All these tidal gatherings, grow and decay,
Shining and darkening, are forever Renewed; and the whole cycle impenitently
Revolves, and all the past is future.
This is no time, obviously, to douse the high spirits of Giants fans, even with Gatorade. And yet in these last few giddy moments before Super Bowl XXI, unthinking revelers might do well to pause and reflect a bit on the cyclical nature of their game and their team. Oh, these are grand times, no denying. The Giants set a franchise record for wins in a season with 14. The combined score of their two playoff wins was 66-3. They are top-heavy favorites to bring the Vince Lombardi Trophy back with them to New Jersey. But remember and be warned, those of you too young to recall the "Goodbye Allie" refrain, that not so long ago life was quite different, and the dark hand of despair rested on the blue jerseys now riding so high above the battle. Think back for a moment, if you will....
The Giants didn't even make it to postseason play between 1963, when they lost the NFL championship game to the Bears, and 1981, when they squeaked into the playoffs as a 9-7 wildcard team. Between those two seasons they had only two winning years, finishing 9-5 in 1970 and 8-6 in '72. In 1961, when Allie Sherman became head coach, the Giants were playing to hometown fans whose expectations had already been painfully diminished.
"At that time," says Sherman, "the public was accepting of the fact that the Giant era was over." Against all odds, in Sherman's view, and to the surprise and delight of the city, the Giants won three straight Eastern Conference titles, in 1961, '62 and '63. "That team was much older than people realized," Sherman says, "but after three conference championships in a row, everybody suddenly looked a lot younger." Those three conference crowns, though, were followed by three straight defeats in the title game, and in 1964 Sherman began hearing the "Goodbye Allie" chants in the old Yankee Stadium. What a melancholy tune it was, half dirge, half lullaby. "Good...bye, Al...lie...."
January 26, 1987
The team was 2-10-2 that year, and things were not exactly looking up, what with the recent retirement of old guardsmen Frank Gifford, Y.A. Tittle, Andy Robustelli, Alex Webster and Jack Stroud and the departure of punter-placekicker Don Chandler, Dick Modzelewski and the legendary Sam Huff by trade. But in July '65, team president Wellington Mara responded disarmingly to the lament of the faithless: He signed the 42-year-old Sherman to a 10-year contract. Ten years? For a coach? Hello, Allie. As a matter of fact, that contract nullified a five-year deal Sherman had signed only two years earlier. Mara, whose bookmaker father, Tim, bought the franchise for $500 in 1925, wasn't one to throw up his hands at the first sign of discontent among the paying customers. They were still showing up, weren't they? They always have, through thick and thin. The Giants historically have the longest waiting list in the league for season tickets.
Alas, Sherman did not survive the term of that generous contract. The 1966 season alone should have been cause for dismissal. The team went 1-12-1, the worst record in the history of the franchise, and gave up 501 points, then a league record. The losses included these whoppers: 52-7 to the Cowboys, 55-14 to the Rams and 72-41 to the Redskins. It was just one of those years when nothing went right. Bob Timberlake, a quarterback and theology student from Michigan, whom the Giants had signed in '65 and still had high hopes for in '66, didn't make it past training camp. Their top draft pick, Francis Peay, was described by The New York Times as "a sluggish player with aching arches."
The 1967 and '68 seasons were comparatively productive, however. The Giants finished 7-7 both years, presumably helped by a papal blessing they received before the '67 season and by a trade for quarterback Fran Tarkenton, also that year.
Sherman remained in Mara's good graces until the eve of the 1969 season, when a 37-14 loss to the cross town Jets in a preseason game finished him. The owner had steadfastly refused to recognize the existence of the Jets. But they were hard to ignore after their Super Bowl III upset of the Colts. That was bad enough, but to lose to them by such a lopsided score, even in an exhibition game, was too much to bear. Webster, an old hero with no previous head coaching experience, came in to replace Sherman. Under him, the team fell to 6-8. This was also the year renegade tackle Steve Wright scooped management by announcing his own reinstatement from a suspension at a press conference in a bar called Mr. Laffs.
