East Rutherford, NJ - The late, great Wellington Mara often said, "once a Giant, always a Giant" to illustrate his belief that once someone wore a Giants uniform – whether for one game or 15 years – he was a lifetime member of the franchise.
Zeke Mowatt, George Martin and Bob Tucker all attended the Giants Alumin Celebration at the Timex Peformance Center before the 2009 season.
That spirit came to life at the Timex Performance Center before the start of the 2009 season, when approximately 80 ex-Giants gathered as part of the team's Alumni Weekend Celebration. They were introduced at halftime of the following day's season-opening victory vs. Washington.
The group included three Hall of Famers – Frank Gifford, Sam Huff and Harry Carson – and players from the 1960s, 70s, 80s and 90s, including Tucker Frederickson, Aaron Thomas, Ernie Koy, Fred Dryer, Bobby Duhon, John Mendenhall, Bob Tucker, Joe Danelo, Bart Oates, Brad Benson, Leonard Marshall, Raul Allegre, Rodney Hampton, Lance Smith, Thomas Lewis, Thomas Randolph and Chris Calloway.
Also in attendance were several members of the Mara family, including Ann Mara, Wellington's widow, and John Mara, the team's President and Chief Executive Officer. Laurie Tisch represented the Tisch family.
The ex-players relished the opportunity to meet Giants from different eras and to renew acquaintances with old friends. Some of the players hadn't seen former teammates in 30 or more years, but they renewed friendships as if they had spent time together the previous day.
"It's magical," said former tackle Brad Benson, who was joined by two other members of the famed Suburbanites offensive line, Oates and Karl Nelson. "I have been standing here thinking, 'I may and try and get a couple autographs from some of these guys.' There are some heroes here. I saw Pete Gogolak, Frank Gifford and some guys like that here. I mean, we looked up those guys, a lot, growing up. To be in the same room with them is pretty cool."
"I was a little nervous about it because I haven't seen most of the guys in a long time," said Frederickson, the No. 1 overall selection of the 1965 NFL Draft and a running back who played for the Giants through the 1971 season. "I live in Florida and I haven't been up in a while. Now that I am here it's just like it was yesterday. We tell them the same stories and the same jokes and we remember them. Freddie Dryer, Bob Lurtsema, Bobby Duhon, Bob Tucker - our whole crew is here. It's great, it's fun."
Huff played for the Giants from 1956-63 before he was traded to the Washington Redskins – a deal for which he still holds a grudge against former coach Allie Sherman. Huff has been an analyst on the Redskins' radio broadcasts since 1981, but a big piece of his heart has always been Giants blue.
"I was really looking forward to this because these are old teammates," Huff said. "These are not today's Giants. These are yesterday's Giants and we all know each other, were older, were all a little grayer, we're all a little wiser but a teammate is always a teammate. Football is like the military without guns and you never forget the guys that serve with you. I'm happy to be here for the people that I played with and the new people that I met and for the Mara family. They still have the highest respect for me and I still have a great love for them."
Fifty three years after they helped the Giants win the NFL championship, Huff still loves to needle Gifford.
"Well, Frank has always had the high life," Huff said. "He's Mr. Hollywood and who does he come in with, Ann Mara the owner of the Giants, right. Frank has always been a little bit different, so we were always jealous of Frank. We called him Mr. Hollywood and he liked that. One of the reasons I think I got traded from the Giants was when we scrimmaged we didn't let Frank get any yardage, because we hit him even in practice. So a lot of times he didn't scrimmage against us because we were real good defensively."
The younger men in the alumni group were just as happy to catch up with men who were once such an important part of their daily lives. Wide receivers Calloway and Lewis, and cornerback Randolph were Giants together from 1994-97. They shared a table with their wives or girlfriends, re-lived old times at the dinner and then headed into Manhattan to continue the storytelling.
"It's real nice," Calloway said. "I played here seven years and I had a great time. To see the guys here, Rodney, Lance, Thomas, it's just a great testimony to the organization.
"I think it's a great idea, it actually makes yourself feel like you were really part of something and not that you are forgotten," Lewis said. "You played a couple years had an impact on the team, had an impact on the history and now they are bringing you back and that makes me feel really good, just knowing that you are a part of something. People still remember you for what you did here and you are part of the family. So hopefully they continue this on going forward and it gets larger and larger and we get everybody here that should be here."
For many years, former teammates of Dryer wanted to bring him back into the Giants' fold. A defensive end from San Diego State who was the team's first-round draft choice in 1968, Dryer played just three seasons for the Giants. He was a member of the 1970 squad that missed a playoff berth because of a loss to the Rams in the season finale. Dryer led the team in sacks each of those three seasons with 8½ in 1969, 12 in 1970 and 8½ in 1971 (12 years before sacks became an official statistic). Dryer was traded to New England in February 1972 for three draft choices, then on draft day of that year he was dealt to the Rams. In 1973, he became the only player in NFL history with two safeties in one game (he still holds that distinction). Dryer later went on to a successful career as an actor, most notably starting in the television series Hunter, a crime drama.
