Frank Gifford: Icon

Tuesday, August 20, 2013 |

 I recently had the chance to fulfill a life-long dream by interviewing Giants legend Frank Gifford for the Fall 2013 issue of Athletes Quarterly magazine, which I serve as a contributing editor. The version of the interview that runs in the magazine was edited down significantly due to space limitations, so I figured I'd post the full, unabridged 4,000-word interview here for the Giants diehards who might be interested. Enjoy.

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MW: Believe it or not it’s been almost 50 years since you hung up your cleats, yet you still hold a number of meaningful records. First, you still hold the Giants franchise record for touchdowns scored, with 78. 

FG: I find that kind of amazing, don’t you? We’ve had so many great players over the years—Tiki Barber and others [editor’s note: Barber ranks second behind Gifford with 68 touchdowns]. What it really says, I think, is that so many [of the Giants best offensive players] played at the same time, so they kind of divvied everything up. Back when I was playing, I was the one who got the ball once we got down near the goal line, and I think that’s part of the reason why the record has held up. But I kind of like it [Laugher]. 

MW: You also have the NFL record for touchdown passes by a non-quarterback, with 14. It’s unlikely, in my opinion, that this record will ever be broken. 

FG: I don’t think anyone’s going to come out of the backfield to throw many touchdowns either. The game just isn’t like that anymore. 

MW: But it was such an effective play for the Giants teams you played on. Why do you think the halfback option has kind of been taken out of today’s game? 

FG: I don’t know, really, other than that the quarterbacks today are such good passers and coaches don’t want to take the ball out of their hands. But that’s not the reason it was successful for us. I mean, Charley Conerly had a really good arm. Y.A. Tittle had a really good arm. Don Heinrich had a good arm. [Vince] Lombardi liked the play, though. When Lombardi came and took over with the Giants as our offensive coordinator, he wasn’t terribly happy with the quarterbacks we had throwing the ball, and he knew I was a quarterback at USC until my senior year, when I went to tailback. So I had played both positions and actually, I tried to return to quarterback with the Giants. But they didn’t have anyone at running back, so I just had to stay there. But today the quarterbacks are so good that there’s no question who’s going to throw the ball. 

MW: Was the option pass something that you guys practiced a lot? 

FG: Not really. I was the only one doing it, so maybe, at the end of a practice session, Lombardi would say, “let’s go to the 49 Option,” which is what we called it in the huddle. It was Brown Right 49 Option. Unless I might come out of the huddle and say [to our tight end], “Schnelker, take it short this time.” That’s just the way we did things then. I don’t think they do that so much anymore, but we had kind of a mutual agreement society in our huddle. Charley Conerly loved input. I’d walk into the huddle and it would be third and three or something and I’d say, “give it to me on 47 Slant.” And he’d say, “on three,” and we’d break; my old Mississippi buddy. [Halfback] Alex Webster would do the same thing. He’d say, “let’s try Trap 29,” and then [fullback Mel] Triplett might get in and Charley’d say “hush up.” But it was that kind of a huddle, and I don’t think you have too much of that today. Now they call everything from the sideline, or from up above. 

L to R: Alex Webster, Charley Conerly, Mel Triplett and Gifford
MW: Let me ask you about Charley. I read a Dave Anderson story not too long ago which said that when you got your call from the Hall of Fame, you were a little bit embarrassed to accept it because Charley hadn’t yet been enshrined. Now 36 years have passed, and Charley’s still not in.  

FG: For the life of me, I can’t figure it out. I mean, you look back and think about how, for a long time there, they used to split the quarterback duties. During the championship years, Don Heinrich would open up at quarterback. [Head Coach] Jim Lee Howell had a thing about that, and he wouldn’t let Lombardi change it. So Don Heinrich would be in there for about a quarter, and then in would come Charley. And I guess that had an impact on Charley’s numbers. And some of the voters who didn’t know Charley, they might’ve looked back and said, “well, why was he on the bench during the first quarter of games?” I really don’t know. I mean, I’ve campaigned myself for him and I think it’s wrong. 

MW: So you still think he belongs? 

FG: Yes. Absolutely he does. If I belong in, he belongs in.  

MW: I think so, too. Maybe one day the Veterans Committee will give him another look. 

FG: Oh, I think they will someday. It’s just too bad that they couldn’t have done it in his lifetime. 

MW: The Giants teams you played on with Charley and later with Y.A. Tittle competed in six championship games in eight years, from 1956-1963, but you only managed to win one title, in 1956. 

FG: Well, that first year, 1956, was when we made major changes offensively. It was the first year that I was the team’s key offensive player. And we treated the T-formation almost like a single wing, which is what I had played at USC. That was a big help, because when we’d shift from the T-formation into a single wing, I’d take the snap. The Giants coaches didn’t quite know what do with me, really. I could throw the ball. I could catch the ball. I could run the ball. I wasn’t the best any of those three things, but I had a few really good years, mainly because they gave me the opportunity to do those things. 

MW: Was the 1956 team the best of those six teams?  

FG: That’s hard to say. I thought we were really good in 62. 58 we were good, even though we lost in the sudden death game. I’d hate to have to pick it. I really would. 

MW: Well, speaking of that sudden death game, I know you wrote about it in your most recent book, The Glory Game, but are you still convinced that you were the victim of a bad spot? [Editor’s note: In the final minutes of the 1958 championship game, with the Giants clinging to a three-point lead, Gifford carried on third-and-four from the Giants 40 and appeared to have made a first down that would have enabled the Giants to run out the clock. Baltimore's Gino Marchetti broke his leg on the play, though, and in the confusion the official marked the ball just short of the marker. As this was before the days of instant replay, the Giants had no choice but to punt. Johnny Unitas then led the Colts to the game-tying field goal in the closing seconds and then, in the league’s first ever sudden-death overtime, the winning score.] 

FG: Oh yeah [Laughter]. But you know, I also understand it. I talked to the official, Ron Gibbs, and he agreed. Marchetti was moaning and groaning, “my leg! My leg!” and the officials were yelling “get off him! Get off him!” They marked the ball and I looked down at it and was like “good God”, because I wasn’t even thinking we didn’t get the first down. I knew I’d made it. No question. And the way I see it—the way I still remember it—I lost about a yard on the mark. And I just couldn’t believe it. And then years later the official admitted it. He said “you were right, Frank. We gave it a bad mark.”  

