Chances are your children, and theirs, are Giants fans, too. And chances are they’re still on the waiting list for season tickets — just like you were for all those years!
This incredible loyalty was the work of one man, Wellington Mara, one of New York’s pre-eminent Irish-American gentlemen of the 20th Century.
Mara died more than a week ago, at the age of 89. By all accounts, he lived a faithful, good life, filled with the kind of love and satisfaction that few of us ever realize. He also left behind 40 grandchildren, and he said he remembered all their names, if not their birthdays.
The National Football League’s royalty gathered in St. Patrick’s Cathedral to pay tribute to this link to another age, this man who served as bellboy for his father’s team in the mid-1920s. But amid all the tributes, there seemed to be an unspoken message. That is: Gee, it was great that Wellington Mara was such a nice guy who seemed to value things like sportsmanship, class and good behavior. Of course, we don’t do that sort of thing anymore.
The New York Giants remain one of the NFL’s class acts, thanks to Mara’s example. But the league as a whole shows little indication that it values Mara’s values.
Professional football is just a business now, and while it surely was just that even under Mara, let it be said that the New York Giants — unlike most teams — do not attempt to wring every cent it can from the suckers who buy season tickets. Nowadays, some of Mara’s colleagues charge fans a “license fee” for the privilege of retaining their tickets from season to season. Some of Mara’s colleagues treat players like so many spare, and interchangeable, parts. And some of Mara’s colleagues are willing to put up with behavior that might land a mere mortal in jail — so long as that behavior results in winning records and playoff appearances.
While Mara’s Giants are not without flaws, some of them related to the big business of sport, and while some players have at times not worn the team’s colors with dignity, the team he owned for so long has avoided the kinds of scandals that now plague the sport.
And that’s a reflection on Mara’s character. He surely was a throwback, and in the days after his death, it seemed clear that everybody in professional football realized that there was nobody else like him.
The obituaries also focused on an extremely odd but utterly telling statistic. They noted that under Mara, the Giants won two Super Bowls.
And yes, they certainly did, and they were glorious wins for a tremendous team.
But here’s an amazing fact that so many chose to ignore. Under Mara, the New York Giants have won six NFL championships, including the two Super Bowls. But in the modern way of thinking, only the Super Bowls seem to matter.
But not to Mara. He didn’t wear his Super Bowl rings, but he did wear the ring the Giants won in 1956 — their last title in the old, pre-Super Bowl era. More remarkably, the Giants played in 15 NFL Championship games from 1933 until their last appearance in a pre-Super Bowl championship, in 1963.
For all the recent, Super Bowl era successes of the San Francisco 49ers, Pittsburgh Steelers, Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots, the Giants’ record of success is unmatched. And it all occurred in Mara’s long lifetime.
Like so many Irish-Americans who grew up in or around New York, I was raised a Giants’ fan, and, wouldn’t you know, married into a family of Giants family. The first birthday present I can remember was a Giants’ jersey (number 88, for my eighth birthday — worn then by tight end Aaron Thomas).
So it was with considerable awe that I approached Mara a few years ago for a book I was compiling about the life of John Cardinal O’Connor, an adopted Irish-American son of New York whose football loyalties I never did ascertain (although being a son of Philadelphia, he may well have rooted — secretly — for the dastardly Eagles).
Mara graciously granted me an interview, and shared several poignant stories about the late Cardinal. I only learned later that Mara himself attended Mass daily, and was a generous giver to all kinds of Catholic and Irish causes.
Of course, we spoke about the team. The Giants were less than a year removed from their most recent Super Bowl appearance, in January, 2001, and I reminded Mara of the words he spoke to a cheering crowd when his team won the NFC championship that year by routing the Vikings. He said something to the effect that people had derided the team all year, but now they were NFC Champions and on their way to the Super Bowl.
He laughed, and we agreed that there would be more Super Bowls in this team’s future.
As it happened, we were both wrong.
But, as Mara surely knew, another Super Bowl surely is around the corner.