The beat went on. Webster quit as coach just before the final game of the '73 season, a 31-7 loss to Minnesota. The city of New York, peeved because Mara had already announced plans to move the team across the Hudson to a new stadium in the Jersey Meadow-lands, evicted the Giants from Yankee Stadium halfway through the season so the old park could be prepared for a multimillion-dollar remodeling. The last few home games were played in the hoary Yale Bowl, 77 miles from New York City in New Haven, Conn.
Robustelli, another figure from the past, took over as "director of operations" in 1974, with instructions to set the football team straight. Robustelli was "family," said Wellington Mara. He had also been out of football for the past 10 years, operating a travel agency. With Bill Arnsparger as the new head coach, the Giants went 2-12. Arnsparger held on until midseason of '76. Robustelli went back to the travel business in '78.
Now, that was a watershed year, 1978. The Year of the Fumble. The Giants were a respectable, for them, 5-6 entering the 12th game of the season, against Philadelphia in the Meadow-lands. With just 31 seconds left they actually had the game won, 17-12. Quarterback Joe Pisarcik had only to fall on the ball and let the clock run out. Incredibly, the Giants called a running play. Pivoting to make the handoff, Pisarcik lost control of the center snap. The ball squirted free and bounced into the arms of the Eagles' Herman Edwards, who ran 26 yards for the winning touchdown. "There were about 30 seconds left when I called the play," Pisarcik recalls, "and some of the guys in the huddle were saying, 'Just fall on the ball.' I said, 'Let's just run this play and get the game over with.' And then it happened. The play was sent in by our offensive coordinator, Bob Gibson, and you know, it's funny—after that afternoon, I never saw him again." Gibson was, in fact, fired the next day, a scapegoat for Giant ineptitude.
That loss, relatively meaningless though the game was, cracked it for the suffering spectators. Two weeks later, one Ron Freiman organized a public burning of about a hundred tickets outside the stadium before a game against the Rams. The next Sunday a group calling itself the "Committee Against Mara Insensitivity to Giant Fans" sent a small plane over the stadium during the Giants' final home game with a banner that read, 15 YEARS OF LOUSY FOOTBALL...WE'VE HAD ENOUGH!
But they hadn't. The '81 season, under coach Ray Perkins, seemed to be some sort of aberration; the Giants made the playoffs. But in the strike-truncated '82 season, the team slipped back to 4-5, and Perkins quit to become head coach at his alma mater, Alabama. Bill Parcells, hired a year earlier by Perkins as defensive coordinator, took over in '83, and probably wished he hadn't. This was a truly catastrophic season. Its redeeming feature was that it represented the end of the downward spiral and the start of a new cycle. The team finished 3-12-1 and led the league in turnovers with 58 (31 interceptions and 27 fumbles) and probably in injuries (25 players on the injured reserve fist). On an ABC Monday night game, the Giants and the Cardinals came up with a stinker the likes of which even that show has seldom endured. Neither team won. Neither could. But the 20-20 tie went into overtime, in which, if anything, the teams played even more abominably than they had during regulation. The Giants had actually blown a 17-10 lead late in the fourth quarter when quarterback Jeff Rutledge and wide receiver Floyd Eddings fouled up a reverse and converted it into a St. Louis fumble-recovery touchdown. In overtime, Cardinal kicker Neil O'Donoghue missed three field goal attempts, any one of which could have ended the dreadful affair, and one of them was from 19 yards, which is about as close as a kicker can get. The rematch at the Meadowlands six weeks later drove away a league record 51,589 no-shows.
There was genuine tragedy that year, as well. Assistant coach Bob Ledbetter died in October, and former running back Doug Kotar died in December. And late in the season Parcells' mother and father died within six weeks of each other.
