EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Growing up in Westchester County, New York, John Mara harbored football dreams like millions of other young boys. And like so many others in that region of the country, Mara's ambition was focused on the Giants.
But Mara didn't fantasize about throwing or catching touchdown passes, intercepting a fourth-quarter pass or kicking a game-winning field goal. He didn't even have to wear a uniform for his wish to become reality. Mara's family owned the Giants and he wanted to savor the signature moment when the franchise won a championship.
"One of the things that I dreamt about my whole life was being able to stand on that stage after winning a Super Bowl and then being able to accept a Lombardi Trophy," Mara said last week.
His father, the late, great Wellington Mara, had twice cherished that opportunity after the Giants' victories in Super Bowls XXI and XXV. When he passed away in 2005, John, the oldest of his 11 children, assumed Wellington's titles as team president and chief executive officer.
Mara fulfilled his bucket list moment on Feb. 3, 2008, when the Giants defeated the 18-0 New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII, 17-14.
This is the 15th anniversary of the victory Mara considers the greatest in Giants history, a significant achievement for a team approaching its 99th season. On Sunday, the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles will meet in Super Bowl LVII in the same venue – now called State Farm Stadium – as the Giants' historic triumph. Mara was asked to reflect on the Giants' 2007 season and their inspirational postseason run.
That Giants team finished 10-6, a common record reached in a most unusual fashion. In the second half of the season, the Giants played four home games and lost them all. They played four road games and won them all. After a dismal Sunday night loss on Dec. 16 to Washington, the Giants were 9-5. They were scheduled to travel to Buffalo the following week before closing the regular season in Giants Stadium against the undefeated Patriots.
Coach Tom Coughlin delivered a short, direct message to the players the day after the Washington game.
"I come into the room and say, 'Gentlemen, we have two games to go, we have to win one of these two games to get into the playoffs,'" Coughlin said. "'I would suggest that we go to Buffalo and win, because in the 17th week we're going to play against the 15-0 New England Patriots.'"
Mara agreed with Coughlin's premise that it was unwise leaving the Giants' playoff fate to a game against a team chasing history.
"I do remember feeling that way," Mara said. "My only thoughts were, 'Can we just qualify for the playoffs? It would be a positive, a victory, if we could just qualify for the playoffs.' You're not thinking about winning the Super Bowl at that point in time."
After falling behind by two touchdowns, the Giants rallied for a 38-21 victory on a wild weather day in Buffalo. With the fifth seed in the playoffs secure, the issue immediately arose whether Coughlin would play his starters against the Patriots. To the coach, there was no question.
"I remember Tom calling me, I think it was the day after that game," Mara said. "He called me to say that he wants to play the Patriot game to win the game, play everybody. And I said I was very supportive of that, and I think we owed it to the game, to the league. The fact that they were undefeated, we had to do that, I think. We couldn't lay down for them. I just remember the buzz in the whole stadium that night was as loud as I've ever heard it. The fans were on their feet most of the game. It was quite a night. And, obviously, I'm glad that we ended up doing that."
The Giants held a 12-point lead in the third quarter before the Patriots rallied for a 38-35 victory that completed their perfect regular season.
"The thing I remember was running into Bill Belichick on the service drive on our way to the locker room afterwards and congratulating him and him looking at me saying, 'We'll play again,'" Mara said. "And I thought, 'Yeah, right.' And sure enough, we got them again.
"(The victory) helped convince me that we were a good team. I wasn't even thinking about playing them again, though. I was just thinking, 'Can we win a playoff game or two?' That would've been a huge thing for us."
The first stop on the playoff road was a wild card game at Tampa Bay, which had an inferior record at 9-7 but got the home game by winning the NFC South title. Brandon Jacobs rushed for two touchdowns in a routine 24-14 victory against the Buccaneers.
"That, to me, was my goal: Can we just win a playoff game and see where that takes us?" Mara said. "But it did convince me that our team was starting to gel and maybe we had a chance to do something."
In the divisional round, the Giants faced the top-seeded, 13-3 Dallas Cowboys, who had pinned a pair of double-digit defeats on them in the regular season. In case advancing in the playoffs and defeating their bitter rivals didn't provide enough incentive, the Giants picked up more upon learning prior to the game that Dallas owner Jerry Jones had left tickets on his players' locker room stools – for the following week's NFC Championship Game. Jones clearly expected to host that game.
