Legend In the Making

After only two seasons, tight end Mark Bavaro has quietly become a giant among Giants
September 08, 1987

In New York, where Pro Football tradition and legend interweave, they spin their yarns into the night, and often you can't distinguish the narrators from the performers. Wellington Mara tells stories about his old Giants, Ward Cuff and Tuffy Leemans; Y.A. Tittle tells about Sam Huff; Huff tells about Frank Gifford; Gifford about Tittle, and on and on, a narrative hall of mirrors. The Giants love their legends, but how about now, with a full off-season to savor their Super Bowl victory? What stories will they tell for the next 20 years at banquets? Which ones will become the legends?

"Oh, we've got one, even if he's only 24 years old," says Phil Simms, the quarterback-turned-narrator, in the best Giants tradition. "We've got our legend." Simms pauses for dramatic effect, rolling the name off his tongue, drawing it out. "Bavaaaro! Mark Bavaro. Great big kid. Real quiet. Some guys have never heard him talk. Loves to block, knock people down, plant 'em. First game [of 1985, his rookie season] we rush for 192 yards, more than in any game the year before. Against Cincinnati he breaks the club record with 12 catches for 176 yards. We're a veteran team, but we're a little bit in awe of this guy."

Bavaro made the All-Rookie team, and he was the NFC's starting Pro Bowl tight end after that wonderful '86 season. The one-handed catch became his specialty—grab the ball over the middle, lower the shoulder, watch the tacklers bounce, one, two, three. It took at least five 49ers to bring him down last December on a play that will live forever in Giants highlight films. That 23-yard gain, say Bavaro's teammates, triggered their comeback win after they were down 17-0. Some players counted seven would-be tacklers.

"I show people films of that play, and I have them count the people who had shots at Mark," says wideout Phil McConkey. "One, two, three, now there's Lott bouncing off, now Williamson, seven total. On the sideline we just looked at each other in amazement."

The legend grew. The city tuned in. Two nights later, at a tasting of Grandes Marques champagnes at the International Wine Center in Manhattan, the instructor, Ed McCarthy, held up a 1979 Cuvèe William Deutz. "The Mark Bavaro of champagnes," he said. "It drags the taster 15 yards."

"Save your body," guard Billy Ard told Bavaro. "It's O.K. to break a tackle or two, but when the issue's decided, hit the dirt. Your body can't take it."

Bavaro stared at him. "No," he said.

His toughness was almost scary. Broken toe, sprained ankle, cracked jaw. He played through them all last fall. Against New Orleans, defensive back Antonio Gibson broke Bavaro's jaw early in the game. They got him into the locker room, where X-rays revealed a hairline fracture. He played the whole second half.

His silence added to the legend. What was there to talk about? You went out and did it. "People always ask me, 'Is he really that mean? Is he really that tough? Is it true that he doesn't talk to anybody?' " says McConkey, Bavaro's closest friend on the Giants. "I tell them, 'Look, he's a gentle, sincere person,' and they laugh. They think I'm crazy."

They make an odd pair, kind of like a rhino and a tickbird. McConkey is 30 years old, 5'10", 170 pounds, knobby-looking, battle-scarred. Bavaro is 24, 6'4", 245 pounds of chiseled marble, and startlingly handsome in a sleepy-eyed, innocent-looking way.

"When we broke camp last season," McConkey says, "we were staying at the Sheraton near the stadium. One night he says, 'Conk, let's go into New York to get something to eat.' I took him to the Hard Rock Cafe. He was wearing a pair of shorts, a Celtics tank top and a jeans jacket. And he had his normal three-day growth. When we walked in, you could see the girls falling off the stools. I mean it looked like flies dying. So we sat there eating, and he's oblivious to everything. No one came over. They were too intimidated. He's so cool, without spending one iota of energy on it. He hasn't got a phony bone in his body."

The Giants didn't know what to make of Bavaro as a rookie. They tried to get him to talk, to draw him out. He would answer their questions with clipped phrases. "A master of summary," his father, Wally, says. They would strain to hear him. Whatever he said became a story to tell.

