In celebration of the NFL's 100th season, the Giants welcomed team legends to Sunday's home opener.
The Giants' alumni weekend is annually one of the franchise's best events of the year. Former players both famous and not so much come together to tell tales and trade memories at a gala dinner, take a sightseeing trip – this year to the Statue of Liberty - and attend a Giants home game.
Giants from the past gathered two weeks ago as part of the NFL's Fantenniel Weekend, which was conceived in conjunction with the league's 100th anniversary celebration. The dinner, held Saturday evening at the W Hotel in Hoboken, N.J., was attended by Rodney Hampton, the second-leading rusher in Giants history, Super Bowl XXV MVP Ottis Anderson, and Justin Tuck a two-time champion and two-time Pro Bowler who is in the franchise's Ring of Honor. They were joined by relatively obscure Giants from the past such as Phil Tabor, a defensive tackle who played here from 1979-82, offensive linemen Derek Engler and Chris Bober, and Jeremy Lincoln, a defensive back in 1978-79.
"It's very important to us that you all feel like you're a part of this organization," Giants president and chief executive officer John Mara told the dinner attendees. "You'll always be a part of this organization. My father (Wellington Mara) had that saying that he used for years: Once a Giant, always a Giant. Those are not just words for us. That's something that we try to live every day. We want to welcome you back. We want you to feel like you're welcomed. We want you to feel like you'll always be a special part of this organization. Everyone in here had some role in the history of the New York Giants and the tradition of the New York Giants. We appreciate that, and we will never forget that."
This year's Alumni Weekend welcomed some notable first-timers to the event, including Jeff Hostetler, who replaced an injured Phil Simms at quarterback late in the 1990 season and led the Giants to five consecutive victories, including a 20-19 triumph over Buffalo in Super Bowl XXV; Jeremy Shockey, the tight end selected in the first round of the 2002 NFL Draft who was selected to four Pro Bowls and in six seasons caught 371 passes, the fifth-highest total in franchise; and Michael Pope, whose 23 years as the team's tight ends coach in two stints included all five of the Giants' Super Bowl appearances.
In addition, as part of the NFL Centennial, each of the league's 32 franchises is choosing the greatest moment in its history. The Giants had four finalists, and the principles from each of those moments attended the dinner, as well as the ceremony the following day at halftime of the Giants' home opener against the Buffalo Bills.
In chronological order, the four plays are:
*Mark Bavaro signifying the toughness of the 1986 champion Giants by literally carrying San Francisco 49ers defenders on his back on a 31-yard catch-and-run during a Monday night game in Candlestick Park.
*Matt Bahr's 42-yard field goal as time expired in the 1990 NFC Championship Game – also in Candlestick – that gave the Giants a 15-13 victory against the 49ers and set them to Super Bowl XXV.
*David Tyree's 32-yard "helmet catch" late in Super Bowl XLII against New England.
*Eli Manning's perfect 38-yard throw to Mario Manningham to ignite the game-winning drive in Super Bowl XLVI vs. the Patriots.
For the ceremony, four small stages were set up on the MetLife Stadium field and were occupied by three players for each of the four moments. Bahr, Hostetler and Anderson represented the Giants who won the epic 1990 NFC title game. They were followed by Carl Banks, George Martin and Bavaro from the 1986 team, the first in franchise history to win a Super Bowl. The most recent titlists, the 2011 Giants who won Super Bowl XLVI, were represented by Victor Cruz, Antrel Rolle and Manningham. Finally, Plaxico Burress (who caught the game-winning touchdown pass from Eli Manning in Super Bowl XLII), Tuck and Tyree took the field. Moments later, Tyree's stupendous catch was announced as the greatest moment in the 95-year history of the Giants.
New England held a 14-10 lead when the Giants took possession at their own 17, needing a touchdown to win the game. They advanced to their own 44, where they faced a third-and-five with 1:15 left on the clock. What followed was one of the most memorable plays in NFL history.
Manning took the snap in a shotgun and was confronted almost immediately by the Patriots' defensive front. Adalius Thomas rushed from the right side and forced Manning to step up in the pocket, where Jarvis Green and Richard Seymour met him head on. Seymour grabbed the back of his jersey, but Manning somehow escaped from his clutches and threw the ball down the center of the field for Tyree, who leaped high, secured the ball against his helmet, and prevented it from hitting the ground as he went down on his back – in part because he landed on Harrison's legs, and not the turf. The miraculous 32-yard gain gave the Giants a first down at the New England 24 with 59 seconds left. Burress scored the winning touchdown on a 13-yard throw from Manning 46 seconds later.