MW: Wow. To think of the impact of that spot. I mean, it changed the course of sports history. 

FG: It absolutely did. I mean, people look back at that game as one that kind of gripped the whole nation. It went into overtime and all and was picked up by satellite and sent across the country, and that was the first time we had been able to do that. It was a blend of a lot of things that really helped the game of pro football. And of course you had names like Unitas and Marchetti and other names that people had hardly heard of on the West coast, even, at that time, spread across the country.

With Vince Lombardi
MW: One interesting thing about your career is that it spanned the coaching careers of two true legends, Steve Owen [the Giants head coach from 1931-1952] and Vince Lombardi [the Giants offensive coordinator from 1954-1958]. 

FG: The legendary status for Steve Owen was established long before I arrived in New York. He had been there a long, long time. Owen’s Giants were strictly a single-wing team, and they had players like [Hall of Famer] Mel Hein and guys like that. But modern football came to the Giants with Vince Lombardi. And, later, Allie Sherman to some degree. But Lombardi came and brought in the T-formation, and that was the big change. 

MW: Were there any similarities between Owen and Lombardi? 

FG: Nobody liked Steve Owen. He was old school. He had a big cud of tobacco in his mouth all the time, dripping down his chin and onto his chest. As far as I was concerned, he wasn’t much of a coach. He really only cared about defense. He didn’t care about offense. He was old fashioned in the sense that he wanted the game to be a tug-of-war at the line of scrimmage. Lombardi, on the other hand, cared deeply about the offense. Perhaps too much. 

MW: As a player who experienced, first-hand, a very serious head injury… 

FG: Can we get this right, please? I’ve tried to do it many, many times, but it keeps coming up. It wasn’t a head injury. It was a neck injury. I got hit by [Hall of Fame Eagles linebacker] Chuck Bednarik on a crossing pattern. And I went back and snapped my head back on the field, which was kind of semi-frozen. And it stunned me. I wasn’t knocked unconscious or anything, but it did stun me. It wasn’t all that serious, really, but I was going to be out the rest of the season because the doctors didn’t know quite what to do. This was before they had CAT scans, you know, so I went to have my head X-rayed, and of course my head was all right. But I took some time off and then I came back and played three more years and made the Pro Bowl at a new position, wide receiver. 

Hauling in a pass vs. The Cleveland Browns
MW: That’s really interesting, because it’s been widely reported and, I think it’s fair to say, commonly believed that you suffered a severe concussion on that play. What was it that happened to your neck? 

FG: Years later, in the seventies, I started getting numbness in my arms. So [Giants team physician] Dr. [Russ] Warren sent me to go get a CAT scan of my neck. And when I had the scan, the technician working the machine said, “were you in a car wreck?” And I said, “no, not that I know of.” And it turned out I had multiple fractures of a couple of vertebrae in my neck. Had I continued to play and hadn’t taken that year off, I don’t know what might have happened. It probably would have been the same result, because the neck healed up on its own. It wasn’t like we put my head or neck in a cast or anything. There were fractures—not complete fractures, but enough that they left a calcium trace. And when they came up with the CAT scan, you could see them. It’s an interesting neck [Laughter]. 

MW: So the league, over the past few years, had made efforts to ensure greater player safety, specifically with regard to blows to the head. Do you think those efforts to make the game less violent are affecting its quality?  

FG: No, I don’t. The players today are so much bigger, stronger and faster than we ever were. The collisions, back when I was playing, were rather violent. Many players would look to hit an opponent in the head, as a means of intimidation. So I think it’s a good thing that they’ve done, to get rid of that. I don’t think it changes the game in terms of its attractiveness or even its violence. I think it’s really a good thing. These guys are so big and strong that they’d really be hurting each other a lot more often. 

MW: Do you think the league does enough to take care of its retired players, specifically the players now suffering from the effects of brain injuries? 

FG: They really are trying. I’ve read a lot of things about what they’re doing, and at least it seems like they’re making a real effort. From the Commissioner right down, they’ve begun to shown great concern about some of the players. And there’s many, many more players now than there were when I played. I mean, we had twelve teams and now there’s what, thirty-two? Active rosters have increased from something like 35 to 53, so there’s just a lot more players to care for when they retire. 

MW: I’d like to ask you about [late Giants owner] Wellington Mara. Can you talk about the significance of his friendship in your life and career, as well as his importance to the NFL?

With the late Wellington Mara at Mara's 1997 Hall of Fame induction
: Well, the Mara family were key figures in just about everything the NFL did that was good, going back to the days of [Giants founder] T.J. Mara, Wellington’s father. I don’t know if you know this, but he was a bookmaker, back when bookmaking was legal and honest and highly respected. People have written many times, in almost a sneering sort of a way [about Wellington], well, what can you expect from the son of a bookmaker? But I couldn’t expect anything better. And when it came time for me to go into the Hall of Fame, I requested him as my presenter. He was always there for me as an owner and later on as a friend. Any major decision I made after I got done playing football, I always discussed it with Wellington. He, along with his brother Jack, meant a great deal to the NFL. Instead of fighting against expansion, they realized that it was a good thing, and they treated it in such a way that it was handled properly. If you look at the way that the NFL handles itself today business-wise, in just about every way, you really have to respect it. And the Maras set the tone for that, along with the Halases [the owners of the Chicago Bears]. But it was mostly the Maras because the Maras were in New York, and New York was the big thing, especially when television hit and they started sending games around the country. I have nothing but respect for the Mara family, which has carried on the tradition. [Wellington’s son] John has done a tremendous job, and I see [Wellington’s widow] Ann quite frequently. I go to the home games with her. They’re just a wonderful, wonderful family. 

MW: Television certainly helped increase your exposure, which led to a lot of opportunities for you to appear in advertisements. You endorsed a lot of products over the years, from Jantzen sportswear to Vitalis hair tonic. But one of the products you appeared in ads for was Lucky Strike cigarettes. And I’m wondering if, knowing what we now know about the adverse health effects of tobacco, you have any regrets about your association with Lucky Strike?

FG: I do, but only in the sense that when the Surgeon General’s report came out, I very openly quit smoking. I quit the day the report came out. And that was the end of the advertising, too. I was making more doing that—potentially, anyway—than I was playing football. But that was the end of it. I said, “I’m not going to do it anymore.” It’s been kind of lost in the pages of history, I guess, but that’s exactly what happened. 