"In the Dallas game his rookie year he's talking to Jeff Rohrer, their outside linebacker," Simms says. " 'You're the worst linebacker I've ever seen,' Mark tells him. I mean this is the kid's fifth game as a pro.

" 'Who the hell are you?' Rohrer says.

" 'I'm nobody,' Mark says, 'which makes you even worse.' "

Simms pauses, his eyes twinkling. How the Giants love to tell Bavaro stories. "Houston game his rookie year," he continues. "We're winning 35-14, and we're running out the clock. I call a weakside slant, away from the tight end. Mark starts grumbling in the huddle, uh, uh, uh, like that. I ask him, 'Something wrong with the call, Mark?'

" 'One more time,' he says. 'I wanted to hit him [linebacker Avon Riley] one more time.' "

The Giants fell in love with him that rookie season. The night before a game a bunch of them went to see the movie First Blood, and when they came out they started calling Bavaro Rambo. He hated the nickname. He had an uncle and cousin who served in Vietnam. But he was a rookie, so he kept his mouth shut. The next year, when he came back to camp with some credentials under his belt, he announced, "I don't want to be called Rambo anymore."

In some NFL locker rooms such a pronouncement would be a solicitation for verbal abuse. Doesn't like it, eh? Well, that's all he's going to hear. With the Giants, though, the nickname was immediately dropped. "You know how every neighborhood has a guy who's really tough?" says left tackle Brad Benson. "Not loud or demonstrative; in fact he never really has to prove himself, because nobody's going to take him on. People just know he's the real thing. That's Mark."

He had it when he came to the Giants as a fourth-round draft choice, a quiet, almost brooding quality that didn't lead to easy friendship. He had it at Notre Dame and he had it growing up in Danvers, Mass., a town 20 miles north of Boston. "I never had friends as a kid," says Bavaro. "I was shy. I felt more comfortable hanging out with my father at track practice—he's the track coach at Chelsea High [in the town of the same name 12 miles south of Danvers]—or with my grandparents in East Boston, where I was born. I used to get picked on a lot in junior high. When I got big and I got good in football, my personality changed, and I'm not proud of what I became. I became kind of surly, almost arrogant.

"Three of us were close friends who'd go everywhere together—me and Mark Bedrosian, who played center and linebacker for Danvers, and George Myers, who played tackle and middle guard. Sometimes a fourth or fifth guy would be allowed in the circle, but usually it was us three. We sort of closed off the world around us."

Mike Landers, a sophomore fullback and linebacker when Bavaro was a senior, remembers the Bavaro group as "scary. They'd be by themselves, always by themselves. They'd go to a party or a dance and sit there staring at people and wouldn't socialize. People would be frightened by them."

People who know Bavaro say his personality improved when he went away to Notre Dame. "He became more human," says Paul Coleman, who quarterbacked the Danvers High team. Bavaro says he didn't really change until he became deeply involved in religion as a junior in South Bend.

"Everything took on so much more meaning," Bavaro says. "The stuff I'd been doing just seemed stupid. I used to wear this leather hat and bandanna all the time. When I visited Ohio State out of high school, I was dressed in a T-shirt and leather hat. The guy who met me said, 'You're not wearing that, are you?' and I said, 'Why not?' At the time it seemed cool. Now it seems silly."

Football was the constant in his life, the refuge. Football and the weight room. In Danvers they take great pride in showing visitors the four 250-pound manhole covers that Ernie Smith, the football coach, commandeered from the highway department so Bavaro would have enough weight for his squats. "No one's been able to get them out of there," Smith says.

In the June following Bavaro's rookie year with the Giants, his training program took on another dimension when he began working out with Bud Magee, a martial-arts expert from South Bend. He learned breathing, conservation of energy, the ability to control his flow of adrenaline, to absorb and repel blows. For Bavaro, who had always been attracted to the introverted, almost dreamy nature of weightlifting, it was a perfect regimen, and when he began his second year, he was ready to make his mark on the NFL.

The animal act Bavaro put on every week made him a darling of the fans. New Yorkers appreciate fancy football, but they have always reserved a special place in their hearts for the big bull rusher who can make tacklers bounce. "The sale of number 89 shirts was amazing last season," says Susie Downes, who on May 2 became Mrs. Mark Bavaro. "At first none, then a trickle, and by the end of the season they were all over the place."