By then, there had been 20 years of drift and disorder, bad luck, misjudgment and decline. Players came and went with bewildering frequency on a team that considered itself one big happy family. From 1973 to 1980, the Giants had eight starting quarterbacks—Norm Snead, Randy Johnson, Jim DelGaizo, Craig Morton, Randy Dean, Jerry Golsteyn, Pisarcik and Phil Simms. The draft choices during an 11-year talent drought were, if nothing else, original, although chances are such names as Bruce Tarbox, Joe Don Looney, Dave Lewis, Frank Lasky, Dick Buzin and Eldridge Small will not appear on many Hall of Fame ballots. In 1971, coach Webster and his staff had insisted that defense was the team's most pressing need. In the draft that year, Jack Youngblood, Jack Ham, Phil Villapiano and Jack Tatum were all available. The Giants chose one Rocky Thompson, a running back from West Texas State. He lasted all the way to 1973.
Was management not paying attention? Quite the opposite, thank you. It was, in fact, alert to even the most minor details of the operation. In 1977, for example, Tim Mara, Wellington's nephew and co-owner of the team, demonstrated his leadership by issuing a pronunciamento prohibiting secretaries from bringing coffee and sandwiches to their desks and instructing all employees to display proper parking credentials on their cars in the company lot. The parking-sticker command was handed down, unfortunately, only minutes before the start of a game. "There we were, ready to go out on the field," defensive coach John Symank told SI at the time, "when, all of a sudden, everyone's running out to the parking lot to take care of their cars. Players were out there in uniform, with kids climbing all over them for autographs...and the kickoff was coming up in five minutes."
But all that—the Fumble, the ticket burning, the draft choices, the revolving coaches and players, the pettiness—seems at this remove part of a distant, unseemly past. The Giants haven't been out of the playoffs in three years now, and they are at present within one game of achieving a goal they haven't approached in 30 years. "There is a certain confidence that comes, that builds up like a muscle, when you've come through in clutch games," Allie Sherman said recently. "The Giants are now of that mentality. They talk about it now."
There was a time, though, when the Giants were in the running for the title almost every year. They were both a pioneer and a premier franchise, the NFL's anchor in the league's biggest market. From 1933, when divisional play started, through 1963, their last title game, they won 14 Eastern division or conference championships and were NFL champs in 1934, '38 and '56. In the '30s alone, they won five division and two league titles. They won three division championships in each of three decades—the '40s, '50s and '60s. From 1956, when they won their last league title, through '63, they took their division six times. And they have been involved in some of the most famous games in history, including one in 1958 that many authorities call "the best game ever played."
The Giants lost to the Bears, 23-21, in the first title game between division winners, in Chicago in 1933. They were matched again for the championship the following season at the Polo Grounds. It was a bitterly cold Dec. 9, with a punishing wind that raked the field. The turf was frozen solid even before kickoff. Ray Flaherty, the Giants' end and captain, observed that when he stabbed the ground with his cleats, he scarcely scratched the surface. Then he remembered something from his college days at Gonzaga University in Spokane. Faced with similar playing conditions, that team had once switched from football cleats to basketball sneakers and discovered far superior traction. Maybe on a day like this one, he suggested to coach Steve Owen, the team should consider the optional footwear. Owen nodded disinterestedly.
The Giants, comically sliding on the ice, were trailing 10-3 at the half when Owen recalled Flaherty's counsel. He asked trainer Gus Mauch if he knew where he could quickly get enough basketball shoes to supply the team. Mauch, who also happened to be the trainer for the Manhattan College basketball team, sent locker-room attendant Abe Cohen on the rescue mission, and Cohen returned as the second half began with "about 30 pairs of sneakers of all sizes," as Hall of Fame center Mel Hein recalled years later. The Bears were leading 13-3 entering the fourth quarter, on a Bronko Nagurski touchdown and two field goals, but the freshly shod Giants blew the game open in the last 10 minutes, scoring 27 points. Ken Strong had two touchdowns in that amazing stretch on surefooted runs of 11 and 42 yards. This title match has been known ever since as the Sneakers Game.