MW: As a broadcaster, you were in the booth when Howard Cosell announced, during a 1980 Monday Night Football telecast, that The Beatles’ John Lennon had been assassinated. Can you tell me a little bit about what that experience was like? 

FG: We were in the really early stages of the popularity of pro football, because we were the first to go prime time. And it was amazing how many things happened on Mondays. The John Lennon thing was really shocking to me, because I was a Beatles fan, as were my kids. And I just could not believe it. Howard wanted to go with it as soon as the news reached us, but I wouldn’t let him do it for quite a while. I knew we’d have to break it—we couldn’t sit on it any longer—so we finally did. But I made him hold it up until we called New York and got the news people on the line, and they confirmed that it indeed had happened. So nationally, we broke the story. Or rather Howard did, and, as he did in many situations, I thought he handled it beautifully. 

MW: Most athletes, when they transition into the broadcast booth, become color commentators. And you did a little of that early in your career, too. But when you got to Monday Night Football, they had you doing play-by-play. Can you talk about the challenge of doing play-by-play, as opposed to color, on such a high-profile national broadcast? 

FG: I’d gone into broadcasting while I was still playing. I was doing nightly news shows, reading prompter, and even on a few occasions sitting in for guys like [CBS news anchor] Bob Trout, one of the finest newscasters in the history of television. We worked as a team, so it wasn’t that I was inexperienced. I think most of the guys who go into broadcasting as color guys have never had the experience, professionally, of getting a countdown to commercial where you have to hit it exactly because you’re going national with it, but that was something I did on a routine basis almost every night. So it wasn’t that difficult for me to make that transition, whereas it would be for just a player walking off a football field. That player would be knowledgeable about the game of football—much more knowledgeable than the people he was talking to—but he wouldn’t necessarily be able to handle the intricacies of what goes on in the booth. How you get into commercials, how you get out. You’ve got a guy talking in your ear counting down, 10, 9, 8, 7 while you’re wrapping up a piece of action on the field, trying to end your call on the count of 1. But I had that background, and I had done it for many years. 

MW: How would you characterize your relationship with novelist Fred Exley? 

FG: [Laughter] Oh, wow. I remember someone telling me, “there’s this guy named Fred Exley who’s written a book about you.” And it was really bizarre, but that’s how I met him. I got this phone call. He turned out to me quite a guy. Tragically. He had all kinds of multiple problems, I guess. You hear about somebody writing a book and then you read the book and it’s like, what the hell? This guy’s been living with me! [Laughter]  But I came to know him and admire him—he had a really brilliant talent—but he had multiple weaknesses, and I think that showed up a lot later on. 

MW: Did you ever drink with him? 

FG: I don’t really recall that, and if I did [drink with him] I bet I probably would. 

MW: But you two became friends over time? 

FG: We’d talk back and forth. I mean, he’d call me just out of the middle of nowhere. Sometimes he’d call and it’d be 3 or 4 in the morning or something in L.A. and I’d think, it’s late here, where the hell is he? [Laughter]  

MW: I’ve always wanted to know what you thought of that book. 

FG: I was amazed when I read it. I mean, the guy had been shadowing me and I had no idea. It’s kind of an eerie feeling when you think about it.   

MW: Scary, even. I might have been a little bit afraid. 

FG: Well, yeah. Because you never know. I’d probably be more concerned today than I was then because there weren’t as many kooks around. But later I really came to know him and he was really a wonderful person.

The Concourse Plaza Hotel
MW: I read that during the season, you and a lot of your teammates and your families used to live near the Stadium at The Concourse Plaza Hotel. Can you describe what that experience was like? 

FG: You have to realize that we weren’t making the kind of money the players are making today. Some of those guys could buy the Concourse Plaza Hotel today [Editor’s note: The hotel is now a senior citizens home owned and operated by the City of New York]. When I was living there—I don’t recall exactly when it was, the mid-to-late fifties—I was only making fifteen, eighteen, up to twenty thousand dollars a season at most. And the Concourse Plaza Hotel was very expensive, even then. Prior to that, my first few seasons, I couldn’t even afford to live there. I lived downtown on the West side, at 100th and Broadway. And when I finally got a raise I decided it’d be a lot easier to be at the Concourse Plaza. You could get on a subway, because we used to like to come downtown a lot. That was before I was doing any broadcasting and the subway was right there between Yankee Stadium and the hotel. They were only like 3 blocks apart, and you could just go downstairs out of the lobby of the hotel and walk a short ways and get on the subway. It was elevated there at the time and went underground in Harlem. The Concourse Plaza was a wonderful place. We had a lot of friends there and we’d get together with them after a game and decide whose apartments it’d be. The better I did the better apartment I could have [Laughter]. I ended up hosting a lot of parties. 

MW: Last but not least, do you have any advice for young athletes today? 

FG: Oh, boy, I tell you. There’s so much pressure today from so many different sources. But first I think you just have to commit yourself to being the best you can be and not try to take shortcuts, as some people would like you to do and you might be tempted to do. I think the thing that really helped me was that I worked so hard in the offseason—I’d say almost as hard as I did during the season, when we were playing. And that enabled me to stay in great shape year round. If you’re going to play football professionally it takes a total commitment. It can’t be halfway. In professional football, especially today, I mean these guys are so good that if you’re going to play the game and decide that’s what you’re going to do, your commitment’s got to be one hundred percent.

A Provocation: My Al Davis Story

Friday, October 21, 2011 |

Chances are, if you've worked in sports media for any significant length of time over the past fifty years, you've got an Al Davis story. I've got one, too. And like many others', mine begins with Al Davis threatening to sue me.

 In my case, it was over eight words. Eight words in a 416-page book, about something that had happened more than thirty years before.

It's late spring, 2003. I'm sitting at my desk in the McGraw-Hill offices on the 11th floor of Two Penn Plaza when my phone rings. I pick it up, say "Mark Weinstein."

 "Please hold for Al Davis," says a woman whose voice I do not recognize.

Naturally, I think someone's playing a joke on me. It had happened before. But a few seconds later I hear a voice that sounds an awful lot like that of the Oakland Raiders' legendary, litigious owner.

"Mark, this is Al Davis," the voice says. "I want to ask you a question. Why on earth would you ask me to endorse a book full of lies?"