"That game was huge for me because of who it was – because it was Dallas," Mara said. "We had such a long history with them, and not all of it all that pleasant. It was at the game that Jerry put tickets to the championship game on their stools, so there was that part of it.
"I remember sitting in the old Texas stadium press box for that game, and (cornerback) R.W. McQuarters intercepted the ball (in the end zone on the Cowboys' final play). That, to me, was a thrill – beating Dallas in Dallas. And then knowing that we were going to play Green Bay in the NFC Championship, that was a thrill."
Against the Cowboys, Eli Manning completed 12 of 18 passes for 163 yards, including a pair of touchdowns to Amani Toomer. None of his 45 playoff passes had been intercepted. In his fourth season, the first overall selection in the 2004 NFL Draft was becoming the clutch quarterback the Giants envisioned.
"Toward the end of the '07 regular season, he had some poor games in there," Mara said. "He had one game against Minnesota where he threw some interceptions. I think the media was in an uproar, talking about how we should get rid of him – (they said), 'He's a bust. Coughlin's got to go.' That's what the headlines said. He played very well in that game against New England, but I think the game in Dallas was when, for me, he really started to shine as a potential star and give us a chance to win playoff games."
Mara hoped for one victory when the playoffs began. But after beating the Buccaneers and Cowboys, he had much grander thoughts.
"Now I'm thinking, 'We can get to the Super Bowl, we really can,'" he said. "'We can play with Green Bay.' The feeling in the locker room after that game, I think, was, 'We really have something here, and we have a chance to make it all the way to Arizona for the Super Bowl.' It was nice winning the Tampa game, but beating Dallas in Dallas in that situation, now we're thinking, 'We can get to the Super Bowl.' Of course, we have to go through Green Bay first."
That was a huge challenge, both strategically and meteorologically. The Packers were also 13-3, had defeated the Giants by 23 points in Week 2, and had pounded the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round, 42-20. And then there was a little matter of the weather. It was one-degree below zero at kickoff in Lambeau Field, with a wind chill of minus-23, making it the coldest game in Giants history.
"Obviously, the weather is something I remember very clearly," Mara said. "I remember walking out to the bus and thinking, 'How could we possibly play in this?' and 'This is such an advantage for them. They're used to it.' I did a once-around the field before the game and said, 'I'm not standing out here for this.' I got out of there and was up in the press box. It was back in the day where we used to sit in the press box, which is unimaginable now.
"But I think I underestimated the toughness that team had at that time, particularly the offensive linemen that we had back then and the defensive linemen, too. It didn't seem to faze them at all."
The teams played a close and entertaining game in the brutal conditions. Two Lawrence Tynes field goals gave the Giants an early 6-0 lead. Brett Favre's 90-yard touchdown pass to Donald Driver helped push the Packers ahead, 10-6. The Giants retook the lead at 13-10, the Packers regained it at 17-13 and the third quarter ended with the Giants on top, 20-17, after Ahmad Bradshaw's four-yard touchdown run. Mason Crosby's 37-yard field goal knotted the score at 20-20.
With 2:05 remaining, Bradshaw scored the apparent go-ahead touchdown on a 48-yard run. But the play was nullified by a holding penalty on guard Chris Snee, who insists to this day, "it was a bad call."
"I remember slamming my fist on the table in front of me and probably saying a few things that I probably shouldn't have because, again, you're in the press box," Mara said. "You're not supposed to do any of that stuff there. How can you make a call like that in a championship game at that stage of the game? When you look at the replay, that further strengthened my view that the call was one that shouldn't have been made."
The drive ended when Tynes missed a 43-yard field goal attempt with 6:49 remaining in the game. Tynes' 36-yard try as time expired in the fourth quarter also sailed wide left.
"I think it was as he's lining up for the second one that he missed, media people in the press box turned around to congratulate me," Mara said. "'(I thought), Congratulations? Stay away from me, he hasn't made it yet.' And then, of course, he misses."
Mara was afraid the Giants had squandered their opportunity to win, and his feeling of dread was exacerbated when Green Bay won the overtime coin toss. But on the second play, cornerback Corey Webster intercepted a Favre pass intended for Driver, giving the Giants the ball at the Packers' 34-yard line.
