Bobby Johnson once shunned Giants alumni events, his former teammates, and the organization for which he played his entire three-year NFL career. The wide receiver, who made one of the biggest plays in franchise history during one of the best seasons the Giants have ever had, had experienced joblessness, homelessness, and languished through years of grinding poverty and drug addiction. It got so bad he sold his Super Bowl XXV ring to a pawn shop for only $250. Johnson didn't want friends and mentors from his past to see how far he'd fallen.
But in recent years, he's drifted back into the Giants' embrace. It began at the 25-year reunion of the 1986 championship team in 2011. All but one living player or coach from that team failed to attend, and Johnson was greeted with love and enthusiasm by men with whom he had shared a close bond a quarter-century earlier.
Johnson has remained close to the Giants' family in the ensuing five years. He attends events where he signs autographs, poses for photos, and best of all, reminisces with the old gang about long ago plays, games, and off-the-field hijinks. Johnson has a job and home. He's happy.
But until recently, the comeback story had a glaringly blank page – the ring. Johnson had rebuilt his life, and the bridge to his former team, but he didn't have that one symbol of his greatest success.
Now, he does. Thanks primarily to the efforts of his former coach, Pro Football Hall of Famer Bill Parcells, and Giants senior vice president of player evaluation Chris Mara, Johnson received the greatest surprise of his life before the Giants hosted the Baltimore Ravens at the conclusion of Alumni Weekend on Oct. 16 – Mara presented him with the ring he was forced to part with in 1989.
"When I put it on, I felt like I had come full circle," Johnson said. "I beat the odds. I overcame a lot. I can't even explain it. I came full circle. It was like I was reborn that day."
It took less than two weeks from the genesis of the great ring return to Johnson's magic moment. On Monday night, Oct. 3, the Giants played a game in Minnesota, the site of Johnson's finest NFL moment 30 years ago. As part of its pregame show, ESPN televised a feature about Johnson, his precipitous decline, and his inspiring comeback. During the segment, reporter Michelle Beisner-Buck said Johnson hit "rock bottom" when he had to give up his Super Bowl ring.
Watching the show at his home was a man named Lee Einsidler, a mutual friend of Parcells' and Mara's. "He's a liquor guy," Mara said. "He owns Casamigos Tequila with George Clooney. He lives near me and he's in the horse business a little bit."
Soon after the feature aired, Einsidler reached out to Parcells, who then called Mara. They knew who had Johnson's ring. The threesome decided they would buy it and return it to the original owner (Parcells and Mara do not want to reveal who had the ring, nor how much they paid for it).
"(Parcells) said, 'We're going to buy this ring back from this (anatomical description that cannot be repeated here),'" Mara said. "'I want you to coordinate it with Lee, because I'm not going to be up there for (Alumni Weekend). We're going to pay such and such amount of money. Lee is going to talk to the guy, negotiate a deal with him, pick the ring up and bring it back. You're going to meet him, get the ring and give it to him (Johnson).' He didn't ask me if I could do this. He was telling me I'm going to do this. I said, 'Alright, great, I'll split it with you two guys, whatever it is.' He starts cursing at me, yelling, '(No you won't), because you bought it the first time.' That's basically what happened."
Why was it important to Parcells that Johnson get his ring back?
"He was part of the team," Parcells said. "He deserves to share in that.
"I kind of knew the story (about Johnson giving up the ring). My problem was I didn't know where to go. A friend of mine figured it out. Once we knew where to go, we were okay."
Parcells called Johnson three days before the Ravens game to tell his former player he was trying to get the ring returned. He told me, 'Don't get your hopes up,'" Johnson said.
Before the game the Ravens game that Sunday, Johnson was sitting around with perhaps a dozen former Giants who were signing autographs. Joann Lamneck, the Giants' Manager of Community and Alumni Relations, approached Johnson and said she needed him for a minute.
"She made up something and said, 'Just follow me,'" Johnson said. "I followed her. The other guys kept saying, 'You're in trouble.' I was like, 'What did I do?' I couldn't have done anything. I really had no clue."
Johnson was led to a room, walked in and saw Mara and a Giants camera crew waiting for him. Mara was holding, but hiding, the ring. A few days earlier, Mara had received a call from Beisner-Buck, who had learned about the impending transfer from the man who had the ring.
"She asked me if I would do something before the game which would go on the end of her piece moving forward," Mara said. "I said, 'Look, this is pretty personal and is probably going to be pretty emotional for this guy. I'm not going to agree to do anything.' Basically, what we agreed to was letting our (Giants') people do it. So I talked to (Vice President of Giants Entertainment Don) Sperling."
Johnson initially had no idea why Lamneck had led him to the room.
"I was like, 'What's going on"' Johnson said. "I walked toward the camera. The next thing I knew he opened the box with the ring in it. I just started shaking. Joann and I actually cried for 5-10 minutes."
"I went in there with Bobby, met him, gave him the ring," Mara said. "He immediately broke down crying."
Johnson said he had last seen the ring perhaps 20 years ago.
"I put it on immediately," he said. "They said put it on, and they didn't have to tell me twice. It fits like a glove. It's my ring. It is my ring."
After Johnson admired his reacquired keepsake, Mara got out his cellphone and called Parcells, who then spoke to Johnson.
"Coach just said, 'Hey, I'm glad you got it back.' I couldn't talk because I was still crying. He's not emotional, so he was saying, 'You deserve to get it back. You helped us throughout the season, and the three years here.' He said it was his honor to get it back for me."
"It was great," Parcells said. "What's nice is that I must have had 15 texts from all the other players that were there. They were all thanking me. It makes you feel good. That's what a team is supposed to be. They're supposed to care about each other. That team, that's what that team did and still does. That's great."