It was no joke. I had recently sent Davis an Advance Reading Copy (ARC) of a book I had edited titled Going Long: The Wild 10-Year Saga of the Renegade American Football League in the Words of Those Who Lived It, which Contemporary Books/McGraw-Hill would be publishing later that summer. Davis, for reasons he never made clear, had refused to be interviewed for the book—an oral history of the AFL—despite repeated requests by the writer, Jeff Miller, then an editor at The Dallas Morning News. And though I knew the book contained some less-than-reverent comments about Davis, and was fully aware of his penchant for lawsuits, I felt that the upside of a potential endorsement from such a pivotal figure in the AFL's colorful history was worth the risk of angering him.

This was, of course, idiotic.

"Mark," he said. "I'd like you to turn to page 204. Can you do that?"

"Yes sir."

"Please read the fourth line from the top of the page."

"Al was not in on the merger discussions."

"Al was not in on the merger discussions," he repeated, stressing every syllable. "Now, why would you print such an outrageous lie?"

"That's a direct quote from Lamar Hunt," I said.

"It's a lie. In fact, it's more than a lie. It's a provocation." 

"It's a direct quote, sir."

"It's a lie."

"Well, what would you like me to do?" I said.

"I want you to remove that sentence from the book."

"I'm sorry, sir," I said, "but I can't do that. The book has already gone to press."

"That's not my problem," he said. The conversation, as you might imagine, devolved from there. Threats of a not-so-veiled nature were made. I reminded him of his refusal to be interviewed. He got angry. I got defensive. In the end, I told him I would "see what I could do," and I would. It was not a pleasant call.

After hanging up, I immediately called the writer and asked him to both double-check his tapes and to confirm the story one more time with Lamar Hunt. Then I called another writer I'd recently worked with, Chuck Day, who had collaborated on a book entitled The Making of the Super Bowl with Don Weiss, the former Executive Director of the NFL. Because I knew from his book that Weiss had participated in the merger discussions, I asked Chuck if Don could verify Hunt's claim as well, just to be sure.

Then, of course, I started to panic. I had been on the job at McGraw-Hill less than a year and was still struggling to gain a foothold. I had neglected to have the book vetted by legal (a mistake I would not repeat), and was solely responsible for bringing it to Davis' attention. If he actually followed through and filed suit, it was entirely possible that I might lose my job.

Over eight lousy words. 

Part of my fear stemmed from the fact that Davis felt strongly enough about this to call me himself. Most owners, I reasoned, would have had an underling call, or simply asked his attorney to send a threatening letter. That's what the McCaskeys did a year later when we boneheadedly included the Chicago Bears logo on the cover of a biography of their late, great founder/owner, George Halas, without the proper permissions. The biography wasn't so kind to the McCaskeys, specifically Michael McCaskey, Halas' grandson, who had assumed control of the team ("anybody but Michael," Halas had reportedly said on his deathbed, in reference to his successor), so the Bears weren't looking to do us any favors. But the only person I heard from in the Bears organization was an attorney, whose letter I immediately forwarded to McGraw-Hill's in-house counsel.

After informing my immediate superiors of the situation, that's precisely who I called next. The attorney was a no-nonsense type who, after a particularly colorful vetting, once asked me if it was necessary for the word "cocksucker" to appear nine times in one book (I did, and it was). She and I had struck an uneasy coexistence, but we usually managed to keep things professional. And in this particular case, she didn't seem particularly alarmed. As long as my sources checked out, she said, there shouldn't be a problem, though that wouldn't preclude Davis from trying to sue us anyway, or from blasting us in the press.

I didn't hear back from Jeff Miller or Chuck Day until the next day, which only served to heighten my anxiety. But when both writers called to tell me that their sources assured them the story checked out, I relaxed a bit. I knew that it was possible Davis could still file suit, but at least it wouldn't be because the book contained untruths. If he was going to sue, it would be because suing people (or threatening to sue them) was simply what Al Davis did.

The attorney sent a letter to Davis on behalf of the McGraw-Hill Companies and myself. Several weeks passed and I didn't hear a word from anyone in Oakland. The book was released with Hunt's quote in-tact, to rave reviews from Sports Illustrated ("Outlandish, informative, and above all, funny") and several other media outlets. To my surprise, not one review mentioned the fourth line on page 204. Sales were solid if unspectacular, and included a nice run of spiked numbers in the weeks leading into the holidays. We scheduled a paperback for the following summer. I was not fired. 

Then, one day, a package arrived. In it, there was a short letter typed on Oakland Raiders letterhead, wrapped with a rubber band around a VHS tape bearing the humble title, Al Davis: #1 For All Time Legend Maverick.  The letter, signed by Davis, just said that he would follow up with me in a few days time.

The old man did not disappoint. Later that week, a call came in: "Please hold for Al Davis."

"Did you receive the video tape I sent?" Davis asked.

"Yes, sir I did."

"Good. Listen, I've been advised by my counsel not to pursue any legal action against you or your company," he said. "But I wanted to make sure you knew who it was you were dealing with. I take these things very seriously."

"Of course, sir," I said. "You know, I'd be happy to have you tell your side of the story for the paperback we've got planned, if that's something that interests you."

"Sure, it interests me," he said, "but not for your paperback. No. I had a publisher once, years ago, offered me a million dollars to write a book. But I had to turn him down. Timing wasn't right. Tell me. How much would a book like that be worth to a company like McGraw-Hill?"

"A significant amount, I'm sure. It would be a remarkable book. Newsworthy. But with all due respect, sir, a million dollars seems unlikely."

"This wouldn't be any ordinary book," Davis said. 

"I never suggested it would be, sir. But a million dollars...."

"Look. It has to be worth my time."

"Sure, but a million dollars is a lot of money."

"Tell you what. You watch that video tape, you change your mind, you know how to reach me."

That was the last time we ever spoke. My Publisher, a non-sports fan who was, oddly, a speed-skating enthusiast, didn't know Al Davis from Miles Davis. I knew there was no way he'd authorize a six-figure advance, let alone a seven-figure advance, for a book by someone he'd never heard of. I didn't even ask him. I figured I'd dodged a bullet, and it was best to cut my losses.

Don Weiss died that Fall, suffering a heart attack. Lamar Hunt followed three years later, succumbing to prostate cancer. Davis, on the other hand, held on until a few weeks ago. But in the eight years following our brief encounter he never sold his book, never did get a chance to tell his extraordinary story.

