The Loyal Opposition


Remember when Jim Burt took out Joe Montana in January 1987, helping the New York Giants rout the San Francisco 49ers, 49-3? Amani Toomer does. "Ruined my whole week," he said.

How about when Leonard Marshall crushed Montana and Matt Bahr's field goal gave the Giants a 15-13 victory in the 1991 NFC title game? "Oh, my God, that was bad," Toomer said. "That was ridiculous. That one hurt a lot."

And three years after that, when Ricky Watters' five touchdowns led a 44-3 laugher for the 49ers in the last game for Lawrence Taylor and Phil Simms? "I was happy," Toomer said. "I'm not going to lie. I was really happy."

There is no Giant with a better appreciation for the rich postseason history between the 49ers and Giants than Toomer. But he has had to adjust his perspective a bit in recent years.

For most of his life, Toomer, 28, who was born and raised in Berkeley, was a passionate 49er fan. Now, as a star receiver for the Giants, he will be one of the players most responsible for trying to oust San Francisco in a wild-card playoff game today.

Toomer has played at 3Com Park once, in 1998. He was a role player then, making two catches for 14 yards in the Giants' 31-7 loss. This time, he returns as one of the best receivers in the history of the franchise and a daunting matchup for a secondary that wasn't strong to begin with, and now might be without starting cornerback Jason Webster, who has an ankle injury.

Adding to Toomer's moment will be the presence of friends and relatives, plus the football team from Concord De LaSalle High, his alma mater. USA Today ranked the Spartans No. 1 in the nation after another unbeaten season extended their winning streak to 138 games over 11 years. They haven't lost since Toomer's final game in 1991.

Most enticing of all will be the possibility of outshining perhaps the NFL's most feared and respected receiver, Terrell Owens, one of four NFC receivers to beat out Toomer for a Pro Bowl berth. Each wears No. 81, leads his team in yards receiving and is pivotal to his offense.

One big difference: Owens is the NFL's most notorious ham in post-touchdown celebrations. The low-key Toomer is comically ill at ease in such situations. Earlier this season, he failed to spike the ball until ordered to do so by rookie tight end Jeremy Shockey. Against the Indianapolis Colts two weeks ago, he stuck his face in a TV camera and did a goofy dance after one of his three touchdowns.

"That was the worst dance ever," he said. "I saw myself on TV and was like, 'What are you doing?' "

Toomer's mellow demeanor has worked against him at times as a pro. Coaches Dan Reeves and Jim Fassel grew frustrated with what seemed a lack of passion and attention to detail in his first two pro seasons, 1996 and '97.

"When I saw him really early in his career, it wasn't easy to have patience with him," said Fassel, who considered cutting Toomer after '97 but saw a new attitude in him that off-season. "We can do the work, we can push him, but at some point, that player needs to realize what he needs to do. He did that."

Even after he established himself in later years, teammates sometimes sensed a lack of urgency in him. This season, though, Toomer has emerged as a legitimate star, setting team records with 82 receptions and 1,343 yards and coming within four yards of becoming the first Giant to lead the NFL or NFC in receiving yardage. In the opener against the 49ers, he had nine catches for 134 yards, and he and his coaches believe he matches up well against San Francisco's secondary.

The 6-foot-3 Toomer lost 15 pounds, to 200, before the season and worked on improving his breaks from the line. He has looked quicker than ever after seven seasons. (He is the lone offensive player left from before Fassel arrived in '97.)

Rather than being limited by the injuries to the Giants' second, third and fourth receivers, Toomer has flourished. Quarterback Kerry Collins has had to look for him in tough spots rather than Ike Hilliard, his usual security blanket. And Shockey has commanded defenses' attention, freeing Toomer for more one-on-one coverage.

Toomer said he will "relish" being home, with the chance to become part of 49er-Giant lore himself. "I'll always have something for the Niners because I grew up watching them," he said. "Not now."

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