Big Blue Wrecking Crew: Smashmouth Football, a Little Bit of Crazy, and the '86 Super Bowl Champion New York Giants

Big Blue Wrecking Crew: Smashmouth Football, a Little Bit of Crazy, and the '86 Super Bowl Champion New York Giants

by Jerry Barca


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250144911
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 08/22/2017
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 594,060
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

JERRY BARCA is an author and journalist. His writing has been published in The New York Times,,, and he is a regular contributor to Forbes. He is the author of Unbeatable: Notre Dame’s 1988 Championship and the Last Great College Football Season and he produced the documentary film Plimpton!, which was a New York Times critic’s pick. Barca is a graduate of Seton Hall Prep with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame and a master’s from Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and their four children.

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NOVEMBER 19, 1978

Playing at the Meadowlands beneath a sky of scattered clouds on a slightly breezy autumn day, the New York Giants took a 17–6 lead into the fourth quarter.

The Philadelphia Eagles mounted a rally, closing a 13-play, 91-yard drive with a one-yard Mike Hogan touchdown run. With less than four minutes to play, the Giants' lead had been cut to 17–12. Typical of the Giants' ineptitude, three New York penalties, two pass interferences, and a roughing the passer accounted for 49 yards on the drive.

Thirty-five seconds after the Eagles scored, Giants running back Doug Kotar fumbled, handing the ball back to Philadelphia. Quarterback Ron Jaworski and the Eagles' offense took over at the Giants' 33-yard line.

With under two minutes to play, Jaworski dropped back to pass. He pumped. Then he pulled his arm back again and let the ball fly. The pass slipped through the hands of a leaping Hogan and dropped into the chest of Giants rookie defensive back Odis McKinney.

The Giants had the ball inside their own 20-yard line. The Eagles were out of time-outs. There was no way for Philadelphia to stop the clock. The game was over. The Giants would win. Somehow, they had recovered from Kotar's miscue. Now, all they had to do was snap the ball a few times and let the time run out. That's it.

A win would snap a three-game losing streak. The Giants would be 6–6. They would be in the play-off hunt with four games remaining.

"I wanted to fall on the ball three times and, just like, go home. Let's have a cold one. It's Miller time," said Giants quarterback Joe Pisarcik.

That didn't happen.

On first down, Pisarcik took the snap, backed up three yards, and fell to the ground. Eagles linebackers Frank LeMaster and Bill Bergey shot through the Giants' offensive line. LeMaster drove a blocker and himself over a prone Pisarcik. Eagles and Giants players pushed and shoved each other after the play.

Perched above the field in a coach's box, Giants offensive coordinator Bob Gibson decided his unit would answer the rough play from Philly. He sent in Pro 65 Up. It was a run.

In the huddle, when Pisarcik called the play, he heard the chatter from his teammates questioning the rationale of running the ball rather than just falling on it and letting the clock run down. In recent games, Pisarcik had changed a few of Gibson's calls, and Gibson laced into him for it. This time, Pisarcik felt compelled to follow the directives.

The play went off smoothly. Pisarcik used a reverse pivot to the right to mislead the defense. Then he handed the ball off to Larry Csonka for an off-tackle run to the left. Csonka clenched both arms around the ball. He muscled through the left side for 11 yards. It was now third down and two. By the time the Giants snapped the ball, the game clock would have ticked below thirty seconds. All they had to do was snap it, fall on the ground, and the game would be over.

The Giants didn't do that. Gibson made the same play call. He sent it down to an assistant coach on the sideline. The assistant relayed it to second-year tight end Al Dixon, who shuttled Pro 65 Up to Pisarcik.

"That's crazy," one lineman said when he heard the call.

"It was very distinctive coming from the sideline," said Brad Benson, an offensive lineman who was in the huddle. "I guess he was proving a point to Pisarcik: 'Hand the ball off.'"

Maybe Gibson had read the newspaper that morning, the article with anonymous players ridiculing his play calling, saying the team would be better off with Pisarcik calling the shots.

Before the Giants broke the huddle, CBS started rolling the credits — that thick, yellow-block font moving up TV screens. This was the ultimate sign that the outcome had been decided. Rolling credits meant the game was over.