Many of the obituaries and columns published in the immediate wake of Davis' death spoke of how he had opposed the NFL/AFL merger (Davis was serving as AFL commissioner at the time) and a few even referenced and quoted from Going Long, but nobody cited the "offending" sentence, those eight words that raised the ire of a legend and nearly cost me my career in book publishing. 

Eight years and a couple hundred books later, I'm working with Jeff Miller again. This time, it's a book about two deceased golf legends, Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson. And while I'm not expecting there to be any explosive revelations in it, I don't think I'll be asking their surviving family members for any endorsements. 

Rest in peace, sir.


*Editor's note: The dialogue in this story is accurate to the best of the author's recollection only.

This story was republished by Deadspin on Monday, October 24th.

Who is this impostor, this Bizzaro Phil Simms?

Thursday, April 14, 2011 |

In an increasingly crazy, unpredictable world in which there are few, if any, absolutes, it's reassuring as a sports fan to know that there are certain things that never change. Players, coaches—hell, even franchises will come and go, but numbers endure. You can rely on numbers, lean on them like pillars on your porch. They represent sturdy, fixed points in what can otherwise be a bewildering, disorienting navigation of the known universe. 

I like to use uniform numbers as mnemonic devices. Someone tells me to meet them at 4153 Main Street, I process that as Tom Seaver, Harry Carson Main Street. Someone tells me their phone number is 647-2731? To me, that's Jim Burt, Jose Reyes, Rodney Hampton, Mike Piazza. It's just how my mind works.

For thirty-three years, Phil Simms has been #11 in the hearts and minds of New York Giants fans like myself. It's the number he was wearing when Topps came to take his photograph for his first football card in 1979. It's the number he wore in the early 1980s, when I dressed in his three-quarter-sleeve blue jersey for five consecutive Halloweens. It's the number he wore when he set the record for completion percentage in Super Bowl XXI, and it's the number he wore when the Giants retired his jersey back in 1995. Now it's the number the Old Man wears every game day in tribute.

My buddy Schwartz used to joke that Phil was so good he got to be #1 twice. I never had the heart to tell Schwartz that his logic would've made Phil #2, which is what Bill Parcells made Simms in 1983 when he benched him in favor of Scott Brunner, and what some shortsighted Giants fans in those days thought Phil smelled like.

But I digress. Today, friends, I became the custodian of a disc containing 130 amazing photos of various new York Giants throughout the franchise's eighty-five year history. The disc includes rare shots of Steve Owen, Mel Hein, Charley Conerly, Frank Gifford, Emlen Tunnell, and tons more. For a Giants dork like me, it's a treasure chest. A find beyond compare. And if you're lucky (and ask nicely), I'll share some of the images here on this blog and over at Bluenatic Fringe in the coming weeks and months, especially if the lockout drags on into the summer. 

When, sandwiched between shots of Earnest Gray and George Young, I saw the two shots posted above, I did a double take. Though the photos are of unknown provenance, there is little doubt that they were taken shortly after the Giants selected Phil Simms with the 7th overall pick of the 1979 NFL Draft. They capture a baby-faced Simms posing in front of a backdrop of then-four-year-old Giants Stadium with a football and Ray Perkins, who looks more like a high school math teacher than the newly hired head coach of an NFL team.

The double take, of course, was due to the jersey Simms is wearing in the photos, and the number that adorns it. #19? Who the eff is #19? Who is this impostor, this Bizarro Simms? Phil Simms is, was, and always will be #11. ELEVEN. This is porch pillar stuff. Fixed. Bob Sheppard certainly never announced Phil's name with any other number. Why would he? 

If Phil Simms isn't #11, as I was sure he was and is, then how can I be sure of anything else in my life? 

Chosen with the 7th overall pick, #19 does not represent Simms's draft position. He wore #12 in college at Morehead State. As far as I know, he didn't grow up idolizing John Unitas, as I don't recall Simms ever mentioning Johnny U in any of the three books he's "authored", including the one titled Phil Simms on Passing. So what gives? Perkins and GM George Young both spent time with Unitas in Baltimore, but it's a stretch to think they'd put that kind of pressure on a rookie quarterback from a small college playing under the microscope of the New York media.

Going back to the 1960s, the only Giants players I can think of who ever wore #19 are QB Gary Wood, WR Anthony Mix and PK Cary Blanchard, none of whom particularly distinguished themselves while wearing a Giants uniform. No Giant has worn the number in a regular season game since.

In 2011, the number 19 is a significant one for Simms and the Giants. Call it a coincidence if you want, but the Giants hold the 19th pick in this year's draft. Simms, who retired with 19 franchise records, presently ranks 19th all-time among NFL quarterbacks in passing yards. But none of those things explain why he's wearing #19 in those photos.

Something tells me this is a job for Paul Lukas. He's the only man I know who can make sense of this madness.

UPDATE 6/15/11: I had a chance to speak briefly with Simms at the 86 Giants reunion last weekend and asked him about the photo. He said that #19 was the number the Giants issued him at first. Then, when the Giants cut the guy who was wearing #11 (Simms said it was QB Jerry Golsteyn) he assumed the number. The problem Simms' story is that neither Golsteyn nor any other Giants player wore #11 in 1978. Golsteyn wore #12, which was the number Simms wore in college. So perhaps that's what Simms was referring to. But it doesn't explain how he ended up wearing #11.


Tuesday, January 25, 2011 |

It’s a good thing for the New York Jets and their well-mannered, totally realistic fans that they won the Super Bowl two weeks ago in Indianapolis and again last week in New England. If they hadn’t already secured two gleaming world championship trophies this postseason, their loss in Sunday’s minor exhibition in Pittsburgh might have stung quite a bit.

It’s a good thing for Rex Ryan and his impervious defense that the media anointed him football royalty and declared him a defensive genius for leading his charges to world championships in consecutive weeks. If he hadn’t, Rashard Mendenhall’s gashing of his vaunted unit for 95 yards and a touchdown in the first half on Sunday while rushing behind a former practice squad center might have caused some reporters to ask the sure Hall of Fame coach a few tough questions in the postgame locker room.

It’s a good thing for the heroic Ladainian Tomlinson that his three touchdowns in this postseason prior to Sunday’s game erased whatever silly, lingering doubts there might be about his ability to perform in the clutch. If they hadn’t, and if The Real LT hadn’t had his entire career validated by last week’s stunning Super Bowl win, his nine-carry, 16-yard effort and failure to score on fourth down from the one on Sunday might have cast some doubt on the true Jet legend’s legacy.