The Giants beat the Packers 23-17 in 1938 and then lost four straight title games before demoralizing the Bears 47-7 in '56, their first season in Yankee Stadium, after 30 years in the Polo Grounds. Once again, the field was frozen, but this time the Giants started the game wearing sneakers. Future coach Webster scored two touchdowns, and Kyle Rote and Frank Gifford each caught touchdown passes from Charlie Conerly in what was clearly a rout. Giants coach Jim Lee Howell called it "the closest thing to a perfect game I've ever seen." And as the Bears struggled unsuccessfully to mount any sort of attack, the fans at the stadium set up a chant that demonstrated to a national television audience what knowledgeable students of the professional game they had become. "Dee-fense...dee-fense," they roared. You can hear that exhortation on any elementary school playground now, but it was a new sound in '56 and a far cry from "Hold that line."
The Giants were back in the title game on Dec. 28, 1958, before 64,185 at Yankee Stadium, this time against Johnny Unitas and a magnificent Baltimore Colts team. New York scored first on a 36-yard Pat Summerall field goal, but the Colts came back on a two-yard plunge by Alan Ameche and a 15-yard scoring pass from Unitas to Raymond Berry, and they led 14-3 at the half. In the third quarter the Giants held on downs at their own three-yard line and started a drive of their own. Gifford gained five and Webster three on running plays, and then Conerly hit Rote on a long pass to the Colts' 25. Rote fumbled there, but Webster scooped up the loose ball on the run and carried it down to the Baltimore one. Mel Triplett took it in. In the fourth quarter, a 15-yard Conerly-to-Gifford pass gave New York a 17-14 lead. The Colts got the ball for the last time in regulation play on their own 14 with 2:06 to play. Unitas worked painstakingly down the field, finding Berry again and again in sideline patterns, and Steve Myhra kicked the tying field goal with seven seconds left. What was to become known as the two-minute drill had been worked to perfection.
Baltimore won the first sudden-death game in NFL history when Ameche plunged across from the one on third down, 8:15 into overtime. Colt supporters piled on the jubilant Ameche in a hysterical frenzy. The home crowd sat stunned. But even in their disappointment, Giants fans realized they had witnessed something special. Indeed, almost 30 years later, there are those who insist that this was and always will be, as SI's Tex Maule described it then, "the best game ever played."
The same two teams met again for the championship the following season, but this was far from the best of anything, the Colts winning 31-16. on a 24-point burst in the fourth quarter.
Near the end of the 1960 season the Giants lost one of the stars of that exalted era, Frank Gifford. After catching a pass in the fourth quarter of a game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Gifford was flattened on a vicious—and controversial—blind-side tackle by Eagle linebacker Chuck Bednarik. Gifford left the field on a stretcher and entered the hospital with an acute brain concussion. When Gifford retired at the end of the season, Arthur Daley wrote in The New York Times, "If the jolt from Bednarik did not knock Giff into retirement, it was at least a nudge in that direction."
In 1961 the Giants made what still must be considered the most lopsided trade in NFL history when they dispatched Lou Cordileone, an obscure and not terribly adept guard, to the 49ers for Y.A. Tittle, a future Hall of Famer. Tittle, then 35 and a 14-year veteran, was considered expendable by the 49ers because coach Howard (Red) Hickey had committed himself, foolishly, to the shotgun offense. Hickey's shotgun didn't last the season, and Cordileone stayed only one year. But Tittle took the Giants to three more title games before he retired to the insurance business.
Y.A. could never bring home a championship, however. In 1961, Vince Lombardi's first great Packer team walloped the Giants 37-0, a bitter pill made even harder to swallow because Lombardi had left an assistant's job with New York to go to Green Bay. "What was frustrating for me," says Tittle, "was that it took me 14 years to get to my first championship game, and then we lose 37-0. But the Packers were just a better team."
In '62 the Packers won again, 16-7, in the cold and wind at Yankee Stadium. Temperatures dipped below 10° during the game, and a wind that achieved gusts of 35 mph made a wreck of the passing game. "The chill factor must have been minus 40 that day," Tittle says. "You couldn't throw the ball at all. It would go 10 yards and then just break up on you. I knew we were in trouble when we left the hotel downtown for Yankee Stadium and saw that vans had been blown over on the street." Tittle completed only 18 of 41 passes that afternoon, and Bart Starr only 10 of 21.
