The Giants' two-time Super Bowl championship coach and the President of the United States found common ground Friday at the White House.
"We both have a goal to get back here next year," Coughlin said to loud cheers.
The Giants visited the world's most famous house for the second time in five years to be feted by President Obama for their victory in Super Bowl XLVI, a 21-17 triumph over New England. As many of the returnees noted afterward, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity they got to enjoy twice. And all of them would like to return again.
"It's a wonderful experience and a great honor to be here at the White House with the President of the United States and the history of this great country, the White House, the names of great presidents that have been here," Coughlin said after the 20-minute ceremony. "So it's very, very significant and meaningful. You can tell by seeing our players. Our players really do appreciate the fact not only that they were invited here, but they had the opportunity to spend a minute with the president. He stood there and shook hands with everybody on our team. Everybody said their name. It was very meaningful, very significant. I hope it's more than twice in a lifetime."
The Giants face a grueling 2012 schedule as they try to win another championship and earn a return trip to the capital. Obama, meanwhile, faces the long, hard slog of a re-election campaign this year.
But Friday was for honoring the 2011 Giants, who were 7-7 a week before Christmas before winning their final six games – two in the regular season and four in the playoffs, including a Super Bowl triumph over the Patriots that was very similar to the victory over the same team four years ago.
"I know for some of you this is welcome back," Obama said. "You've been through this drill before. The last time the Giants were here was in 2008. A lot of folks said that team didn't have a chance to win the Super Bowl. They ended up winning with a circus catch in the fourth quarter, an MVP performance by Eli Manning, a come from behind win over the Patriots. It sounds kind of like déjà vu all over again."
"This team after 14 games was 7-7," Coughlin said. "We had lost four straight games. We needed to win the final two games of the year, against the New York Jets and Dallas Cowboys, just to win the division and just to get into the playoffs. But once we did that and we were into the playoffs, everyone played a key role. Our special teams forced the two critical turnovers in San Francisco (in the NFC Championship Game). Our special teams down three punts inside the 10-yard line against the New England Patriots. Our offensive team, as we did in '07 and '08, had only one turnover in the entire playoffs. And our defensive team that had given up 400 points during in the regular season gave up only 56 points in the playoffs. Offense, defense and special teams doing their job - each group having different objectives and motives, but playing in harmony for each other, for the good of everyone."
Coughlin then added a political kicker.
"Wouldn't it be nice if Congress operated the same way?" he said, soliciting another round of applause.
In an interview 45 minutes later, Coughlin said, "We knew that would be pleasing to the president - and to America."
The Giants' day began at their Timex Performance Center headquarters in East Rutherford, N.J. They traveled via a chartered Amtrak train and arrived in Washington shortly before noon. At the White House, they were given a tour and briefed on the logistics of the ceremony.
"It's an unbelievable experience," 10-year veteran David Diehl said. "The White House symbolizes everything about what it means to be an American. You think about it, since Thomas Jefferson being in there in 1801. It's still the same house, it's still the same everything. You think how many major things were decided in those walls. And to be able to see that and see all the paintings and to walk around and have that experience that's something that you'll never forget. People dream about having the opportunity to walk around like we were today – to take pictures and have free reign – almost. To be able to have that experience is priceless."
So was the next listing on their itinerary, a meeting with wounded warriors in State Dining Room. The soldiers who had courageously fought for our country in Afghanistan and Iraq told the players and coaches how much they admired their achievements. But the Giants, taking their cue from Coughlin, turned the tables and reminded them they were the real heroes.
One of them was Derek McConnell, a fervent Giants fan from North Caldwell, N.J., about 20 minutes from East Rutherford. Last July, McConnell, 22, was on a mission to secure a landing zone for an injured lieutenant in Kandahar, Afghanistan when he stepped on two improvised explosive devices.
"The first just knocked me down," McConnell said. "The second one blew me to Kingdome Come."
He lost both of his legs. His right hand no longer works. His skull and jaw were fractured and his teeth were blown out. He had multiple infections. McConnell spent eight months at Walter Reed Medical Center – where, he was quick to note, he watched the Super Bowl – and is in the midst of a year-long rehabilitation.
Despite his terrible injuries and the pain he's endured, McConnell's spirits are high and his love for the Giants is unwavering.
"They're the premier athletes of the world," he said. "And in my job, I consider myself an athlete. It's really an honor to meet them, especially since they had the accomplishment of winning the Super Bowl. It means a lot that they would take the time out of their day, because not everyone recognizes what we've gone through. But they really do."
The only regret the Giants have about their meeting with the soldiers is that it ended so quickly.
"Anytime we have an opportunity to thank the men and women of the armed services for what they do for us, the sacrifices that they make, so we can enjoy and celebrate the freedoms that we have, we try to take advantage of it," defensive tackle Chris Canty said. "We understand that freedom comes at a price. They offer themselves to pay that price, and we're eternally grateful."