It’s a good thing for Bart Scott that he reveled in his heel role following last week’s Super Bowl win over the heavily-favored and pundit-picked New England Patriots last week. If he hadn’t, his seven total tackles in the Jets three postseason games and his inability to stop a much smaller Mendenhall from dragging him backwards into his end zone may have made those incendiary remarks seem a bit foolish.

It’s a good thing for Braylon Edwards that he did a tasteful, sportsmanlike backflip on the opponent’s home field last week in New England after the Jets won the Super Bowl for the second straight week. If he hadn’t, his three catches on seven targets and false start penalty during Sunday’s meaningless exhibition in Pittsburgh might have been construed as another big-game no-show for the talented yet mercurial wide receiver/model.

It’s a good thing for Mark Sanchez that he was lauded so enthusiastically for his poise, leadership, and style as the 24-year-old signal caller matured before our eyes this postseason and emerged a two-time champion. If he hadn’t already been recognized for the true legend of the game he so clearly is—a legend that will surely only grow with all the championships he is virtually assured to win in the coming years—it’s possible that some agenda-driven journos, intimidated by Sanchez’s magnetic beauty, might point out that the fifty yards of total offense he generated in the first half (11 until the final 1:13) against the Steelers, coupled with a fumble which resulted in a defensive touchdown, dug his team a hole that even he, in his infinite awesomeness, couldn’t recover from despite a valiant effort.

It's a good thing for Brian Schottenheimer that he already cemented himself as a surefire head coaching candidate with his maverick play-calling in the Jets' two Super Bowl victories earlier this month. If he hadn't, it's possible that prospective employers might have taken issue with an offense that gained a total of one rushing yard in the first half and failed to score on four consecutive plays inside the Steelers 2-yard line on Sunday. 

It’s a good thing for the uber-classy Jets fans that they took all those wholly justified shots at the Giants and their own fans these past few weeks before losing their fourth AFC Championship Game in as many tries. If they hadn’t, Giants fans might have felt compelled to defend their team, which is 4-0 in NFC Championship Games and the owner of three Lombardi trophies, mentioning casually how the Jets haven’t beaten the Giants on the football field since 1993 and how when, in 2007, the Giants went on their own magical run, nary a reference to their less fortunate stadium co-tenants was made.

It’s a good thing the City of New York celebrated the Jets back-to-back Super Bowl championships by illuminating the Empire State Building a sickly green and throwing the team a costly pep rally on Thursday that required not only the time and attention of New York’s Finest but also its mayor and one of its senators. If it hadn’t, the city might have actually considered turning their attention and discretionary funds towards its failing school system and/or its inept sanitation department. 

It’s a good thing for the Jets and their fans that they’ll definitely win the Super Bowl next year and in all subsequent years for the foreseeable future. If such amazing future success weren’t preordained for them, it’s possible that the threat of a lockout or a rash of key injuries or free agent defections or the improvement of other contending teams might give them reason to lament not closing the deal when they had the chance.

By winning two Super Bowls before the Super Bowl has even been played, the New York Jets did away with the formality of having to actually, you know, finish the job.

Good for them.

What need did they have to finish the job when they were already champions in their own minds?

Oh, but let’s give the Jets credit for hanging in there after a horrible first half and battling back. Let’s give the Jets defense credit for holding the Steelers scoreless after halftime. Yes, by all means, let’s give the Jets credit for losing. For coming close. That makes sense.

If you've been listening to sports radio the past day or two, you'll know that it also apparently makes sense to cop ridiculous pleas, make excuses and offer up meaningless platitudes. It was a great season, you see. What a ride it was. We’ll get ‘em next year.

That’s loser talk.

The objective of every NFL team is to win the Super Bowl. The real one. Anything short of that is a failure, and the Jets know it.

Talk is cheap. Play the game. I think I heard that somewhere before.

My Night In the Giants Stadium Press Box

Friday, October 29, 2010 |

Giants Stadium may be gone, but I still can’t shake its memory. The more familiar I get with its shiny new replacement, the more I feel its presence. Giants Stadium hosted more NFL games than any stadium ever has, and in attending something in the neighborhood of 200 of them it became my treehouse. For 27 years, it was a place where my old man and I could go to get away from whatever else was happening in our lives and lose ourselves in the frenzied company of 80,000 mostly anonymous friends. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about Giants Stadium lately, and especially today, because it marks an anniversary of sorts. One year ago today I got my first and last glimpse at the Giants Stadium press box.

There was a time in my life when my greatest desire was to sit in that press box, covering the football team I loved. It was a dream that, as a teenager, I dreamed nightly. As the sports editor and, later, editor-in-chief of my high school's newspaper, I mimicked the reporters and columnists that covered the Giants for Newsday and The New York Times, the two papers that were delivered to our Long Island home every day. I studied their ledes, their styles, hoping they'd rub off on me. It was only a matter of time, I figured, until I'd be covering the Giants myself, "Scoop" Weinstein rubbing elbows in the press box with Dave Anderson and Bob Glauber.

Before I ever stepped foot on campus at The University of Michigan, I'd already sent all of my clippings to the sports editor at The Michigan Daily, a sharp young fellow who has since gone on to become a columnist of some renown at the Detroit Free Press and Sports Illustrated. When I finally met him in person, he thanked me for my frequent mailings by promptly dispatching me to cover a women's cross country event. Later that year, while I was pledging a fraternity and very nearly failing out of school, he allowed me to report on women's softball. These were hardly the beats I’d envisioned covering in my fantasies, but it hardly mattered. By that point, all I was truly interested in was drinking beer and playing Madden until my thumbs were sore. I was hardly ready to cover Michigan football, basketball or hockey, and it showed. By my sophomore year, I wasn't covering anything at all.

My life took a number of twists and turns after that, but eventually I found my way back to sportswriting. Through this blog and my work as a book editor, I even became acquainted with a few guys working the Giants beat. To a man, they all told me not to envy them, stressing that the life of a newspaper beat reporter is a lonely, generally unstable existence. Still, while at the stadium on Sundays I'd often find myself looking over my left shoulder and up at the press box, wishing I was up there with them.