It was just the formality of snapping the ball. On the field, though, the offensive and defensive linemen started chatting.

"Usually, when the quarterback is just going to fall on the ball, we tell the other team to take it easy and not bury him," said Giants center Jim Clack.

Eagles nose tackle Charlie Johnson asked Clack if he should go easy.

"No, we're running a play," Clack told Johnson.

The same exchange went down the line.

"We're going," Brad Benson told the Eagles.

"Are you serious?" he heard back from the other side.

"Here we go," Benson said with disbelief as he bent into his stance.

Clack hiked the ball to Pisarcik. Things went bad. The ball came up to the right. It danced up Pisarcik's forearm. The quarterback reverse pivoted. Barely controlling the ball, he turned and swung the ball into Csonka's hip as the back charged into the line. The ball squirted backward off Csonka. Pisarcik moved to fall on it. The ball bounced off the Astroturf, between his hands.

The clunky awkwardness of the Giants was met with an equal amount of grace and ease from Eagles defensive back Herman Edwards. He swooped in. Snatched the ball in stride and ran to the end zone, spiking the ball for good measure when he scored.

Pisarcik raised his head from his prostrate position and watched Edwards lead the flurry of bodies to the end zone. The Eagles won the game 19–17.

By that day — November 19, 1978 — there had been plenty of New York Giants losses. This one was number 130 since the Giants fell to the Chicago Bears in the 1963 championship game, the last time the NFL's flagship franchise had taken a whiff of play-off football.

This was special, though. This was a how-could-that-have-happened, bewildering defeat, one that lives in eternity in the Hall of Football Stupidity. In Philadelphia, they call it the Miracle of Meadowlands. In Giants' infamy, it is The Fumble.

It is the Giants' crowning bumble, the most public humiliation of a proud organization's fifteen-year swoon.

The Fumble is the bookend across the shelf from the image of a helmetless, bloodied Y. A. Tittle kneeling on the field. He had just thrown a pick six to the Steelers in the second week of a two-win 1964 season, the first year of the Giants' downward drift.

While it may be hard to think of it this way, The Fumble, on its own, is one stupid play call executed with a mix of bungling and bad luck. A team can recover from feeding the blooper reel, but the stigmata comes from what the Giants were as an organization when it happened. As unpredictable as it is that a team could invent a way to lose a game, it hurt even more because with the Giants, The Fumble wasn't all that unpredictable.

"When I heard about The Fumble, at first I laughed, then I thought how ironic that it happened to the Giants. Then it became understandable," said Fred Dryer, a former Giants defensive end, who was now part of the NFC West–dominating Los Angeles Rams. The Giants franchise was in disarray, marred by amateur-level talent, embarrassing personnel moves, no locker room leadership, a recalcitrant front office, and ownership infighting that would soon become very public.

With The Fumble, anybody — from fans to players to coaches — could point to a physical manifestation of how bad things had become for the organization. Yet it would get even worse.



At the dawn of the twentieth century, Tim Mara's turf ran along Broadway from Wanamaker's department store on Tenth Avenue up four blocks to Union Square. The teenager hustled on the streets as a newsboy.

Born in 1887 to policeman John Mara and the former Elizabeth Harris, Timothy James Mara grew up poor on Manhattan's Lower East Side.

While working his newspaper route, Mara couldn't help but notice that bookies, a legal profession at the time, dressed the best and worked the least of anybody he saw. He soon began running bets as a messenger. Mara would deliver the newspaper to hotel guests, take their bets, and run them to a bookie. When the hotel guest lost a bet, Mara received 5 percent of the wager.

With an entrepreneurial sense, he stopped being the middleman. He took his own bets and grew his gambling business. Later, he set up shop in the enclosure at Belmont Park racetrack. He became one of the city's "most respected 'wagering commissioners,'" The New York Times wrote.

In 1925, NFL officials knew the sustainable course for the league meant establishing operations in New York City. Those officials also knew bookmakers might go for a risky investment, a gamble. Mara didn't see it that way. He figured the small amount he paid to establish the team was worth at least the most worthless business in Manhattan, an empty store or shoe-shining operation, he would say.

