The Polo Grounds, where the New York Giants started playing football in the 1920s, remains the setting for more fiction than probably any other American stadium. For it was there on Dec. 7, 1941, that the Giants were meeting the Washington Redskins when the surprise bombing of Pearl Harbor brought the United States into World War II.
In the crowd that day, there must have been a convention of novelists, playwrights, screenwriters and short-story writers. Needing a New York wartime scene, they’ve thought of the Polo Grounds ever since.
Co-owner Wellington Mara of the Giants also remembers the day well.
“The Redskins were giving us a hard time, and I was wrapped up in the game,” Mara said recently as his team practiced at its present home in New Jersey.
“The public address announcer kept telling General So and So or Commander So and So to report to Governor’s Island or Washington immediately.
“I finally turned to our chaplain and asked, ‘What the heck is going on here?’
“He said, ‘Didn’t you hear? They’ve bombed Pearl Harbor.’
“I said, ‘Pearl Harbor? Who is Pearl Harbor?’ ”
He found out quickly. Lieutenant Mara was there himself, as a fighter director on a carrier, within a year or so.
But on fall Sundays in New York, the Giants went on playing games at the Polo Grounds--as they had since 1925, and as they would until 1956.
A New York institution for 65 years, they were a Yankee Stadium tenant in 1956-75 before moving across the river to Giants Stadium.
Since the beginning, when their 1925 team packed in 70,000 fans for Red Grange and the Chicago Bears, they have been a pro football symbol.
More than any other institution in the populous East, the Giants have linked the present to the past in the National Football League.
“A Giant fan is a guy who has been a Giant fan all his life,” Mara said. “Most of them can’t remember a (fall) Sunday without pro football.”
That is one Giant reality. Another is that, as their long record testifies, the Giants are good at losing.
They have been on a roller coaster for most of the century, roaring up occasionally to win five NFL championships--but only one in the last 33 years.
In fact, the Giants have been around so long, and have known so much adversity along with their successes, that they’ve become the emblematic NFL club, illustrating four truths about life in pro football:
--How routinely you can lose.
--How easy it is, nonetheless, to jump from close to the bottom to close to the top.
--How hard it is to win the championship.
--How important management is.
Just in the last 16 years, the Giants have experienced a long slump--an 11-year stretch in which they exceeded .500 only once--and also a five-year period of success.
During the mainly winning years, which started in 1984 and are continuing, their only losing season was a strike-influenced 6-9 anomaly in 1987, the season after their 17-2 Super Bowl season.
Accordingly, what the Giants have been telling us lately is that with intelligent management, a pro club can become a contender overnight and remain a contender regardless of its past.
Good management seems to be the indispensable ingredient.
When George Young moved in as general manager in 1979, after the Giants had endured a particularly barren six seasons, they were only three years away from the playoffs. Largely because of contributions by two of Young’s early draft choices, quarterback Phil Simms and linebacker Lawrence Taylor, they became relatively consistent winners.
“Great players like Simms and Taylor make average players look good,” Young said.
Throughout the 1980s, even so, the Giants have continued to demonstrate that despite sound managers, cooperative owners, championship-class talent, extraordinary civic support and ample resources, the Super Bowl can be an elusive prize.
Since winning Super Bowl XXI in Pasadena, the Giants haven’t even been back to the playoffs--although they were one of the league’s seven 10-6 teams last season, when Super Bowl champion San Francisco was another.
“In pro football, you live a lifetime in one or two years,” Giant Coach Bill Parcells said. “You’re always rebuilding. The key is not to slip too far while you’re doing it.”
Since 1983, Parcells, 48; Young, 59; Simms, 33, and Taylor, 30, have fought their way to the top, slipped back a little, then started upward again.
For the team that possibly best typifies the NFL’s human struggle, is another title now in sight?
In their up-and-down world, who knows?
PLAYBOY TURNS THE SHIP AROUND
Under the stands of Giants Stadium, a small, one-row parking lot is reserved for six or eight of the club’s movers and shakers. And in the various parking spaces, there are signs for the privileged few, with G. Young and B. Parcells in the middle.
Far to the left and right--as far as you can separate them--are the signs for W.T. Mara and T. Mara.
These are the feuding co-owners of the Giants.
Tim Mara is Wellington T. Mara’s nephew, and considering what they have in common, you would think they would at least speak when they run into one another on the 50-yard line. But they do not, and for years have not.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Wellington said, pleasantly, of their lingering feud. “Anyone who understands Irish families will understand.”
The story of the 1980s Giants is largely the story of the Maras, Wellington and Tim, and Parcells and Young.
Wellington, father of 11, is a ruddy, smiling, conservative NFL statesman in his 70s who oversees the Giants at practice every day, in every kind of weather. He probably attends more practices than any other NFL owner.
Tim is a divorced New York playboy in his 50s who resembles actor Peter O’Toole. He attends most games but seldom comes around in between.