Last fall, opportunity knocked when the fledgling United Football League announced, much to my surprise, that it had scheduled a game at Giants Stadium. Though I'd never actually applied for a credential, I knew the Giants would never issue me one, as is their general policy with bloggers. But the UFL? Who was the UFL to deny anyone anything? So I sent a letter to the UFL's director of publicity on some phony letterhead I created in five minutes using MS Paint, requesting a media credential for the epic showdown between the New York Sentinels and the California Redwoods scheduled for the evening of Thursday, October 29th. A week or so later, after a friendly follow-up email, a credential was granted.

The game, I'd later learn, would be broadcast on Versus, announced by Dave Sims and Doug Flutie. Former NFL star Simeon Rice was suiting up for New York, as were a few other recognizable names including wide receiver Koren Robinson (the ninth overall pick in the 2001 NFL Draft) and quarterback Quinn Gray, formerly of the Jacksonville Jaguars. John David Washington, son of Denzel, would represent the Redwoods. It was to be a star-studded affair all around.

Because I do not own a car and at that time did not possess a valid driver's license (a story for another time), I took a New Jersey Transit train to Secaucus Junction, where I caught a shuttle bus bound for the Meadowlands. Though the bus had a sign bearing the words "Giants Stadium" taped to its windshield, I began to question whether or not I had boarded the right one after only six other passengers climbed on board. When, roughly thirty minutes later, the seven of us arrived at the stadium, the parking lot was essentially empty. Never before had I see it so deserted before a game, and we often arrive at Giants games five hours prior to kickoff. It was, for lack of a better word, eerie.

I made my way through the lot and to the press gate, where my credential was waiting for me. It allowed for both press box and locker room access, but not field. I rode the elevator up to the press level which, constructed in 1996, was the newest structure in Giants Stadium. After waving my credential at an indifferent member of stadium security I was welcomed to a better-than-decent catered buffet, which included dessert and as many cans of soda as I could drink. The spread included baked ziti, roasted chicken, scalloped potatoes and salad. The press box dining room, however, much like the bus and parking lot had been, was sparsely populated. I could have gone back for a tenth helping and nobody would have said a word. Heck, I probably could have taken a whole chafing dish over to my table.

The local sporting press, I can only assume, was more interested in covering the minor event being held 15 miles east that night at Yankee Stadium—Game 2 of the World Series. AJ Burnett was facing off against the Phillies’ Pedro Martinez. Because the Phillies had taken Game 1 in the Bronx behind a masterful, complete game pitching performance by Cliff Lee the night before, many felt that this was a “must win” game for the Yankees, and I guess “must win” World Series games attract more media attention than Thursday night UFL games do, even when they feature Simeon Rice. I know this because the Yankee game was being shown in the press box, and more reporters were watching the television than the game on the field. Who could blame them? The product on display was, to be kind, of dubious quality.

Looking out through the massive glass encasement of the press box, I quickly ascertained that the rest of the tri-state area was glued to their TV sets at home, because nobody was in the stands, either. I mean nobody. At the time, I tweeted that I estimated no more than 500 people were in the building, including the players, coaches, event staff and the assembled media. The league announced attendance of 10,318, which was ludicrous. I had seen more fans gathered in the old gym at Hofstra, where the defunct USBL's Long Island Surf used to play. I’m fairly certain I’ve also seen more people waiting on line for Shake Shack at CitiField, or climbing out of a car at the circus.

For what it was worth (and it wasn’t worth much to many), the Redwoods won the game, 20-13. Gray was awful, Rice and Robinson non-factors. I don't even think Washington played. For the Sentinels, it was their third loss in a winless inaugural season that would turn out to be their only season. Shortly after the six-game season ended they packed up, moved to Hartford, and renamed themselves the Colonials.

For the Redwoods, it was their second win in what for them would be a two-win season. Both wins came against the Sentinels.

For me, the game was immaterial, though. I spent the better part of the first half tinkering with a blog post that had nothing whatsoever to do with the game and everything to do with the death of Giants Stadium. Up in the press box, I took the opportunity to experience the stadium from a perspective I’d never been afforded, and which nobody would ever be afforded again after December. I wanted to see what I’d been missing all those years, and to live, for one fleeting moment, the life I’d once dreamed of. And after doing so, I left the stadium exhilarated.

Because I couldn’t risk missing the shuttle back to the city, I did not venture down to the locker room after the game. Instead I packed up my laptop, said goodbye to the kindly reporters I had met and exchanged business cards with, took one last look around, and headed out across the vast expanse of black asphalt towards the bus.

As is the custom, there was no cheering in the press box that night, though a few scribes delighted in the results of the baseball game, a 3-1 Yankee victory. Unfortunately for the UFL, there was also no cheering of any kind anywhere in the vicinity of Giants Stadium, either. This begged the question: If a pass falls incomplete, repeatedly, in an empty stadium, does it make a sound?

The answer, to the consternation of Versus, is no, but for me it’s had a reverberation. One year to the day later Giants Stadium is gone, the Sentinels are in Hartford, and the Yankees are watching the World Series on television (unless, of course, they’re Cablevision customers). But me, I’m writing this blog, writing two columns a week for, covering the team I love, and inching closer to that dream deferred.

Watch those elbows, Glauber.

Exclusive Interview with Author Bernard Corbett

Friday, October 15, 2010 |

I recently devoured, over the course of a few nights, the nearly 400 pages that make up The Most Memorable Games in Giants History, a new book by Jim Baker and Bernard Corbett. Employing an oral history format, the authors allow the players, coaches, executives, writers and broadcasters who helped make these games memorable to tell the stories in their own words. It's an informative and entertaining look at Giants history that belongs on the bookshelf of any dedicated Giants fan.

Corbett, perhaps best-known as the radio play-by-play voice of Harvard University football and Boston University hockey, recently took some time out to answer a few questions about the creation of the book and the manner in which he and his co-author arrived at their selections.

Here's the interview below, edited slightly for clarity and length:

*   *   *

MW:  Let's get the obvious question out of the way first. How does a died-in-the-wool Boston guy like you become a lifelong, die hard New York Giants fan? The book's dedication indicates that it has a lot to do with your father.