"I felt like we had our chances, and you can't give Brett Favre and the Packers that many chances," Mara said. "You're not going to win. So, it was bleak for me at that point. But you get into overtime, and then all of a sudden, Corey Webster makes that play. And now, we have a legitimate shot to win it."
After two Bradshaw runs and an incomplete pass, Tynes took the field for the third time to try a 47-yard game-winner.
"I'm thinking, 'What's he doing? I can't believe we're going to try this again.'" Mara said. "And sure enough, he makes it, and we erupted in the press box. And then we ran from the press box to the locker room to get down there in time. It's a long haul from the Lambeau press box to the locker room. I just remember what a thrill that was."
Although the score was close throughout, the Giants dominated the game statistically. They had significant advantages in total yards (377-264), first downs (24-13) and time of possession (40:01-22:34). The defense held Green Bay to only 28 rushing yards (the Giants had 134). With frozen fingers, Manning completed 21 of 40 passes for 251 yards. Plaxico Burress caught 11 of them for 151 yards.
"Eli played great," Mara said. "Plaxico was terrific, and then we get the interception in overtime. All I could think about on the plane going home was, 'Man, we're going to the Super Bowl.' It had been a long time since we'd been there and all the things that you have to do to get ready for that and dealing with the family issues there, trying to get everybody what they needed to be able to go. With the rest of the organization, who can go?"
View iconic photos from the Giants' Super Bowl XLII victory over the undefeated Patriots.
Their opponents here in Arizona were, of course, the Patriots, who had remained perfect with postseason victories against Jacksonville and San Diego. But the Giants were confident, thanks largely to their narrow defeat in the regular season finale.
"We're in the Super Bowl – unbelievable," Mara said. "We can play with these guys. I don't know if we can beat them, but I know we can play with them. And that was a great feeling. It was daunting because you hate to get to the Super Bowl and lose it. That sticks with you for a long time – as Super Bowl XXXV (a 34-7 loss to Baltimore) did."
The week prior to the game included some unnerving Giants challenges. Burress had seldom practiced all season because of his ankle injury, and then he slipped emerging from the shower and sprained his medial collateral ligament. They didn't know if he would play in the Super Bowl until shortly before kickoff.
With one receiver down, they became concerned when another wideout, David Tyree, dropped just about every pass thrown to him in practice two days before the game.
"I felt sick watching that, thinking, 'How are we going to beat these guys without Plaxico if David's having these kinds of problems?'" Mara said. "I was at every practice that week. And I can't say that I felt overly confident after that."
At that point, the Giants had become road warriors, winning 10 consecutive games away from Giants Stadium.
"Which was something that gave me a little added sense of confidence," Mara said. "We've got something going here. We're winning on the road. And I know that they believe they can win. So, that gave me a little bit more confidence with that, particularly when it appeared Plaxico wasn't going to be able to play in the game."
Burress caught two passes – Manning's first (a 14-yarder) and last (the game-winning 13-yard touchdown with 35 seconds remaining) of the game. Tyree shook off his horrid practice and scored the Giants' first touchdown on a five-yard Manning pass. On the game-winning drive, Manning and Tyree teamed up to make arguably the greatest play in Super Bowl history. Manning somehow escaped the jersey grab by defensive lineman Richard Seymour and threw the ball to Tyree, who made a spectacular catch by securing the football against his helmet.
"To break out of it was something that Eli was not really known for, to say the least," Mara said. "The fact that he got out of that and was able to make that throw is still amazing to me. It looked like he was down, and I remember thinking, 'It's going to be fourth down.' It's pretty bleak. It would've been fourth-and-long against this defense. But he gets out of it and wings it. It's stuff that legends are made of."
As is the reception.
"I couldn't believe that he caught it," Mara said. "I'm saying, 'Hurry up, let's get the next play off.' And then you're looking at the replay like, 'My God, he did catch it.' It's still amazing to me that he was able to hold onto the ball. He's got (Patriots safety) Rodney Harrison trying to get it away from him – one of the best defensive players ever. It's just an amazing play. Once that happens, now you're thinking, 'They're not going to stop us now.'"
Amid the pandemonium and pressure, Mara had to ignore a somewhat comical challenge and also seek assistance from a higher authority.
"So, there's seven or eight minutes to go in the game," he said. "And these two guys come into the suite dressed in chef's outfits with the hats and everything. And they wheel in this big cart and said, 'Would anybody like some fondue (laughs)?' I turned, and said, 'Are you out of your minds? There's seven minutes to go in the Super Bowl. We don't want any damn fondue.' I felt bad, looking back on it. He was just doing his job. He kind of turned around, and he took the cart out. But are you kidding me? It's the Super Bowl. Fondue?"
