EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The second loss in three weeks of a friend and mentor from his formative seasons with the Giants has left Harry Carson feeling sad and reflective.
Monday brought the announcement that John Mendenhall had passed away at the age 72. A standout defensive tackle who was in his fifth season when Carson joined the team in 1976, Mendenhall was a veteran who set an example and provided counsel on life in the NFL. His death followed by less than a month ago that of Marty Schottenheimer, who, as a Giants assistant coach, drafted Carson and switched him from a defensive lineman at South Carolina State to middle linebacker, where Carson played so superbly he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006.
Mendenhall played eight of his nine NFL seasons with the Giants. Schottenheimer, who won 200 games as a head coach with three teams, was 77 when he died.
"It's sort of hitting home now where I knew John was ill and I knew it was – kind of like with Marty – I knew it was just a matter of time," Carson said. "John was one of those players that I could always count on because he was just a tough S.O.B. He didn't back down from anything or anybody. He played football on his own terms, and I have really good memories playing with John."
Mendenhall was a 1972 third-round draft choice from Grambling. Carson was selected in the fourth round four years later, which bonded them even before they were teammates.
"In Black college football, you hear different players and where they go in the NFL, so when I was drafted to play for the Giants, I knew that John Mendenhall was on the team," Carson said. "He certainly embraced me because here I am, another Black guy from South Carolina State, from an HBCU, we have a tendency to look out for one another. But he was really good at his position. He did go to Grambling and there's a certain kind of work ethic that you acquire when you go to HBCU's, because there's always this understanding or feeling that people underestimate you. I think John definitely had situations where people underestimated him because of his size (6-1 and 255 pounds). He wasn't like six-foot-six, six-foot-seven, 300-and-something pounds. He was quick and stout, and when he lined up with Troy Archer and they were on that defensive line, they handled things pretty well."
View photos of former Giants defensive lineman John Mendenhall
While Schottenheimer was teaching Carson the basics of playing linebacker and the Giants' defense, Mendenhall became a role model for how to succeed in the rough world of the NFL.
"I just didn't realize that he was going to be sort of my personal protector, because I thought I was going to be playing line just like he was playing," Carson said. "Instead, I was playing linebacker in a 4-3 scheme and he was one of the tackles – he along with Troy and George Martin and Jack Gregory, that was the front four. John was stout, but he was quick, and he played the kind of ball that I would expect a guy of his stature would play. He attacked the center and guards, and he kept me free to make tackles."
Carson and Martin have been as close as brothers for 45 years and each man admired and respected Mendenhall, who was Martin's roommate when he arrived in 1975.
"They had different personalities, because George was that angel who did everything right, whereas John did what he wanted to do," Carson said. "It might not have necessarily been by the book, but John was John. John got the job done and at least while I was there in the years that we played together, he was productive, especially at stopping the run. But everybody sort of knows that John was a character. He was about having fun and he was a football player, but he was certainly about having fun playing football."
Mendenhall's passing saddened Carson not just because he was a teammate, friend and teacher, but he is another figure from the Giants teams of the 1970s and 1980s with whom Carson was once close and are now dead.
"I'm looking at those teams at that time and Jack Gregory's gone, Troy Archer is gone, John Mendenhall, Brad Van Pelt, and I'm just looking at what has transpired with the team since 1976-77," said Carson, who is 67. "You know, Bill Arnsparger is gone, Marty Schottenheimer is gone. Doug Kotar, and this is a little beyond that, he's gone. So is Jim Clack.
"When you sit down and you look at these guys and you have fond memories of them, you really do get in touch with your own mortality and you don't take anything lightly. Because these guys were really good players and good people, and they're no longer here. At some point, we all are leaving, but let's just make sure that we live our best life possible. Quite frankly, my motto is I'm just going to live the best life that I can while I can live that life."