Almost 12 years later, people still come up to Tyree and congratulate him for somehow holding onto the ball while being mugged by New England safety Rodney Harrison.
"That is the reference point," said Tyree, who is currently the Giants' director of player engagement. "That's the moment where everybody shares a moment of excitement, a moment of jubilee, including myself. It's really always a humbling honor to be a part of that.
"It's such a privilege to be remembered for doing something significant, positive, great, contributing to a championship in the greatest city in the world and the greatest franchise in the NFL."
It's not such a pleasant memory for Harrison, who was a two-time Super Bowl winner and was twice named first-team all-pro in a 15-year career for the San Diego Chargers and Patriots. Tyree said they have crossed paths, "a few times," which were meetings Harrison initially found unpleasant.
"It was really cold on the onset, but through the years, it's gotten warmer and warmer," Tyree said. "I respect his honesty through the years. It wasn't until I think Spike Lee did his documentary on the catch where it sounded like Rodney had real peace behind it. When you talk about being a competitor, being the best at your position for such a long time, having a Hall of Fame worthy career, and then being party to such a disappointment, I can understand how he can endure that. I immediately want to say that this is my one moment that I'm ever going to have, get over it. You have a ton of them. But it doesn't work that way. He's a tremendous competitor and a great guy."
Bahr also was on two Super Bowl winners, including his debut season in 1979, when the Pittsburgh Steelers captured their fourth championship in six years. He played for six teams in a 17-year career, but 1990 – the first of his three seasons with the Giants – will always stand at the top.
"It's magical," he said. "When I was a rookie with the Steelers, they were such a good team it seemed like they could win anytime they wanted to. With the Giants, I really felt like a part of the team, like I contributed to the team. It's not like we all got along in that regard, it was we all pulled for each other. When Phil got hurt, Jeff stepped in and everyone rose their game up just a notch to help Jeff out. How can you not appreciate that?"
Bahr kicked five field goals to score all of the Giants' points as they defeated a 49ers team trying to win its third consecutive title. Seven days later, his 21-yard field goal gave the Giants a one-point lead and held up as the game-winner when Buffalo's Scott Norwood 47-attempt sailed wide of the right upright. Bahr is the only player to kick deciding field goals in a conference championship game and a Super Bowl in consecutive weeks.
"If the better team always won, they wouldn't play the game," Bahr said. "We were underdogs in both of those games, and we needed every single play. So many guys contributed to both of those wins. That is why, to me, it's so special to be here amongst these guys, because that's the beauty of sports. The upsets, people rising above themselves, the coaches and everything else. It just really impresses me that there were so many great plays, and to reduce it to my kick in San Francisco or (Scott) Norwood's kick in Buffalo is a disservice to all of the great play and players during those games.
Bahr doesn't consider the final field goal in San Francisco to be his seminal moment in that postseason run.
"I'd rather be remembered for the two tackles the next week in the Super Bowl," he said, "because that was something no one expected me to do."
Bavaro is similarly insistent that the 49ers deserve as much credit for the most memorable play of his career as he does, saying it was due to poor tackling.
But Bavaro made the play special with his rampaging bull act. The Giants were playing a Monday night game in San Francisco and trailed early in the third quarter, 17-0. On second-and-10, he caught a 10-yard curl from Simms and headed up the field. Six 49ers made contact with Bavaro, but he kept his legs churning. As the defenders kept sliding off him, Bavaro continued to gain ground. When the convoy finally forced him to the ground, Bavaro had gained 31 yards to the Niners' 18.
"It was a very simplistic play," Pope said. "Just Bavaro in over the middle, caught the ball, and the San Francisco defensive backs came up converging on him. You know when two poles of a magnet face each other and they won't go together? That's what that looked like. They looked like they just kept bouncing off of him like they were allergic to him. The fact that he kept his legs churning and dragged them - now he didn't think it was that big of a play. It wasn't a great design or anything like that. It wasn't a magic play or a trick play or anything. He just happened to have players coming at him from angles, and one would hit him from one side and knock him into somebody from the other side, and he just kept going. That's the most memorable play that I can remember."
Joe Morris completed the drive with a 17-yard touchdown reception. The Giants scored on their next two possessions on Simms' 34-yard pass to Stacey Robinson and Anderson's one-yard run and won the game, 21-17, despite rushing for a meager 13 yards.
Bavaro seems bemused that he continues to be lauded for the play 33 years after he caught the ball.
