IF ONE thing was clear inside St. Patrick's Cathedral last Friday, it was that John Mara is his father's son. As he delivered a tear-inducing eulogy of Wellington Mara, the NFL patriarch and Giants owner who died last week at 89, John Mara--with his gentility, compassion and thoughtfulness--brought to mind his dad. "He's cut from the same cloth as his father," Giants G.M. Ernie Accorsi said.
Right now the NFL needs men like that. The elder Mara's unselfish support, in the early 1960s, for the equal distribution of revenue allowed the league to flourish while preserving its competitive balance. "Without Wellington's influence, the Packers would either have been out of business today or totally uncompetitive," said Green Bay president Bob Harlan, whose team got the same $84.2 million last year in broadcast revenue as Mara's Giants. With its collective bargaining agreement expiring in 26 months, the NFL needs owners to continue Mara's vision of all working together for the good of the whole. In addition to John Mara, 51, who is the Giants' executive vice president and serves on the NFL's executive and competition committees, these executives need to serve as goodwill power brokers:
•Dan Rooney. The Steelers' owner is a close friend of the Maras'. (The families vacationed in Ireland together.) He's also close to NFLPA director Gene Upshaw, and he's been providing a bridge between players and owners since the mid-1970s. At 73 he is the perfect heir to Mara as the conscience of the league.
•Jerry Richardson. The Panthers' owner spent several days last month at Mara's hospital bedside. "Wellington loved Jerry and thought he was a good owner," Accorsi said. The former Colts receiver, 68, is probably the owner Paul Tagliabue trusts most among those who have entered the league in the last 15 years.
•Bob Kraft. Probably the most conscientious of the new wave of big-market owners, Kraft, 63, bought the Patriots in 1994. The league trusts him because he turned what had been a morass--the Boston market--into an NFL gold mine, and because the Patriots, with three recent Super Bowl wins, are the model NFL team. But can he persuade owners like Dan Snyder, who view their franchises as ATM machines, to buy into the idea that the league is as important as each owner's team?