Within a space of two weeks he got the ankle, toe and jaw injuries. He went back to his hotel like a wounded animal. He didn't eat. He lost weight. Susie took time off from her job as a receptionist in a Boston law firm and came down to take care of him.

His pass catching fell off in that stretch, but he could sure block. In a Monday night game against the Redskins, he was assigned the job of handling the defensive end. The Giants rushed for 202 yards. "Best job of blocking I've ever seen by a tight end," CBS's John Madden said.

Joe Morris, who has put together two Pro Bowl years behind Bavaro's blocking, smiles when the kid's name is mentioned. "In the St. Louis game he's facing Niko Noga, their strongside linebacker," says Morris. "Real tough guy. Hates to be blocked. On one play Niko got so frustrated he spit at him. So Mark went after him. Nothing illegal; he just blocked the hell out of him."

Naturally, Bavaro was a target for the media during Super Bowl week. They had heard he didn't talk, and they wanted to see for themselves. The Giants beat writers found Bavaro friendly with the guys he trusted, shy with the others. But he never had been given to chitchat. The things he said that week made sense, almost too much sense for a week given to elaboration and whimsy.

Perhaps the most meaningful quote to come out of Super Bowl week was Bavaro's answer to why he didn't like being called Rambo.

"Rambo exploited the Vietnam veteran," he said. "I have a lot of respect for the people in my family who were in Vietnam, my uncle Donald Bavaro and my cousin Bobby Rossi."

When he would try a joke, it blew by people. "He called me up," his mother, Christine, says, "and he said, 'People don't understand my humor, Ma. I said something funny and nobody laughed.' I asked him what he'd said. He told me after the first day of interviews he asked some people if there was another session tomorrow, and they said yes, and he said, "Oh, if I'd have known that, I wouldn't have used all my good stuff.' They just stared at him.

"I've had people come up to me and say, 'Are you Mark's mother?' and when I said yes, they'd say, 'Does he really talk?' and I'd say, 'Of course he talks.' "

"Why," says Smith, "can the press accept the loud and obnoxious, but have trouble with a quiet person?"

It is early April in Danvers. Bavaro's wedding is three weeks away. He is shuttling back and forth between the Sheraton in New Jersey and his parents' home. Bavaro and his dad, who stands 6'5" and weighs 270, are in the living room, which suddenly seems small. Wally was a two-way tackle for Holy Cross in the late 1950s and a sixth-round draft choice of the 49ers. He never played for them; he had broken his leg in his senior year, and he was on crutches when they drafted him. He sat out the year, tried again in '60, wrecked a knee and retired to coaching. He dropped football when Mark was a high school freshman. "I couldn't coach on a Saturday when my kid was playing somewhere else," says Wally.

People describe Wally as a gentle giant. "I've never heard him raise his voice to a kid," says Tony Tiro, an old Holy Cross teammate who coached with him at Chelsea. Christine is the dynamo of the family. She works as a marriage and family therapist and directs Project Rap, an adolescent shelter in Beverly, Mass. She got her bachelor's and master's degrees when the Bavaro kids, Mark and his older sister, Robin, and his younger brother, David, were in grade school and junior high. "I arranged my classes around the children," she says. "If they were sick they'd come with me."

Christine is in the kitchen when Uncle Donald comes in. Uncle Donald is almost as big as his brother, Wally, and now the living room is definitely crowded. Uncle Donald lives by the shore. Persistent rains have weakened the sandy subsoil, and that morning as he walked outside, the ground gave way under him, and he found himself in a hole up to his neck.

"I'm thinking, I come out of Vietnam without a scratch," he says, "only to die in a foxhole in my own backyard."

Both of Mark's grandfathers came from Italy. Grandpa Dominic Bavaro made wine at home. Every year Mark would get a couple of days off from junior high to help crush the grapes. "I'd be down in the basement running the press and popping grapes in my mouth at the same time," Mark says.