"It makes you feel good considering I didn't think it was that great of a play to begin with," he said. "It was very bad tackling. I'm glad I did something that is remembered 30 years later. I never thought it would last that long. At the time, I thought I had better plays. But as time goes by it's an honor."
Manningham's play occurred less than eight years ago, but it is also part of Giants lore.
They trailed the Patriots in Super Bowl XVLI in Indianapolis, 17-15, when they took possession of the ball at their own 12-yard line with 3:46 remaining. On the first snap, Manning looked right before turning left and unleashing a pass he could not have placed any better had he run down the field and handed it to Manningham. The 38-yard gain was the longest play on an 88-yard drive that ended with Ahmad Bradshaw's game-winning touchdown on a six-yard run and a 21-17 Giants triumph.
Manningham had a step on cornerback Sterling Moore, and safety Patrick Chung was sprinting over to deliver a Harrison-like. The perfectly-thrown ball dropped between them right into the hands of Manningham, who caught the ball and somehow kept his feet inbounds before getting pushed out of bounds at the 50. New England Coach Bill Belichick challenged the play, not believing Manningham had stayed on the field. But replays and referee John Parry confirmed that he did.
"On the sideline they were going like this (gesturing a successful catch), so I knew I was in," Manningham said. "It was a perfect throw. They rolled into cover-two at the last minute and I saw the corner was acting like he was going to backpeddle, but he came up to play cover-two and I extended to the side a little bit and worked him outside. Eli just put the ball on the money. Great pass protection, great ball. I knew where I was on the sideline. I knew I didn't have that much room. Good thing I wear (shoe size) 11s, because if I wore 11.5s, I don't think I'd have been in.
"It's a memorable moment in Giants history,. For the best one, I think it's David Tyree. That was awesome."
Manningham was asked at the dinner if he ever wears his Super Bowl ring.
"I brought it, but I didn't wear it," he said. "I feel like there's really no reason to, because basically everybody who's here, they have Super Bowls."
Not everyone, but many. Hostetler's story continues to resonate more than a quarter-century later. Whenever a backup quarterback steps up late in a season and leads his team to the Super Bowl – think Philadelphia's Nick Foles two seasons ago – Hostetler receivers numerous interview requests. And fans still want to talk to him about Super Bowl XXV.
"It's surprising how big that game is and was," he said. "That's something that never ceases to amaze me. People come out of the blue and just start talking about it."
Hostetler left the Giants after the 1992 season. He played four years for the Raiders – two each in Los Angeles and Oakland – before playing his final season in Washington in 1997.
"(The Giants' run at the end of the 1990 season) is a highlight for a lot of reasons," he said. "It was my kick start. It was my first opportunity. I'm proud of that because many have been given that opportunity and failed. The Super Bowl isn't very kind to inexperienced quarterbacks. I'll take my record and match it up against anybody's. I'm proud of that. I'm proud of the ability to take advantage of when the opportunity came."
Hostetler reveled in seeing former teammates like Anderson, Bavaro, Bahr, running back Lee Rouson and cornerback Mark Collins.
"I've always loved the Giants," he said. "I've always loved my time here. I've loved the Maras. They were just awesome to Vic (his wife Vicki) and I and our family. I just didn't have the opportunities that anybody would have loved to have had. But the opportunities I did have, I took advantage of. I love the guys I played with. I'm grateful for it."
Burress played his first five seasons in Pittsburgh before joining the Giants as a free agent in 2005 for the start of a four-year run. His biggest moment was catching Manning's pass to win Super Bowl XLII.
"It's the greatest Super Bowl to ever be played, still to this day," Burress said. "I played golf with (Michael) Strahan last week. We're all just tremendously close. It's the craziest thing. You would never understand or imagine. We're still in close contact with everybody. Antonio (Pierce) and Osi (Umenyiora). I mean just everybody. Brandon Jacobs, Ahmad (Bradshaw), all of us are still like this and recognize and understand that we had a group of guys that were very special. Not just to win it, but our relationships that we shared with each other."
Like Tyree and Hostetler, Burress is frequently approached by people who want to reminiscence about his Giant moment.
"In New Jersey and New York, it's bananas," he said. "Every day, every single day. What I've started to realize is that those kids who were 10, 11, 12, they're in college now. Those kids come up to me when I'm in New Jersey or New York City or whatever it may be, and say, 'Oh man, I had the best moment of my life. I was 12-years-old.' And now they're like 23, just getting out of college and so on. A lot of those kids who are in their early 20s, they were kids then. So, I get it a lot, which is a beautiful thing because it was a special moment for all of us."