Mara purchased the Giants for what is recorded in history as either $2,500 or $500. Either figure means it cost a pittance to land a pro sports team in the Big Apple. A common practice at the time, the football team took the same name as the local baseball brethren, who — like Mara's football team — played at the Polo Grounds.

The story goes that Mara had never seen a football game when he bought into the NFL. "The Giants were founded on a combination of brute strength and ignorance. The players supplied the brute strength. I supplied the ignorance," he said.

The Giants started in hard times. It wasn't so much issues on the field as it was getting people to the field. Back then, nobody paid much attention to pro football.

The same year the Giants came into existence, Harold "Red" Grange, a.k.a. "The Galloping Ghost," signed a contract to play for the Chicago Bears. He was the type of sports legend the NFL needed to boost its popularity. In college, Grange averaged more than 209 yards from scrimmage per game. In a twenty-game career at the University of Illinois, he scored 31 touchdowns, more than a quarter of the time reaching the end zone from 50 yards or farther away. His play, spectacular on its own, became bronzed in the poetic mythmaking prose that colored the nation's sports pages. "A streak of fire, a breath of flame / eluding all who reach and clutch" is how famed sportswriter Grantland Rice described Grange. When Grange signed with the Bears, a contract for nineteen games barnstorming across the country, his stardom was so great his compensation included a percentage of the ticket sales.

Professional football was a lower-grade option than its college counterpart, and even further behind boxing and baseball. Pro football teams were regional squads that might exist one season and then go away the next. With Grange in the fold, the five-year-old NFL had a superstar it could market.

Mara attempted to replicate the Grange recipe in an effort to draw crowds to the Polo Grounds. The Giants signed multisport legend Jim Thorpe. The contract stipulated that Thorpe only had to play half of each game. The deal didn't bring in the crowds. Thorpe, long past his prime, was released after three games.

Nothing seemed to work financially. Aside from visits from Grange and the Bears, the Giants were losing money every year. They won championships in 1927, '34, and '38, yet they continued to lose money.

After the stock market crash in 1929, Mara, in an effort to keep the team and protect it from creditors, gave ownership to his sons, twenty-two-year-old Jack and fourteen-year-old Wellington. The father remained as the chairman of the board.

During this period, the league was a fledgling enterprise, and Tim Mara became a devout pioneer. On more than one occasion, he led charges to stave off competition posed by football leagues that could have threatened the NFL. Even though it meant using less talented players and forcing the odd situation of the Philadelphia Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers playing as one team, he pushed to keep the NFL operating during World War II. It was during this stretch that the Giants began to lead the league in attendance.

A few years later in 1955, the Giants' attendance slipped to ninth in the league. The Mara sons now ran the operation. An undisclosed group offered to buy the team that year for $1 million. The Maras turned it down. A year later, in 1956, the team moved from the splinter-bestowing wooden-floor showers of the Polo Grounds to the tiled bathrooms of Yankee Stadium. They added another championship that year, trouncing the Bears 47–7.

Then it happened: the 1958 NFL Championship. The Baltimore Colts played the Giants at Yankee Stadium. It was a great confluence of events — a widely consumable TV broadcast, a great New York team, a Colts squad loaded with future Hall of Famers, and suddendeath overtime.

An estimated forty-five million viewers watched the Colts jump out to a 14–3 lead. The Giants came back to take a 17–14 lead in the fourth quarter, but Baltimore tied the game on a 20-yard field goal with seven seconds left.

Led by Johnny Unitas, the best quarterback of the era and one of the greatest of all time, the Colts bested the Giants 23–17 in overtime. It has been dubbed "The Greatest Game Ever Played." Probably an overstatement for a contest with seven turnovers, but its impact on the growth of the NFL can't be exaggerated. That game left a mark on America's pop culture consciousness, and the NFL has become bigger, and bigger, and bigger ever since.

After the 1958 championship, the NFL mattered in the sports landscape. The fulfillment of what it meant to have a New York franchise started to happen, too. The Giants lost that game, but the players became celebrities. Madison Avenue took note of the strapping, handsome Giants and turned them into product-selling stars.