Yet, it was Tim who put the Giants in the 1987 Super Bowl, and also put them where they are today, in position to win again and again.
He did this by demanding a veteran football man for general manager in a 1979 letter to Commissioner Pete Rozelle, the one outsider with the clout to mediate high-level disputes on pro clubs.
At the time, Wellington, the Giants’ chief executive officer, was about to promote assistant general manager Terry Bledsoe, a former sportswriter with limited experience in NFL front offices.
“We were losing most of the time (in the 1970s), and I was tired of it,” Tim said at a recent Giant game. “People were burning tickets in the parking lots. Planes were flying over the stadium with signs that read, ’15 Years of Losing are Enough.’ I knew it didn’t have to be.”
He was right about that. When Rozelle recommended George Young, along with several others, Wellington and Tim somehow finally agreed on something. They took Young, turned the corner and are living happily ever after with a know-how general manager whose background includes administrating, coaching and scouting for winners in three NFL cities.
The Giants were founded 65 years ago by a Mara who had never seen an NFL game. This was the first Tim Mara, Wellington’s father and Tim’s grandfather, who was a 1920s New York bookmaker with offices at 42nd and Broadway.
When a mutual friend urged him in 1925 to put an NFL club in Manhattan, old Tim asked: “How much?”
“It’s a bit steep,” the friend said. “The league wants $500 for the franchise.”
As Wellington tells it, his father, who agreed instantly, commented: “An empty store is worth more than that in New York.”
In 1930, at 15, Wellington inherited half the club. During his four years as a college student at Fordham, he was the co-owner of the Giants.
The other co-owner was the late Jack Mara, Wellington’s older brother and young Tim’s father.
Wellington’s monument is the ballpark he built in New Jersey in the ‘70s, Giants Stadium, which is probably the best football stadium in America--when you consider that 76,891 view seats are snugly banked hard against the field. There are no running tracks in Giants Stadium. No pitcher’s mounds, either. In fact, no baseball players are allowed unless they know someone who has Giant season tickets.
Each year, the club sells every seat to every game before the Fourth of July.
These days, while Wellington slaves away at the stadium, young Tim spends most of his time in Florida playing golf, jogging each day and fishing.
An Iona College graduate, Tim said he has been hooked on fishing since his first day out, when, as the co-owner of a new boat with ABC-TV announcer Frank Gifford, he connected with a 423-pound marlin.
As Tim recalls, “We had tickets that night to Burt Reynolds’ theater, so after five hours I shouted at Frank, ‘Cut the line, Gifford!’ But he ignored me.”
They landed the fish an hour later. “We only missed the first act,” Tim said.
HOW TO HIRE A FOOTBALL COACH
In Year III of the Young-Mara era, the 1981 Giants, rising swiftly with Coach Ray Perkins, gained the playoffs for the first time in nearly two decades--since their 1963 team lost the title game to the Bears in Chicago.
In Year IV, they were poised to repeat when, suddenly, Perkins announced--with three games remaining--that he would be coaching Alabama the next season.
The team lost its poise and collapsed, but Young did not. On the day that Perkins resigned, the general manager promoted Bill Parcells--although Perkins’ announcement caught him by surprise, and although, in theory, he could have waited three or four months before naming a replacement.
When he first heard the news, Young was in Tulsa scouting football talent, serene in the belief that he and Perkins, his handpicked first choice for a football coach, would finish out the century together. Picking up the telephone, he told Wellington Mara and then Tim Mara that Parcells could do the job. Next, he flew home and told Parcells.
That Young could wake up from a nightmare ready for instant action--with the name of the next coach on the tip of his tongue--says more about Young than Parcells. In a decidedly insane business, the first responsibility of a fully qualified NFL leader is to keep track of the next coach--to evaluate all the candidates continually. But not many chiefs do.
Young appears to be one of the few who could name a coach a week, if necessary. At the same time, he is an ultraconservative individual who hates to change coaches--even assistant coaches. He doesn’t even like to make trades.
In 11 years, Young has never traded a first-round draft choice, and in the last seven years, the Giants have replaced only two assistant coaches.
Clearly, Parcells has a job for life. Or for as long as he wins.
A different kind of coach, Parcells, who came up on the defensive side, spends most of his time working with the defense and visiting with his 47 players.
He makes it a point to exchange at least a few words with every Giant every day.
“No NFL coach knows his players more intimately,” an aide said.
A lean ex-linebacker, Parcells is apple-cheeked and boyish-faced, with a lot of wavy gray hair. He still smokes cigarettes.
At Wichita State in the 1960s, he made the All-Missouri Valley team.
Known to some as Grumpy, he comes across as a street-smart New Yorker although he’s a Jersey guy, born and raised not far from the stadium. He was the oldest of four children whose father was in industrial relations. He is married, has three daughters and still lives in New Jersey.
“Not many people get to do just what they want to do just where they want to do it,” he said.
As Parcells sees it, coaches have only two functions.