Mark's grandfather on his mother's side, Joe Lalli, is 94. When he heard that Mark was a pro football player, he said, "That's nice, but tell him to get a job with the city—with a regular pension."

Mark used to enjoy visiting his tiny 5'3", 100-pound Grandpa Joe in East Boston, and when he would stroll over to the schoolyard to play some basketball, Joe would be alongside him. "I've got to watch over Mark," he would tell his wife. "He's from the country. These city kids are rough."

Bavaro's first athletic fame came when he was a slender, six-foot high school freshman; he high-jumped an inch above that. The next year he finished third in the national Jesse Owens Games in Los Angeles. "Mark's form was so good as a high school sophomore that I took a bunch of Super Eight movies of him and used them in my classes," says Jim Madore, who was Bavaro's track coach at Danvers. "Then his body changed from all the weightlifting. He got heavy but could still get us a second or a third in the high hurdles, and in his junior year he high-jumped 6'6" to finish second in the state indoor meet."

Madore says he can still see Bavaro and his two friends Myers and Bedrosian, both shotputters, going through their track workouts at half speed, waiting for someone to look the other way so they could escape to the weight room. "We told him," Bavaro says, " 'Listen, Coach, we'll compete in the meets, but we're not going to practice all the time. We want to lift.' We were football heads. We didn't like all those track workouts."

"Sure, that was Mark's defiant period," Smith says, "but he knew where his future lay better than anyone. He was a football player and he knew it. He always had a plan to get where he is now."

A look at his high school transcript shows grades in the 70's. He was a good student under pressure, but inconsistent. "He was bright and did enough to get by," says Mary Ellen Taylor, who taught Bavaro trigonometry and geometry. "He knew what he needed. I'd ask him, 'Why don't you do this all the time?' and he'd say, 'I'm trying, Mrs. Taylor.' He was always polite. Looking back, he probably knew exactly where he was going."

Mark's football career took off in his junior year. "He was what you'd call a practice stopper," Smith says. "At U Mass, I played with Milt Morin, the tight end who went up to the Browns. Milty was the same kind of player. Once in practice Mark went 30 yards downfield for a pass on a windy day. The ball nosed down, and Mark just reached down, knee level, and squeezed the ball, with his palm downward, and pulled it up. I never saw anything like that."

That year Bavaro led his league in touchdown catches. He made two high school All-America teams as a senior, but it was an injury-marred season. He dislocated his left elbow in the first game. They said he would be sidelined for six to eight weeks. Not quite two weeks later, he was at Mass General getting outfitted for a special plastic brace.

"An unpaid assistant coach, Tommy O'Brien, went with him," Smith says. "The lab tech told him, 'O.K., it'll be ready in two weeks.' Tommy slipped the guy $25 and told him we needed it for Saturday. 'Come back tomorrow afternoon,' the guy said. Mark played, and he played the rest of the year, but he wasn't really right until the last game—and the two All-Star games."

The college choices were narrowed to Notre Dame, Ohio State and Purdue, all of which he visited, plus Michigan, Stanford and Oregon. He picked Notre Dame, where he got into two games as a freshman. He sat out his sophomore year after cutting a muscle in his right hand on a window pane. "I still don't have much feeling in my thumb," he says. "I can't palm a basketball."

The next year he was the starting tight end, and the team finished 6-5 and went to the Liberty Bowl. The players voted to turn down the invitation. In an interview with the Salem (Mass.) Evening News, Bavaro said, "We don't deserve to go to a bowl." The athletic department said the vote was merely a "recommendation." Sentiment against coach Gerry Faust was bubbling. Before the game, the Chicago Sun-Times did a major piece on the dissatisfaction. The only underclassman who was outspoken was Bavaro.

"I can't see it getting any better," he told the Sun-Times. "There is not room for mistakes with Gerry Faust. If you make a mistake he calls you a lousy football player. He doesn't let you play. I don't think he realizes what he's doing in the things he says."

"The coaching staff was kind of cold to me after that," Bavaro says. "Gerry wasn't a bad guy. He was just in a tough situation. I looked at Notre Dame this past season, and they were always in it in the fourth quarter. In my years, we'd be a touchdown down and something would always go wrong. O.K., we'll do it another time. It seemed like we'd always fall apart in the fourth quarter."

