Leaving a Mark
By Michael Eisen
Additional photography by Mike Malarkey
Because of a significant knee injury the year before, the Giants weren't sure tight end Mark Bavaro would be on the team in 1990. But once again he proved to be the standard-bearer of toughness.
Mark Bavaro caught hundreds of training camp passes in his nine seasons as a tight end for three NFL teams. He has a distinct memory of one such reception, 25 years after it occurred during the Giants' 1990 camp at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey.
"I remember catching a pass at an ordinary practice in training camp," Bavaro said. "I caught it, and I didn't think it was a big deal. But a lot of people were watching, and waiting to see what would happen. I made the play and I remember hearing a lot of claps from my teammates, because I think they were concerned. They were waiting to see if I was going to come back as well (as he had been) and just to hear that support from them was really heartwarming."
The applause and interest was not just due to Bavaro's popularity, which was exceptionally high among the players and coaches. On Oct. 22, 1989, he suffered a significant knee injury in a victory in San Diego. Then one of the NFL's very best tight ends, Bavaro missed the remainder of the season. He subsequently underwent reconstructive surgery and "then I just had a couple little minor subsequent ones just to tune it up, take a screw out or whatever it was."
Bavaro, who had a franchise tight end record 1,001 receiving yards during the 1986 championship season, was the epitome of the strong, silent player. He produced as a blocker and receiver, but seldom spoke publicly about it.
"The spirit and toughness, you didn't have to look any further than (number) 89," said Tom Coughlin, the Giants' wide receivers coach from 1988-90 and, since 2004, the team's head coach. "He was a great blocker, he was a physical football player and nobody caught the ball down the seam or through the middle of the field against cover 2 like this guy did. He took incredible hits and still was able to put the ball in great field position. He was just one tough, hard-nosed guy. Mark hardly ever said a word. He is a devout Catholic, a very religious guy, but a tough, tough guy. He didn't say much, but you wanted him on your team."
The Giants weren't sure he'd be on the team in 1990. Because of the severity of his injury, questions lingered about whether Bavaro would return to the field. They seemed to be answered when he caught the practice pass that excited his teammates. But Bavaro still had issues so serious the Giants' team physician soon questioned whether he'd play again.
"I was never the same, and I developed avascular necrosis in my knee midway through the season," Bavaro said. "At that point, I knew that my career was over. I didn't really talk much about it at the time, but Dr. (Russell) Warren had informed me that I had this condition and that it was going to have to be remedied at the end of the season. That cure was a bone graft that was probably going to nullify me from playing in the NFL. So I really thought it was my last season. I definitely knew it was my last season with the Giants."
He made the most of it. Bavaro finished second on the Giants with 33 receptions and tied for first with five touchdown catches in the regular season. Bavaro was also a punishing blocker for the Giants' eighth-ranked rushing attack.
"When healthy, he was the best tight end in the NFL," quarterback Phil Simms said. "You take the best of the NFL out of your offense, that's going to affect a lot of things - especially our team, because to this day, all of the tight end plays that we designed and ran are still being run by every team in the NFL. I would say if you were a tight end, we were heaven, without question. If you wanted success as a tight end, this was the place to go. There were some tight ends that came in and tried out for us and hung around for a little bit and they couldn't get over all the situations we (had) so that we could throw the ball to the tight end."
Simms said Bavaro was a trailblazer in catching a pass that is wildly popular in the NFL today.
"They look at me with one eye closed, but I always tell people that we were the first team to have as a major part of our offense the back shoulder throws," Simms said. "The throw when the defense isn't looking, throw it over their head, go up and make the catch and go to the ground. The Giants perfected those throws in the NFL.
"Bill would say, 'When Bavaro is covered, you know he is open, right?' I understood what he was saying. He wanted us to take more chances. Bavaro was big, so he could make all of those catches. He was limber and he had great hands. We had small wide receivers, so it got a point where if you want to give it to him, you better throw it behind him to give him more chances to catch the ball, which we were very good at. We took that to a much better level than anybody else and now every team is doing it."
Bavaro's knee got stronger throughout the 1990 season. When the playoffs began, it didn't feel as good as it had pre-surgery, but had improved enough for Bavaro to play his best football of the season. He led the Giants with 13 receptions in their three-game preseason. Bavaro had five catches in both the NFC Championship Game (including a critical 19-yarder to start the game-winning drive) and in Super Bowl XXV (four in the second half, with another 19-yard gain in the series in which the Giants scored the deciding points).
Bavaro's preseason premonition was correct; the Super Bowl victory against Buffalo was the last game he ever played for the Giants. After sitting out the 1991 season, Bavaro joined Bill Belichick's Cleveland Browns. He started all 16 games and caught 25 passes in '92. Bavaro played his final two seasons for the Philadelphia Eagles. Bavaro retired with career totals of 351 receptions, 4,733 yards, 39 touchdowns – and two Super Bowl rings. But the zenith of his career was coming back after a devastating knee injury to help lead the Giants to another championship.
"I honestly felt those last few games were the culmination of my career," Bavaro said. "We killed the Bears (31-3 in an NFC Divisional Playoff Game), and that was vindication from all of our bad losses to the Bears all those years. I just considered it was the cherry on top of my NFL sundae, and I was very glad to be able to help. I was more than happy, whether I helped or not to actually win the game. When that Super Bowl ended, I thought for all intents and purposes, my career was over."
To Giants fans, it was.