Tittle had one last shot at the title, in '63 against the Bears. He had thrown 36 touchdown passes that season and had gained 3,145 yards. But in this game he had five passes intercepted, two of them screens, by a strong Bear defense coached by George Allen. Y.A. had also badly twisted his left knee in the second quarter and had to leave the game for a time in the second half. But after his backup, rookie Glynn Griffing, established that he was unequal to the task, Tittle limped back on the field for a final effort. With 10 seconds left in the game and his team trailing 14-10, he threw for Del Shofner 39 yards away in the Bear end zone. But Richie Petitbon intercepted. Dejected, the end of his career plainly in sight, Tittle ripped off his helmet and slammed it to the Wrigley Field turf, a picture of anger and frustration. Y.A. would never get his championship. Both teams would have to wait, as well. It would be 22 seasons before the Bears would appear in another title game. The Giants would take even longer.
Wellington Mara was nine years old when his father bought the Giants and became not a bookmaker but a "sportsman." Timothy J. Mara had never seen an NFL game, but as his son told author David Harris in The League, "an empty store with chairs in it" would be worth $500. Although his father's creative bookkeeping had made him an officer of the franchise when he was only 12, Wellington didn't start working full-time for the Giants until he had graduated from Fordham in 1938. Tim died in 1959, leaving equal shares of the team to Wellington and his older brother. Jack, the team president. When Jack died in 1965, he left his half of the Giants to his son, Tim II. Jack and Wellington Mara had been "as close as two people can get," says Lou Spadia, former 49ers president and a longtime friend of the Mara family. "They had great love for each other."
That love did not extend, however, from uncle to nephew. Wellington and Tim Mara have not spoken to each other in eight years, or since Tim challenged his uncle's right to name a successor to Andy Robustelli as the team's general manager. The upshot of their dispute was the hiring of George Young as the G.M. in February 1979, and it is Young who deserves credit for the Giants' recent revival. He hired Perkins, who first steadied a sinking ship, and Parcells, who has it under full sail.
Until Tim's rebellion over the G.M. issue, Wellington's authority had gone virtually unchallenged. It was he who engineered the move from Yankee Stadium to New Jersey in 1976, a departure that has angered a succession of New York mayors from John Lindsay, who first protested the deal, to Ed Koch, who refuses to acknowledge the Giants as a New York team. Wellington has argued all along that the Jersey site is not that much farther from midtown Manhattan than Yankee Stadium, even if it is in another state. It is an argument lost on Koch, who has said he won't let the city pay for a victory parade if the Giants win the Super Bowl.
But the Maras have other problems. At one point several years ago Wellington wanted commissioner Pete Rozelle to adjudicate the differences between the 50-50 owners in the hope of restoring some of his lost authority. Rozelle refused, so the nephew and the uncle and their respective families remain uncomfortable bedfellows, Wellington as team president, Tim as vice-president and treasurer. So strong is their mutual aversion that each has erected a separate barrier between their adjoining luxury boxes. Each can now enjoy the games without fear of eye-to-eye contact. Young, meanwhile, runs the team with crack efficiency, although the Maras do retain veto rights over head coaches, first draft picks and major trades. They have had little reason to exercise those rights of late.
Wellington Mara is establishment NFL, a hidebound traditionalist. He is also one of the men who kept the league functioning in hard times, when it could as easily have gone under. "Men like Well didn't go into the game for fame," says Spadia, "and they obviously didn't go into it for the money. They—the Halases, the Rooneys, the Maras—went into it out of love for the game. They are NFL men. I think Well is a man who has always put the welfare of the league over that of his own franchise. His character can best be epitomized by the vote taken on allocating television revenues. Well agreed to allow Green Bay and the smaller markets to get the same amount of TV money he would get in the biggest market. That has been one of the things that has kept the franchises going. It's too bad this [family feud] has happened, but, then again, winning resolves everything."
Well, maybe not everything. But it does help, and the Giants right now are the biggest winners around. Right now, that is. This is their moment, but as poet Jeffers didn't quite get around to saying, what goes round comes round.