“My first responsibility is to give (the team) a good offensive and defensive design,” he said.
“The one other thing that matters is getting them to do the things that are necessary to win.”
How does one prevail over football players?
“Coercion,” Parcells said. “Encouragement, praise, criticism, kicks, talking to, reasoning with.”
Of the 28 NFL coaches, he is one of only five who have coached a Super Bowl champion, and he gives part of the credit for this to his many friends and advisers. Every day for Parcells is a long, long round of visits, not only with the players but also with his long-distance friends: Houston Oiler General Manager Mike Holovak, Raider owner Al Davis, New Jersey high school coach Mickey Corcoran, and many others.
After observing Parcells for five years, Frank Litsky of the New York Times said: “He’s a wise man, I’d say, for a football coach.”
WINNING WITH A SCHOOLMASTER
When the phone call came from Don Shula, George Young was writing a paper on Chinese history, the last requirement for his second master’s degree at Johns Hopkins University.
That was in the late ‘60s, when Shula was still with the Baltimore Colts and Young was a high school teacher, doubling as a football coach, in the Baltimore school system.
Shula asked Young to break down the films of Colt games and write a synopsis on each.
“I told him, ‘OK, sure,’ because that’s what I was good at, writing a synopsis,” said Young, who may be a teacher by profession but is a professional student by preference.
“I had been teaching for 15 years. I was also going to school nights, and planned to stay at it forever, but found that I fit right into the Colt personnel department.”
Making a smooth mid-life change of professions, the old schoolmaster has never regretted it.
And he has been in pro football ever since, first with the Colts and Miami Dolphins for 11 years, then, throughout the ‘80s, with the Giants.
The surge of the Giants in this decade couldn’t have developed without Tim Mara, and might not have happened without Bill Parcells and Wellington Mara. But almost certainly, the Giants wouldn’t have come this far without George Young.
Or somebody like George Young. Someone as thorough.
“Every decision you make on an NFL team, large or small, is important,” he said. “Every kind of decision.”
Defining the principal role of a general manager, he said: “My only job is to stockpile good players behind good players.”
At work in the Meadowlands, Young somehow combines the aggressiveness of a defensive lineman--which he was at Bucknell--with the twinkling good humor of a self-assured teacher.
He and his wife live in upscale Upper Saddle River, N.J., which is also home to the Parcells family.
Young’s roots are in Baltimore, though, where he was one of two sons of a bartender, the owner of a men-only neighborhood bar. In his early summers, he said, he worked for his father often enough to choose the life of a teetotaler.
He also chose teaching early on.
“I had a wonderful high school job,” he said, recalling the long years he taught history and political science to the youngsters of Baltimore. “I had homeroom, five classes a day and football in the afternoon--we won the state championship five or six times. At night for 15 years, I went to school myself. It was a great life. “
One year he was a high school teacher, the next an NFL scout. And in his third year out of high school, Young was the offensive line coach of Baltimore’s only Super Bowl champion in 1970.
He is, however, basically a personnel expert. And, in a manner of speaking, the Giants are still living on two incomparable decisions that Young made at the top of his Giant career.
These were the decisions to take quarterback Phil Simms in 1979--Young’s first draft choice--and linebacker Lawrence Taylor in 1981.
At the end of the decade, Simms and Taylor are still the heart of the Giant offense and defense, respectively.
But in the beginning, they were distinctly unpopular choices.
“On both occasions, the fans wanted running backs,” New York sportswriter Peter King said. “They wanted Ottis Anderson instead of Simms, and George Rogers instead of Taylor.”
The first time, indeed, the Simms selection provoked a rebellious uproar at New York draft headquarters. Gallery fans hooted at length, bringing the proceedings to a temporary halt.
When a TV photographer somehow missed the start of the demonstration, he asked Commissioner Rozelle to return to the microphone and repeat the Simms announcement. And, chuckling, Rozelle did.
On the television news that night, one announcer said, “See? Even the commissioner thinks it was a bad pick.”
In Young’s busy first three years with the Giants, he made hardly any bad picks.
“He laid the foundation with the drafts of ’79, ’80 and ’81,” said King, a former Newsday reporter now with Sports Illustrated.
Young’s specialty right along has been middle-round selections--tight end Mark Bavaro in the fourth round, wide receiver Lionel Manuel in the seventh, cornerback Perry Williams in the seventh, linebacker Gary Reasons in the fourth, safety Myron Guyton in the eighth, and so on.
This season, the club’s 6-1 start can be traced, in large part, to Young’s newer acquisitions--the draft choices of the last two or three years--whom Parcells has thrown into the offensive line and the defense, repairing both.
And coming out of their post-Super Bowl letdown, the Giants seem to be refloating the ship.
What kind of players has Young brought in?
“The guys we look for are those who play well under pressure,” he said. “The winners in this league are self-motivated players.”
Or in some instances, self-motivated schoolmasters.