EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. –** The bad blood was allegedly simmering between Giants general manager Jerry Reese and defensive end Osi Umenyiora in the summer of 2011.
Umenyiora wanted a raise. The defensive end staged a one-day training camp holdout and missed the first 11 workouts and the preseason opener in Carolina with a sore knee. It seemed clear Umenyiora was an unhappy camper.
Reese remained silent, as he always does on contract matters.>> WATCH TRIBUTE TO OSI UMENYIORA
But surely he and Umenyiora were engaged in a cold war, no? Well…no.
"People were saying he and I were feuding, and we would be at the Tick-Tock diner on Route 3 (in Clifton, N.J.) having breakfast together," Reese said this week. "I said, 'Let's just meet and have breakfast and talk.' He said, 'Okay.' We went out and had breakfast and talked about everything that was going on. More than anything else, we laughed about how everybody was saying that we hate each other. We talked about what the circumstances were with the contract and what we could do, what we couldn't do, what he wanted, what he didn't want. Just had some real good dialogue about it. That's really what the conversation was, but everybody thought it was World War III, and it was not. It was nothing like that. We thought it was pretty funny, because we're having breakfast together."
Today, Umenyiora retires as a Giant, the team he played for the first 10 of his 12 NFL seasons. He joined the organization as a second-round draft choice in 2003, when Reese was the director of player personnel, in charge of college scouting and overseeing the draft. What does Reese think of Umenyiora now?
"Osi is one of my all-time favorite Giants," Reese said. "We've always had a close relationship, Osi and I. We were connected from the very beginning, because we took a lot of flak for taking him in the second round – 'He didn't go to the combine,' all that kind of stuff. I really felt connected to him in that way, because we took a lot of flak about taking him in the draft in the second round."
It proved to be a great decision. In his decade with the team, Umenyiora had 75.0 regular-season sacks (fourth on the franchise's career list), another 5.5 in the postseason, played on two Super Bowl-winning teams and in two Pro Bowls.
Coach Tom Coughlin arrived prior to Umenyiora's second season and was immediately impressed when he studied the young defensive end.
"I knew he would be another guy that would pressure the passer," Coughlin said. "I liked his swagger, I liked the way he worked, I liked his attitude and his demeanor," Coughlin said. "Great smile, great personality, good guy to work with. Wasn't always easy."
When Umenyiora was drafted, Michael Strahan was entering his seventh season. He would set the franchise record with 141.5 career sacks and last year was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In 2005, they were joined by Justin Tuck. Two years later, those three defensive ends combined for 32.0 of the Giants' league-leading 53 sacks, and they tormented New England quarterback Tom Brady in the Giants' victory over previously undefeated New England in Super Bowl XLII.
In their own way, Strahan and Tuck helped prod Umenyiora to greatness.
"When he was a rookie, (veteran tackle) Keith Hamilton and I felt he needed to toughen up a little bit, he needed to be a little more physical and a little less finesse," Strahan said. "And take it a little more seriously. We were in a meeting and Keith had let Osi borrow a jacket. He would be really cold up in Albany (where the Giants held training camp). Keith got so mad watching the film that he told Osi, 'Give me my jacket back, you don't deserve that. You're going to sit over there and freeze if you keep on playing like this.' We both had to get on him, like we were kind of his parents in a lot of ways. We saw how talented he was, but we weren't sure if he understood how talented he was."
Photos of Osi Umeryiora with teammates Michael Strahan and Justin Tuck
Umenyiora quickly learned what many young players have discovered through the years – a gathering of Giants defensive linemen is not for the faint of heart.
"The defensive line room is a tough room," Coughlin said. "You cannot be thin-skinned. Osi could dish it out just like he could take it. He wasn't about to miss an opportunity. No matter whether it was Strahan, or if it was Tuck as a young guy."
"Nothing was held back in that room," Tuck said. "Everything was free game but your family. We talked about anything but your wife, kids, mother and father, basically. I think people who don't know anything about that would think you were pushing too far, but it actually brought us closer together. Because we could talk about each other, but the linebackers couldn't come in and say that about us, or the quarterbacks. It was just us who could talk about each other. And it made the meetings fun, especially when you get into the long season. It's kind of repetitive what you're talking about. That helped lighten the mood in the meeting room. It helped keep things light and keep things fun for us. It worked for us. I don't suggest that for everybody. We were looking to have guys who did have thick skin and guys that could take the dishing and also give it back out. It was a good dynamic for our meeting room."
Umenyiora had physical gifts. But the inspiration provided by his fellow linemen helped him take advantage of his speed and strength.
"Osi was a student of the game," Reese said. "He always could get off (at the snap) before most people could get off. There are some guys with some good get-off now, the Von Miller's, those kinds of guys. But Osi, he studied the cadence, he studied the centers, how they hold the ball, and he was just a student of the game. He studied the tackle in front of him, the stance. He always gave himself an advantage because he studied the game."
"Osi he was very, very well prepared," Coughlin said. "He would come in on Tuesdays and study that left tackle, and he would know that guy inside-out. He would know exactly how he was going to approach him, what his plan was going to be. And he would execute. He didn't just go out and play, he studied the guy. He was a great example for those people in the room, because he knew. You'd open the door on a Tuesday, he'd be in there by himself studying. He was very, very much a guy who tried not to leave anything to chance."
Photos Osi Umenyiora's top sacks
As Reese noted, Umenyiora had uncommon quickness and speed. He was often in the quarterback's face seemingly before the tackle in front of him was out of his stance. But an NFL defensive end can't succeed on speed alone.
"When you talk about Osi, you talk about quickness," Strahan said. "I think because he played soccer growing up, he had incredible feet. The one thing people don't realize, and I didn't realize until he was in the weight room with me, was he's strong as an ox. In my mind, I'm going, 'Okay, he's amazingly quick, but damn, he's strong.' That was the most impressive thing."
"Everyone was enamored with his speed, but he was a strong, physical player, as well, in his prime," Reese said. "I don't think he got enough credit for that. Because he could also use speed to power on a guy. He'd start doing that speed stuff, but he'd turn it into power, and push a guy right back into the quarterback. I've seen him do that many, many times. And he played the run pretty well."
In his 10 seasons with the Giants, Umenyiora was usually guarded in public settings. But those close to him said is he friendly, open and funny.
"We always hung out, we always had similar interests," Tuck said. "I would say he wasn't a people person; he was actually kind of shy when we would go out to places. But Osi is as much of a stand-up guy as I have ever played with. Obviously, it showed on the field. But I think a lot of people don't know him personally off the field, because he's kind of to himself, standoffish a little bit in those public settings."
"He is fun," Strahan said. "I think about Osi, and I think about his smile. The most serious I ever saw him was right before the Super Bowl. For him, everything was a joke, everything was a laugh, everything was fun. I always laughed with him and he was truly my little brother. I tell people this all the time, on the field and off the field, he is somebody who is just like me. We both are Scorpios, we both thought the same. He and I would look at each other and we knew what the other was thinking. I've never had that with another player on the field. He was truly an extension of myself. I think that's why we played well together, it's why we get along. I love him to death."
He's not alone.
Photos of Osi Umenyiora as a member of the Giants from 2003-2013