As a senior Bavaro led the Irish with 32 catches ("Tells you something about our passing game, doesn't it?" he says) and made first-team All-America. "I never even knew it," he says. "I just wanted the coaches to tell the NFL that I was a graduating senior, even though I had a year of eligibility left."

Grudges die hard. The coaching staff didn't help him with the pro scouts. "We'd had bad reports from his coaches," says Giants coach Bill Parcells. "Then there were problems with injuries—two bad shoulders and a bad knee. Our scout, Jerry Angelo, went out to look at him. He said, 'Take this guy, you're going to love him.' I said, 'Is he tough?' He said, 'Hell, yeah, he's tough. As tough as they come.' "

Giants general manager George Young checked him out with Notre Dame sports information director Roger Valdiserri, an old friend. "He gave him an A-1 rating," Young says. "A tremendously honest, hard-working kid."

His high school buddy Bedrosian had rekindled Bavaro's Catholic faith. The swagger, the leather hat and the bandanna had been replaced by humility. "Orlando of the USFL picked me in the 15th round and offered me a $30,000 contract," says Bavaro. "Susie said, 'Wow, what are you going to do?' I said, 'I'd better buy that garbage truck.' "

The Giants got him in the fourth round. His contract—$85,000 up front and three years at $90,000, $120,000 and $160,000—was nothing to retire on, but it was a lot better than what the USFL had in mind. "Maybe if the coaches at Notre Dame had pushed me more, I would have gotten drafted higher and made more money," he says, "but then I wouldn't have gotten on the Giants and gone to the Super Bowl. That's one thing I wouldn't trade, no matter how much they paid me."

This spring Bavaro and Susie moved into a new home in Chatham, N.J. Over the summer he worked as the national chairman for a 10-city tour for the March of Dimes. While his agent, Jack Mills, tried to upgrade the $160,000 on the third year of Bavaro's contract, Bavaro hit the weights and got ready for what he expects to be the year of his life.

"Mark told me," Wally says, " 'This year is it, Dad. My big year.' I said, 'Gee, Mark, you had a great season in '86,' and he said, 'Yeah, but this year....' "

A couple of months ago, while sitting in the restaurant at the Sheraton with Susie, Bavaro tried to put things in perspective, the money, the adulation, his life now and in the future. "I try not to worry about money," he says. "I mean, how many pairs of pants can you wear at one time? As far as this legend stuff is concerned, as far as all the cheers I'm getting, well, it wasn't too long ago that I was at Notre Dame getting booed. It was only a year and a half ago that people were scratching their heads and saying, 'Who's this guy?' And it won't be too long before the same people will say, 'He's old. Get him out of there.'

"One thing my religion does for me is help me understand that five years, 10 years, whatever your career is, is a drop in the bucket. Your life itself is a drop in the bucket, compared to what's waiting for you afterward.

"So right now I'll take the risks because I have to. But trying to be realistic, I know it's not going to last forever. Someday it's going to end."

There was a pause. Finally, Susie said, "What if you get hurt?"

"Then," said Mark, a legend at 24, "I'll get a job, like everyone else."

PHOTOJOHN IACONOBavaro was New York's top pass receiver in 1986 with 66 catches for 1,001 yards. PHOTORONALD C. MODRAGrandpa Joe advised Mark to "get a job with the city—with a regular pension." PHOTORONALD C. MODRAThis spring, before he got married, Mark saw a lot of Robin, David and Wally. PHOTORONALD C. MODRALast season Susie left her job to tend to Mark's wounds. PHOTORONALD C. MODRASmith is stuck with the manhole covers he got for Bavaro. PHOTOED BALLOTS/SOUTH BEND TRIBUNEAt Notre Dame, All-America Bavaro was an all-out critic of coach Faust. PHOTOSALEM EVENING NEWSIn high school Bavaro often played high over his opponents' heads. PHOTOWALTER IOOSS JR.Of the day he played in the Super Bowl, Bavaro says: "That's one thing I wouldn't trade, no matter how much they paid me."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)