Defensive back Dick Nolan endorsed cigarettes. An image of him in uniform puffing Camels spread across a billboard on Forty-Fourth and Broadway — Times Square. In 1961, after his playing days ended, Charlie Conerly, the quarterback who had never ridden a horse, became the Marlboro Man. Sam Huff pushed the "full-flavored smoke" of Marlboros, too. Huff, a barreled-chested linebacker, had deals for print ads of Afta aftershave and Brookfield suits.

Huff was the subject of a groundbreaking film. He had been miked for sound in practice and an exhibition game. In 1959, Walter Cronkite, the preeminent TV journalist, narrated the final product, The Violent World of Sam Huff, a thirty-minute CBS TV special. That same year, Huff became the first professional football player on the cover of Time magazine.

The boys in the Giants uniforms were big-time, and no one was bigger than the dark-haired, blue-eyed running back with movie star looks, Frank Gifford. He did print ads for sportswear and TV commercials for Vitalis V7 hair product. He was a guest on the popular TV program What's My Line?, and he even had his own show.

Tim Mara established the Giants as a family operation. It was run on the principles of honesty and selflessness. In the 1950s, Tim Mara's grandchildren could be seen floating around the locker room after games. When the Great Depression leveled New York City, Mayor Jimmy Walker called out for help. Mara answered, hosting a postseason exhibition in 1930 between the Giants and a Knute Rockne–coached all-star squad of players from the University of Notre Dame. The pros won the game easily, and four days later, Mara gave all the revenue — $115,153, the modern equivalent of $1.6 million — to the city.

On February 16, 1959, the seventy-one-year-old team founder died of a heart attack in his home at 975 Park Avenue. The family-oriented, league-first stamp he put on the franchise remained. With his sons, Jack and Wellington, in charge, the Giants were poised to cash in on the CBS TV contract in 1960. The New York franchise stood to make more than four times the amount of a small-market team like the Green Bay Packers. The Maras declined the larger payout in favor of sharing the TV money equally.

"You had to think league first and that the league is only as strong as its weakest partner," Wellington Mara's son John said of his father and the family's approach. "If you had too big a revenue disparity among teams, then you wouldn't have a very successful league in the long run. That was his core belief for as long as I can remember, and that was something that he preached all the time, and that's why he felt so strongly about equal sharing of TV revenues."

More than fifty-five years later, the NFL earns about $3.2 billion in TV broadcast rights. The revenue-sharing move is viewed as the financial backbone of the NFL's success.

In June of 1965, the Giants' team president, fifty-seven-year-old Jack Mara, died of cancer. His younger brother, Wellington, succeeded Jack as president. When the Giants' top brass reorganized, Jack Mara's son Tim became vice president and continued to serve as team treasurer. The ownership split had been fifty-fifty between the sons of the founder. It remained that way with Wellington owning half and the surviving side of Jack's family owning half as well. When the restructuring occurred, the general manager position was left vacant. It remained that way until about three months after The Fumble.


Excerpted from "Big Blue Wrecking Crew"
by .
Copyright © 2016 Jerry Barca.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Part 1 The End to Pure Mayhem

1 The Fumble 3

2 The Bookmaker's Team in a Painful Period 7

3 Pure Mayhem 14

4 Fumble Fallout and the Family Feud 21

5 The Compromise Choice 28

Part 2 LT. Simms, Parcells

6 Finding Whitey 43

7 A Broncos Season Ticket Holder 58

8 "Got My Lather Going" 69

9 Euphoria 86

10 Fire Parcells, Play For Trump 94

Part 3 Identity

11 Gangster 109

12 The Birth of "Parcells Guys" 115

13 Gatorade and an Exorcism 120

14 "Hey, Parcells, You Got to Find a Way to Beat Those Guys" 139

Part 4 Giant Football

15 Rehab 167

16 The Locker Room Pay Phone 176

17 Kickers in the Basement 185

18 Rolling 195

19 Fourth and 17 211

20 Button-Pusher 219

21 Separation 230

22 Taking the Wind 239

23 "Not Going to Have a Day On Me" 255

24 "What It Was All For" 262

25 Generations 274

Giants 1986 Regular Season and Play-Off Schedule 285

Acknowledgments 287

Author's Note 289

Bibliography 293

Notes 295

Index 305

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