What he did not do was reconnect with the Giants – until last month's Alumni Weekend.
"This is the first Giant event that I have been invited to," Dryer said. "So I go by the goodwill that was expressed by that invitation. It's good to see everybody. I haven't seen some of these people for 35 years. Life takes you a lot of different directions. I am always amazed by the passage of time and how funny life is. Nothing is guaranteed for tomorrow. So to take advantage of this opportunity to come back on this occasion is really a great thing to be a part of.
"When you're part of a football team it's such a strong fraternity and such a close knit group. The experiences that you have you know for a fact others have. So when you see one another there is a great deal of compatibility and you have a tendency to just fall into things. A lot of time has passed; 40 years have passed since I was drafted by the Giants and so it's a long time. You just don't want to associate yourself with sports, you want to catch up about life. So it's where do you begin."
"We have a bond, we have some good memories together," said Duhon, a running back who played for the Giants from 1968-72. "Freddie has gone off and done his own thing and he's very successful. We were all proud that we knew Freddie before he did it. We all have feelings for each other, we keep in contact with each other with phone, or Christmas cards or emails or whatever."
The event at the TPC began with the former players enjoying cocktails and hors d'oeuvres and touring the Giants' beautiful new training and office complex. When they stood in the team's plush, football-shaped locker room, they reminisced about the lockers they used in Yankee Stadium or the cramped quarters they endured in Yale Bowl when the Giants played their home games there.
"When we played in Yankee Stadium, that was our own stadium," Tucker said. "I mean, it wasn't our own, but we attributed it as our own because we were the only ones there at the time. Of course, when the Yankees were in the playoffs we had to bounce around and go play on different fields. But that worked well, it was convenient to get to, it was a good field to practice on and a great field to play on. The baseball diamond didn't take up that much of the football field, maybe from the 20-yard line in, and you could deal with that."
Wherever the players roamed around the TPC, it was easy to spot John Mendenhall, a defensive tackle from 1972-79. He was resplendent in a bright red suit he wore in honor of his favorite team.
"I wanted to be flashy," Mendenhall said. "Back in the day I did it also. I had a lot of suits made in New York, a lot of suits. On Fashion Avenue or whatever it was, if you told them you were a Giant, you'd get your suit half price. That was great in those days."
Mendenhall got emotional when he saw some of his more sedately-dressed compatriots.
"It's almost been 30 years since I have seen some of the guys I played with," Mendenhall said. "It's just like that, you don't forget nothing, you know. I saw some people I haven't seen in a long time, like Bob Tucker and Fred Dryer. You talk to them and they bring back the memories, they bring back the memories."
Following the cocktail hour, everyone in attendance headed to the TPC auditorium, where John Mara took the stage and spoke briefly. He introduced his mother, Ann, and joked that she is the real owner of the Giants. Mara told the ex-players how important it is to the organization that they remain close to their old team. He vowed to hold many more alumni events.
Mara said that in this, the final season of Giants Stadium, he was pleased to see so many former players who dated back to the Giants' Yankee Stadium days (1956-73). He added that one player in the crowd wore a Giants uniform in the Polo Grounds (that was Gifford, who hardly had to be goaded to stand and acknowledged the applause).
A video that included highlights of each attending player was shown. Suddenly, the room full of dignified professionals turned into an eighth-grade classroom. As the players were shown on the big screen, their friends would shout out their name or a joke as if they were in a junior high school assembly.
Carson then took the stage and urged the men to stay close to the Giants and each other and to fight for better benefits for former players, a cause he holds dear.
There was much more catching up and swapping stories at dinner, which concluded with everyone eating an incredible cake shaped and designed like a football field and baked by Buddy Valastro, "The Cake Boss" on TLC. Valastro is a huge Giants fan.
Bob Papa, the voice of the Giants, asked the attendees to remember Dick Lynch, his much-loved former partner in the radio booth, who passed away last year. "Dick would have loved this night," Papa said.
Everyone who walked through those doors did.
"This is so awesome, because I'm getting to meet guys that I used to see on film," said Stephen Baker, who was honored as the Alumni Man of the Year at the Giants' annual kickoff luncheon last month. "I met Mr. Sam Huff - I had never met him before. I thought that was so cool, because he was the first guy that they miked up. He was saying words like, 'You're going to get it, dadgumit.' When they miked L.T. (Lawrence Taylor) years later he was using words they had to 'beep, beep' out. It's just great to be amongst these legends. I need to pinch myself because I look up to all these guys, I really do."