Shockey was a standout on that team but couldn't play in the Super Bowl after breaking his leg in a Week 15 loss at home to Washington. He received a ring, of course, and was traded to New Orleans after that season. Like his close friend Burress, Shockey caught a game-winning touchdown pass in a Super Bowl; his was a two-yarder from Drew Brees to beat the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV 10 years ago.
Shockey won two state titles in high school in Oklahoma and a national championship at the University of Miami. Though he couldn't play in the final game, the ring he earned with the Giants is just as meaningful as the others.
"It was the first (pro) one I had," he said. "It was very special, obviously, playing in the second one and playing in the game and contributing and catching the touchdown pass. That means a lot as well. They both mean equal. They mean as much as the high school ones and the college one. It's very hard to get there and very hard to win, so to be a part of, and being very blessed by God going to all of those championship games and winning, one not being a part of, but they all a lot to me. I don't rank them or put one in front of the other. Like I said, probably the Giants one because it was the first one. But God blessed me and a couple of years later, I got another one."
Shockey denies that he has negative feelings about the Giants for trading him.
"Never at all," he said. "I actually have the utmost respect. I owe them everything in my life for trading up and getting me (n the draft). I'm a very loyal person, and I'll never turn my back against the New York Football Giants. I've had so many great conversations with Wellington Mara, the Duke, John Mara, the Tisch family. I saw Jonathan Tisch the other day when I got in on Thursday in the city. It was great reuniting with everybody. Like I said, I plan on being a part of these events and coming up here a lot more."
Shockey was elated to see former teammates like Rich Seubert, Burress and Tyree, reconnect with Bavaro and sit at dinner with Pope, who helped develop both into Pro Bowl tight ends. Their personalities couldn't have been more different. Shockey was brash and outspoken, and demonstrative on the field. Bavaro was quiet and reserved, so much so he says now his silence made him a "cult figure."
"I am so grateful that there was not as much social media as there is today when I coached Shockey, because I might have been in a mental institution," Pope said. "He was such a great athlete. Maybe the best athlete in an era, as far as what he could do. He could run like the wind and tough as nails. He started getting hurt a little bit. He didn't rehab himself the way he should have, which I wish I could have done a better job of getting him to do that. He was a news maker. He was either on Page Six or the front page. Fortunately, he was never in the obituaries. He was great on the field. That's where he was happiest. He's not unlike some other players that went through this Giants organization. You love for the game to start, because you knew where they were and what they were doing.
"Bavaro hardly ever talked. Then when he retired, someone told him he was doing public speaking. I said, 'What is he doing it in, sign?' He was a quiet, positive monster is what he was. Oh my gosh. Jeremy, he'll tell you the answer to the question before you ask him, and he didn't know what the question was sometimes. He was just such an overt personality. But his motor ran so fast. Mark's ran fast, but it ran internally. He'd walk around practice and then all of a sudden like a dynamite, he'd just explode. I think because Mark played in an era where there were a lot of great players and before there was so much transferring of players from team to team, his pedigree around the league was incredible. I'd see players at events and they'd say, 'Man, you have a monster for a player. He's great. Maybe the best there is.' He wasn't the fastest guy. He wasn't even really the biggest guy. But he was coldblooded tough. He'd practice, I remember in training camp up at Pace College, his shoes full of blood. He had blisters. He wouldn't even tell the trainers. He just had a pain threshold that was out of sight."
Pope, who also coached in Washington, Cincinnati, New England and Dallas, was asked to name his favorite of the 23 Giants teams he was associated with.
"I had four and a half.," he said of the four Super Bowl winners – and one loser. "I was fortunate. I coached seven guys that made it to the Pro Bowl in my career as an NFL coach. I don't know how much I helped any of them. What I did was find their strengths and try to play to them. They were all different, but it was fun. The position I coached was a lot of fun. Some guys get too much credit like the quarterbacks. They also get too much blame like the quarterbacks. A receiver catches a pass, he's a hero. He drops it, he's a goat. The tight ends are a great position to coach because they're a part of the line and they're a part of the receiving corps. They have to block, but they also have to be able to catch passes. They have to be gutsy because they have to go down the middle of the field where there are a lot of landmines. It's the kind of person that you'd like for your kids to be friends with if they were younger or older. That's the kind of guys I was fortunate enough to coach."
And they were fortunate to have him. Once a Giant, always a Giant is true whether you're a player or a coach.