Monday, February 11, 2008

A Giant Victory

Given: The Pats were expected to win the Super Bowl. They are the only team to finish a 16 game NFL regular season undefeated. They entered the 2008 Super Bowl with an 18 – 0 record. Most prognosticators expected them to beat the 10 – 6 Giants, who started their season with two losses, and accumulated six. At the time, fans called for the Giant’s Coach Coughlin to resign, and for their quarterback, Eli Manning, to be benched. A former star, Tiki Barber, criticized Manning for not being a strong leader. The sports betting line hovered around fourteen points in favor of the Pats. In New England, fans were eager to see Brady and Moss carve through the Giant defense.

For the past 17 years, my family and I have lived in New England and I follow the Pats. Yet, I also support the Giants because I am a New Jersey native and was raised a diehard Giants fan. My father’s childhood next door neighbor was Giants’ legend Alex Webster. Alex’s younger brother Jim was my dad’s best friend. Jim and my dad played two on one football against Alex on his knees. Many years after retiring we visited Mr. Webster, or “Big Red” in his Seagirt, NJ home. He owned “The Stadium” restaurant in town. My grandmother lived one town south, in Manasquan. I attended opening day at Giants Stadium with a friend whose stepdad happened to be the Doctor who delivered me, and who had season tickets. My Madison, NJ high school football team played a state championship game at the Meadowlands my junior year. While practicing, we saw some of the Giant players. We beat perennial powerhouse Butler, 35 – 14. A professional soccer team, The Cosmo’s, used the stadium and we were assigned its locker room. I used the star Pele’s locker.

Before an artificial turf practice field was installed on Brown’s campus, we practiced at Foxboro Stadium when preparing for away games against West Point, Cornell, and Penn, teams with artificial turf stadiums. We saw Patriot players. After playing at Brown, I had two failed NFL try-outs; one was with the Giants, the other with the Pats. Last Super Bowl Sunday, I was torn between the teams. My loyalty was with the Giants, but my emotions and hopes were for local Pats’ fans and an undefeated season, to see their joy and to see history made. My high school team never lost a game over three years, and it is special for fans and players to experience a great record.

Doubt: The Giants won. The pregame paparazzi focused on the Pats and their enviable record. The Giants felt snubbed and turned this rejection into tenacity. During the game, Big Blue appeared more driven than the Pats when diving for loose balls and passes, wrestling fumbles from Pats’ hands, and, in the final moments, clinging to an unconventional pass pinned against receiver David Tyree’s helmet.

Trials: The Pats’ fans and players are in shock, searching for reasons to explain their team’s unexpected outcome, for its squandered chance for football immortality. There’s frustration in knowing they came so close to a perfect season, only to let it slip away with 2:39 left to play. On local radio, hosts and callers wonder if inferior play calling, strategy, intensity, or effort explains their team’s inability to capitalize. The once deified Coach Belichick’s play calling is being questioned. He is criticized for leaving the field early. New England fans share a collective sense of loss, and emptiness.

Reports from other regions in the country state their NFL fans were, in general, pulling for the Giants. They were tired of the Pats’ success. They felt coach Belichick and his crew flagrantly cheated with Spy gate and the Super Bowl outcome vindicated those who believe character counts. They feel quarterback Tom Brady is too pretty, Belichick is too distant, and the team is too smug. They celebrated the down to earth Giants’ victory and the Ticker Tape parade up Broadway to City Hall. The Giants and their fans, as opposed to the Pats’ fans, are euphoric. Their last Super Bowl victory was in 1991. Their quarterback, Eli Manning, was the target of NYC’s media’s wrath since starting with the Giants. Vilified for supposedly not having his brother’s brains or brawn, he came into his own with an exceptional performance and uncommon family encore. He copied his brother Peyton, last year’s Super Bowl winning quarterback and MVP. Both Eli and Giants’ Coach Coughlin were on hot seats, with experts expecting them to be gone had their miracle season not unfolded. People were tired of coach’s staid and scornful style.

Transcendence: What turned the Giant’s pumpkin of a season into a first class coach, and the Patriot’s admired coach into a pumpkin? Perhaps it was fate. In an interesting twist, Coach Coughlin and Coach Belichick descend from the same coaching tree, established by Bill Parcells. They worked as his assistants on the same Giants championship staff. This season, it seems Coach Coughlin became more accessible and human to his players after creating a players council, getting feedback, and learning to relax and have fun. The Spy gate episode further separated Coach Belichick from the media and fans. He fueled his players with feelings of being under siege. As coach Coughlin laughed, shook players’ hands and patted their backs while building a record of eleven consecutive road game victories, coach Belichick pushed away reporters, opposing coaches, and fans as he ran from the field. He seemed to push his players with darker motives, to fight against an enemy he created. Towards the end of the season, his team appeared zapped of its energy. Coach Coughlin’s beaming simile suggests the truth of leadership and team energized the Giants. It set them free. Perhaps the Pats can learn something from the champs.