"It's always good to see the guys, especially the guys that you haven't seen in a long time," Hampton said. "I was so excited to see some of these guys. I was just pumped up."
Hampton, like so many of those in attendance, played in Giants Stadium, which will close after this, its 34th season. Next year, the Giants will move into a beautiful state-of-the-art stadium that practically touches the old one. Many of the ex-Giants are nostalgic about the stadium, even if they didn't play there.
"I have had tickets the whole time it's been open," Frederickson said. "I had great tickets early on and haven't been back in a long time and one of the reasons I came up was to see one more game there."
The connection is even stronger for those who played there.
"I am a little sad that it's going to be torn down," Lewis said. "When you walk out there your first time into that arena and you see all those people and they are all Giants fans – there's nothing like it. You know these people have had their tickets for the last 40, 50 years and passed them down from generation to generation. It makes you feel good. This is a great organization. You have had a lot of good teams, a lot of teams with good management, but the Giants are a team that people remember because of their legacy. It was definitely a privilege to play here."
"I am one of the fortunate ones that have super memories of Giants Stadium," Benson said. "It's very nostalgic for me in a sense to see it going away. It does mean something. I have a lot of memories there, wonderful memories."
The players sat for hours and talked about their playing days, their accomplishments and disappointments after football, their families and countless training camps, games, plays and good times together. The laughter was loud and frequent. No one seemed to want to leave.
They also spoke frequently and lovingly about the man who one way or another brought them together and whose credo – once a Giant, always a Giant – is dear to their hearts. It is impossible to have played for the Giants and not come away with a Wellington Mara story or remembrance. Mr. Mara passed away four years ago, yet his presence was palpable in the room where the players he loved gathered. It doesn't matter what era they wore the Giants uniform, those players still revere him.
"To me, he was the best," Mendenhall said. "I was just telling a young kid that when I wanted a suit or something, I would go in there and talk to Well. I would call him Well back in the days, it was just like that with him. You knew you could go in and talk to him, tell him what you needed and what you wanted. If he could do it, he did it."
"He did so many great things," Huff said. "He could have been like George Steinbrenner if he wanted to be. He could have had his own television deal and more money than anybody else. But Wellington Mara knew if the owners didn't share television revenue then Green Bay would go out of business. And probably at that time Pittsburgh would have gone out of business. He knew being in New York he could make a lot more money than they could. Those were secondary markets for television. So he signed off on revenue sharing, which saved the NFL. That's the kind of person he was. He had the highest respect an owner ever had."
"I'll tell you a quick Wellington Mara story," Duhon said. "I was 21 years old and decided to stay in New York in the offseason. I had to do some work for the Giants. So I played golf in the offseason and Tucker and I would play golf at Winged Foot. This is 1969 and Mr. Mara says to me, 'Bobby, would you like to join Winged Foot?' I was a player who might not be on the team the next year and he was offering his sponsorship to me to join. Nobody else would do that. But the way, I was a member of Winged Foot for 40 years after I joined. That's the Mara family, the Mara tradition."
"I have great memories of Wellington Mara," said Danelo, a kicker from 1976-82. "Nobody knows this but me, but Wellington Mara came up to me when they signed Ali Haji-Sheikh (in 1983) and you could kind of see the writing on the wall after having played for awhile. He came up to me at practice one day. I was by myself getting ready to kick, he just walked up to me and said 'Don't forget what got you here.' He patted me on my back and I never forgot that. It made me feel real good, the owner came by. Hey, I'm a kicker, so I felt good about that. Great, great man. Few guys like him."
"What a great guy," Lewis said. "That's one of the things about management they were at our games whether it's cold, raining, hot. He was always out there, always talking to the players so he was definitely that type of owner that guys looked up to. Guys felt comfortable talking to him. You could always approach him, he would always approach you and just felt like he was connected. He was always in touch. So it was great seeing his son up there. (John) looks just like him. I was like, Man, you look just like your dad.'"
More importantly, he has the same value system. Because of that, the ex-Giants (Wellington Mara never used the word "former") will enjoy many more nights like the one they had last month.
"Wellington was venturing into this as well before he became sick," Tucker said. "He wanted to get the old guys back, so we did start an alumni operation. We didn't get it to the point that it is now, but now it's growing and John is picking up the pieces, so to speak. It's nice to see all these people here from all these different eras because you don't get a chance to see them coming across the country. I may see people around the New York area, but I don't get to see the Freddie Dryers, Tucker Fredericksons and Bobby Duhons. People I played with for years. It's so good to sit down and talk to them and tell stories and have a few laughs and remember this, that or the other thing."
Now they'll always remember the night they gathered for the first time at the Timex Performance Center.
If you'd like to submit a question or comment to Michael, click here.