Who wants to block this guy by himself? Head coach Bill Parcells said. 'What are you gonna do if Lawrence blitzes on you?'"
"I'll do what I have to do," Morris recalled responding. "Bill looks at me and says, 'Yeah.'"
It was all so riveting that Taylor fed off the intoxicating world he created as LT, able to impose his will on anyone from opposing linemen to his disciplinarian Coach Parcells, who allowed his talented linebacker to play by a different set of rules.
"Let's go out there like a bunch of crazed dogs and have some fun," was not just something LT famously exhorted his teammates to do once; it was his credo.
The whole time, Giants fans scrambled to get their own No. 56 jerseys, happily escaping after another weary work week, shaking their heads in disbelief and pride at having one of the greatest football players to walk the planet on their team. "LT! LT! LT!" they deliriously chanted, and he ate up every moment.
Excerpted from 100 Things Giants Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die by Dave Buscema. Copyright © 2012 Dave Buscema. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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