BC: Once upon a timein the late fifties when the NFL first became a Sunday afternoon American cultural staple—the Giants (pre AFL) were featured every week throughout New England, the Canadian maritimes, etc. My father and really everyone else that was a pro football fan in a place like Boston at the time was a Giants fan. The team maintained a strong following in New England /Massachusetts/Boston throughout the 1960’s through the AFL’s early days. The Patriots were very slow developing a following of their own. When I first started watching the NFL (circa 1967/Fran Tarkenton) I sat down on Sundays and watched the Giants religiously every week with my father, who stayed loyal to the Big Blue ‘til his passing in 1998. I’m 49 by the way.

MW: Two things impressed me most about this book. First and foremost is its breadth. The book covers games spread across 82 seasons and includes interviews with Giants players whose years of service span seven decades. That obviously took a great deal of research and a significant investment of your time. How did you go about gathering the necessary information on the memorable games that took place well before your time? What were the books that you found yourself continually referring to?

BC: I personally have a very deep collection of Giants-related books. I’m not saying I’ve got all of ‘em, but it’s close. Richard Whittingham’s very colorful history, which includes many entertaining sidebars and anecdotes about the team, was a primary source. For the 1946 story, Sports Illustrated's The Football Book was invaluable. Also, as has been the case through my entire career, there was no substitute for the microfilm department of the Boston Public Library, where I had access to countless newspaper accounts.

MW:  The second thing that really impressed me is how you got so many of the old players to talk to you. As someone who has attempted to secure interviews with some of the men featured in this book, I can personally attest to how difficult that can be. That in itself deserves kudos, but they also gave you such great material. Which were the interviews that really stood out for you as the most enjoyable and/or informative? And what was it like, as a fan, to interview some of your heroes?

BC: I have to say that reflecting back on some 125 interviews, 75 of which were with former Giants, there wasn’t one that I said, “oh my, what a waste of time.” Every interview had value. I credit that to the players, to the subjects in general and to my dedication to “doing the homework” and being prepared. The players know right away if they’re talking to somebody that has the knowledge, frame of reference, and passion for the subject. I take pride in developing all of the above before I set up the tape recorder.

There were so many that I enjoyed, but a couple standout by era: George Franck (1946 game, what a memory!); Pat Summerall (a broadcast idol, not just a football Giant); Doug Van Horn (What a great storyteller); Jim Burt (same as previous); Jeff Hostetler ( a real gentleman); Michael Strahan (he’s “Michael Strahan” 24/7) and Justin Tuck (incredible maturity for the youngest Giant, at 26 years old, interviewed for the book). That’s just off the top. I don’t want to slight anyone, as thankfully they all had their moments.

As a fan it was a dream come true, I won’t lie to you. I must admit the Summerall one really gave me goosebumps. I have been a play-by-play broadcaster for some 25 years (hockey/football/a little baseball) at the college level and truly idolize Pat. He was the “voice of the NFL” and so classy, succinct, understated–a true professional. While I interviewed him, I half expected him to do the disclaimer for “60 Minutes” being seen at its regular time except on the West Coast.

 MW: I applaud you for not including the so-called "Greatest Game Ever Played" and for including four losses in the book. It was astute of you to recognize that this franchise is defined just as much by its historic defeats as it is by its great victories, and all true Giants fans know that heartbreaking losses can linger in the memory just as long, if not longer, than exhilarating wins. We've covered that here before. I am also well aware that you couldn't include everything, or else run the risk of an 800-page book. That said, there appear to me to be some rather glaring omissions in the book that, if you don't mind, I feel compelled to ask you about.

While some are mentioned in passing, the book doesn't include significant coverage of any games from the 1986 or 2007 championship seasons other than the Super Bowls. That means no 4th & 17 in the Metrodome, no Mark Bavaro dragging Ronnie Lott 20 yards on Monday Night Football, no 1986 conference championship (17-0), no 2007 conference championship at frigid Lambeau. Those games are all, without question, among the most memorable of the past 25 years. Inexplicably, the book also includes zero games from the 1956 championship season and zero games played in the 10-year period between Jan. 1991 and Jan 2001.

That's not even to mention the following 3 epic losses, all occurring in the postseason:

1) The Trey Junkin Game
2) The Flipper Anderson Game
3) The Chris Calloway/Jake Reed Game

So, my question is, how can you devote 18 pages to a 1970 regular-season win over Washington and a 1966 blowout loss to that same Washington team in lieu of these games? What determined your criteria for inclusion?

BC: Time and space were serious constraints. There’s certainly enough material for a volume II. We felt it was impossible to not include the Super Bowls that ended 1986/2007. That also allowed us to reference the games that you list in the course of our interviews in order to provide the back story regarding how the Giants got to the promised land in those memorable seasons.

As far as 1956, the Giants overwhelmingly dominant performance in the title game (47-7) made it tough to include when faced with other choices from that era for that iconic group of players. Not including anything from 1991-2001 was once again a “numbers game”. It doesn’t mean that, say, the Dallas game from 1993 or the Chris Calloway/Jake Reed game (two more heartbreakers) weren’t memorable or deserving. We only had so much space to work with!

As far as including the 1970 game, that was a watershed year for the Giants, the “almost year" during the “wilderness years” (1967-81). The 6th straight win tied a team record. It also gave us an opportunity to reference the Tarkenton Era. The 1966 game? It still stands as the record of the most points scored by one team in an NFL regular season game (72) and established the scoring mark for the two teams combined (113). unbelievable stuff. It defined the ineptitude of the “wilderness years” in an epic fashion.

MW: What, in your opinion, is the #1 most memorable game in Giants history?

BC: I think you can make a strong case for several, but here’s two about a half a century apart:

The 1958 Summerall field goal game had it all. A “do-or die” scenario for the Giants, a legendary band of Big Blue brothers and Paul Brown’s Cleveland club with arguably the NFL’s greatest player. Throw in the snow covered field and blizzard-like conditions and you’ve got “frozen tundra” before “Frozen Tundra”.

And of course it’s tough to argue with Super Bowl 42. The New York Times headline said it all, “A Perfect Ending…For The Giants”.

MW: Do you think the 2010 Giants can compete for a division title? How about a Super Bowl?

BC: I felt at the beginning of the season that the Giants were a solid playoff/division contender—a team that should win 10 games, which should be enough to make the playoffs. Now about a third of the way along in 2010, the whole conference is up for grabs. If the Giants can continue to progress/find their identity/keep their health, who knows? This could be a special year. More material for volume II. 


Note: I recently began writing a biweekly column about the Giants for Check out my latest piece, a preview of Sunday's Giants/Lions game, here.