Unlike the sportswriters in Green Bay, Mara's family knew to leave him alone in the Super Bowl owners suite.
"I'm pacing up and down," he said. "They have that on T.V. – me pacing up and down because it's still very much in doubt. I had a medal at the time, which I kept in my pocket, that this nun sent me. She was from New Orleans. She originally was in our parish in Rye (N.Y.), and then she was in New Orleans. I think it was Our Lady of the Prompt Succor. It was named after this saint who helped save the city of – I want to say it was New Orleans – from a fire way back when. She sent it to me for good luck. It was in my pocket. They show me on T.V. I'm constantly holding onto it. I'm thinking to myself, 'You know what? This is pretty sacrilegious, but it's working. I'm going to keep doing it.' So, I held onto that thing. I still have that medal at home. I think the magic has worn off, though. It certainly worked then."
Following Burress' touchdown, Brady threw three incomplete passes and was sacked for a 10-yard loss by Jay Alford.
"After Plaxico scored, I'm looking at the clock, and there's still time left," Mara said. "And it's still Tom Brady, and all you need is three points to tie us. There was temporary elation, I would say. But still concern (that) we've got to hold them now.
"The big thing was Jay Alford getting that sack of Brady. Then, you're thinking, 'We've got this. We've got this.' (Patriots wide receiver) Randy Moss still kind of gets behind Corey Webster, and I thank God the pass is over (his head). It's amazing that Brady threw it that far."
The instant the ball hit the ground and the Giants' three-point victory was secured, Mara began racing from the suite to the field with two of his siblings, but without perhaps the most vital member of clan.
"I had (brothers) Chris and Steve with me," he said. "We ran out of there. The security guard had been trying to get me to go down on the field before that. There was no way I was doing that until I knew we were going to win the game. So, he takes us down there. We get down there, and I run out onto the field. And I think to myself, 'I forgot my mother (the irrepressible Ann Mara, who died in 2015).' I left her up there. And I said, 'I am never going to hear the end of that.'
"Thank God before the trophy presentation was made, she got to the field. But the look that she gave me was something. Let's put it this way: Four years later, I did not forget her at Super Bowl XLVI."
A stage was hastily constructed on the field. With players, coaches, team personnel and fans celebrating wildly in a blizzard of confetti, Mara attained his lifelong goal when he was presented the Vince Lombardi Trophy by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
"That to me was a dream come true," he said. "Being handed that, that was pretty cool. It was a pretty cool moment in my life."
The Giants won Super Bowl 28 months after Wellington Mara passed away.
"I was thinking how cool it would've been to have had him experience that and be on that stage," Mara said. "Fortunately, I got to see him in '86 and in '90 do that. But I was thinking that – that it would've been cool to have him standing there and let him accept the trophy and just be in the background. But there's no question that I thought about him a lot that whole week and certainly at that moment as well."
Mara didn't see Belichick until he attended the NFL combine later that month. But another encounter with the Patriots resonates to this day.
"I was walking off that stage after accepting the trophy, and the celebration's going on," Mara said. "And there's (Patriots chief executive officer) Robert Kraft and (Patriots president) Jonathan Kraft on the field, waiting there to congratulate me and Steve (Tisch), which I thought was a pretty classy move on their part. And they did the same thing four years later. And I thought to myself, 'I don't know that I would've had the strength to have done that in that situation – to have to sit there and endure everybody else celebrating around me and then congratulate.' It's one thing to walk out there quickly and do it and then get out. But they had to endure all that celebration that was going on. And they still did it. I'll never forget that."
Mara expressed an opinion that night that he believes remains true today.
"I really felt as though it was the greatest victory in the history of the franchise," he said. "I said that because we were playing what was arguably the best NFL team ever. They had broken all these records, and they were undefeated. And nobody gave us a chance to win. And we go there and beat them in the Super Bowl. So, it's hard to find a game in our history that could've topped that."
Two days after they defeated the Patriots, the Giants were cheered by approximately one million fans in a ticker tape parade up the Canyon of Heroes in Manhattan.
"It's hard to describe how awesome that is," Mara said. "I'd like to be able to do that again."