The ceremony began with the Giants owners, players, coaches and football staff walking out of the White House and down the stairs to an area at the edge of the South Lawn as a band played, "new York, New York." Among those in attendance were Attorney General Eric Holder, Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) and Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the Army Chief of Staff who is a lifelong Giants fan and a friend of Coughlin's.
When everyone was in place, Obama entered from the team's right, accompanied by Coughlin. The two men approached the podium, with the president speaking first. He quickly noted that Coughlin recently received the Outstanding Civilian Service Award, the third highest honor that the can bestow upon a private citizen. The award, fittingly, was presented to Coughlin by Odierno.
"I especially want to thank and congratulate Coach Coughlin on receiving the Army's Outstanding Civilian Service Award," Obama said. "That's a great honor."
"I really wasn't prepared for him to mention that honor when he was at the podium," Coughlin said, "but he did and it was very nice of him."
Obama stayed with the twin themes of honoring both the Giants and the soldiers, and noted how one team has long been so dedicated to the other.
"This team is always there for our men and women in uniform," Obama said. "This is a New York Giants tradition that goes back to World War II. Back in World War II, Wellington Mara served in the United States Navy -- so there's a long tradition here. And these guys have made it clear that no matter who you root for on Sundays, if you're a veteran, the New York Giants are on your team. Whether it's setting up tickets to games, or inviting folks to practices, the Giants never forget the men and women who risk everything to protect our freedom.
"Having these folks here today, seeing how much the Giants means to them is a reminder of how important sports and football can be, but it's also a reminder that there are some things that are more important than football -- and the Giants know that. They finished strong, they won six straight games with everything on the line, they made a difference in the lives of those around them. But, most importantly, they did it not just on Sunday, but every week."
During his remarks, the president then asked for a round of applause for the wounded warriors in attendance, which responded with a standing ovation.
Coughlin opened his remarks by talking about how inspirational the 2011 Giants were to so many people and then segueing into to the wounded soldiers in attendance.
"Following the Canyon of Heroes parade, following our return that same afternoon to MetLife Stadium and the reception of 40,000 people, we began to focus on the inspiration that this football team, the New York Giants, presented to all Americans," Coughlin said. "To those who were perhaps down on their luck, whether it be because of an employment issue, the economy – whatever – how this team might have inspired them to hope, to believe in themselves, to never give up, to strive to accomplish their goals, no matter how difficult their situation might be. But however many people as we have touched along the way, the real inspiration for our country are the men and women in the military – those who protect us and our freedom every day. They allow us to play the great that we love on Sundays, they allow us to live freely in the greatest company in the history of the world, the United States of America. The real heroes as the president has said – Gen. Odierno, Col Greg Gadsen and the wounded warriors that are with us here today."
After the applause subsided, Coughlin returned to the themes that have been the bedrock for the team's success – five postseason berths and two world championships in his first eight seasons as coach.
"Understand that to achieve anything requires faith, belief in yourself, vision, hard work, determination and dedication," Coughlin said. "Remember that all things are possible for those who believe and that is both true in football as in life.
"The most satisfying and rewarding experience for us as coaches was to see our team truly come together. To set aside all selfishness. To commit to team above self, take the name off the back of the jerseys, eliminate all distractions, love one another, support, trust and play for each other. That's what this team possessed – the goal, the team, the commitment to do everything the right way to work hard to be the best possible player and teammate that we could possibly be. We set aside pettiness, because the team, not the individual, is the ultimate champion."
The Giants team stormed through the postseason and defeated an outstanding Patriots team to win the Super Bowl – and earn another trip to the White House. They were there in 2008, when George W. Bush was president.
Now it was Obama lauding the Giants outside the South Portico.
"Mr. President, this is a great tradition to carry out that the champions of the various sports are allowed to come to visit the President of the United States, which is the highest honor many of us will ever achieve, to visit the historic White House," Coughlin said. "And we hope when you think of the 2011-12 New York Football Giants, a smile will come to your face. We hope you think about that fact that no one – I repeat, no one – gave us a chance. And by virtue of working together, believing in each other and overcoming obstacles, it's an honor to stand before you today and present the Super Bowl XLVI champions and the world champion New York Giants."
After Coughlin concluded his remarks, 2011 captains Eli Manning, Justin Tuck and Zak DeOssie presented Obama with a blue No. 44 jersey with "OBAMA" on the back (not because Ahmad Bradshaw is his favorite player; he's the 44th president) and au autographed football. Obama then shook hands with owners, players and coaches.
It was a great day every member of the Giants will always remember.
The next goal is to fulfill Coughlin's wish and become eligible for a return trip next year.
"A few short years ago I said I hoped this experience was not a once-in-a lifetime experience,'' Coughlin said. "Now I'm saying I hope, Mr. President, it's not a twice-in-a-lifetime experience."