From ‘Giants Among Men’ to the Eli Manning era: A Big Blue personal history

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"Giants Among Men," from NFL Films. (ebay.com)
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The Giants' 1986 Super Bowl season has come to be much more important to me than it was at the time. I was six years old that season, and my memories of it are scant. I watched most of the games—my ten-year old brother saw to that—but don’t remember being particularly aware of what was going on.

The memories I do have are fuzzy, but powerfully evocative. One in particular stands out: It was the first Giants game I ever went to, a dramatic late-season win against Denver that ended on a last-second field goal by kicker Raul Allegre, whose name I knew at the time because it sounded funny.

My father, my brother and I were leaving the Meadowlands down those spiral ramps at the corners of the stadium, in the middle of a happy horde of fans. They were big and dressed for the winter, full of beery cheer. Very few of them wore jerseys, and most of them wore mustaches. The stadium loudspeaker played Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration,” and with the rest of the fans, my dad, brother and I sang along with the ad hoc chorus: “Ev-ery bo-dy loves Ra-ul!”

It was one of those exhilarating moments in childhood when you’re allowed to partake in a grown-up activity without being called out for being a little kid. Just like these guys surrounding me, just like my dad and my brother, I was a Giants fan.

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But that’s one of the only actual memories I have. I say “actual” to distinguish it from the ones implanted in my mind by the mythmakers of NFL Films, whose highlight-compilation video of that season, “Giants Among Men,” I watched 60 times over the next several years, by a conservative estimate.

It was NFL Films at its best: Good Guys vs. Bad Guys storylines set to a swelling score, aesthetic highlights timed perfectly to the music, purple-prose narration in the reassuring baritone of Pat Summerall, and of course, a triumphant ending.

“Giants Among Men” crystallized my attachment to the Giants, and enabled me to establish connections with the players themselves. Because of the video, I had vivid images in my mind of Phil Simms firing a picture-perfect spiral, Lawrence Taylor rounding the corner with destructive power and shattering a drink-of-water ‘80s quarterback, Mark Bavaro turning upfield and bucking tacklers with a serial killer’s calm expression on his face, and Joe Morris accelerating his little legs to blow past defenders.

Not to be discounted were the team’s red, white, and blue uniforms, which I associated at the time with a belief in American primacy and righteousness that had filtered through to me from the media despite my anti-Reagan Upper West Side household. Proof of the supremacy of red, white, and blue could also be found in the person of Optimus Prime, the bad-ass leader of the good guys on "Transformers". Even the team’s nickname, Big Blue, seems in retrospect to have been designed to capture the heart of a little boy.

But what appealed to me most about the Giants of “Giants Among Men” was their style of play and the set of values it was purported to represent. The Giants weren’t a flashy team that scored a lot of points and produced eye-candy highlights of spectacular touchdowns. Rather, they relied on the meat-and-potatoes formula of a strong running game and sound defense. The way I understood it from “Giants Among Men,” and other N.F.L. branding vehicles, this football strategy was elevated to a moral philosophy. The Giants were substance over style, guardians of the way the game was meant to be played. It was as if the high-scoring teams were fast-talking used-car salesmen while the Giants were the strong, silent mensches. The Giants stood for something, a set of old-fashioned, manly virtues that, as every younger generation is told, is rapidly fading from the world.

The appeal to me of a nostalgic, idealized past took hold the following autumn, 1987. That fall, the N.F.L. players went on strike, and the Giants stumbled to a 7-9 record. And my parents got divorced.

I won’t go into the details of the divorce and its aftermath except to say that it was duly ugly and disillusioning. The upshot was that my life had suddenly become complicated and hard, the adults in it reduced from omnipotent and benign caretakers to real people with real problems and flaws. The adult world, which seemed so exciting after Raul Allegre’s field goal, now seemed like a scary place where inexplicably terrible things happened.

I coped in two ways: In school, I embraced my victimhood by acting out; at home, I did the opposite, retreating into the prelapsarian world of the 1986 Giants, watching “Giants Among Men” over and over and over. There were no scary plot-twists in “Giants Among Men.” There was just the inexorable triumph of Big Blue.

THINGS HIT A NADIR FOR BOTH ME AND MY FAMILY IN 1990, the Giants’ next championship season. That fall, while the Giants were rolling to a 10-0 start, my parents were going through a bitter, unnecessary custody trial. I was on my way toward a first-semester report card in which every facet of my behavior—from Listening to Relationships with Adults to Relationships with Peers—was marked as “Needs Improvement” in a neat, definitively reproving column.

I found some solace in the Giants, and unlike 1986, I was old enough to appreciate that season as it was happening. I watched every play of every game.

There are many different opinions on this topic, but I believe that 10 and 11 years old is the prime age for sports fanaticism. Any younger and you don’t really know what’s going on. Any older and you’ve discovered your genitals, which reshuffles your priorities for the next several decades.

1990 was the apotheosis of the Bill Parcells-era Giants: a plodding, mistake-free offense that set an N.F.L. record for fewest turnovers in a season and a defense that was even better than the ’86 version. But for much of the year, these Giants were overshadowed by two much more aesthetically pleasing teams: The San Francisco 49ers, who were riding their exquisite West Coast offense to a shot at a third straight championship, and the Buffalo Bills, whose frenzied no-huddle offense yielded touchdowns in bunches.

The Giants’ role as the boring foil to these prettier teams gave them a “no respect” edge that season, an indignation that they were being overlooked. Parcells himself had assumed a more bitter persona. Gone was the fun-loving guy best known for the ritualistic Gatorade bath he endured after every game of the 1986 season (a tradition started by the Giants). In his place was the curmudgeon people think of when they think of Parcells today. What was once a charming sarcastic edge had been injected with venom. Whatever brown hair remained during the Giants' first title run had turned gray by the second one.

All of this spoke to where I was emotionally. I had a lot of free-flowing anger looking for an outlet, so I latched onto the Giants’ perception that they were being slighted. I felt as if something I held dear—those sturdy, stolid Giants values—were being reduced in importance and threatened with inconsequentiality. I needed the Giants to fight the good fight on behalf of the game as it was meant to be played. Because that was the thread that connected me to the time in my life when things were the way they were meant to be.

I was grounded when the Giants beat the 49ers in the N.F.C. Championship, so I couldn’t watch the game. But I listened in my room, which actually intensified the experience. When Matt Bahr snuck a game-winning field goal through the uprights as time expired, I jumped around in my room, appropriately, by myself.

The next week, when the Bills’ Scott Norwood missed a field goal in the Super Bowl to clinch the championship for the Giants, I ran out of a party at my friend’s house and away from those other ten-year olds who couldn’t possibly appreciate what had just happened and what it meant to me. I took a victory lap around a little part of 99th Street, howling at the moon. (I modeled my celebration after the “Zap Lap,” the victory ritual of the eponymous American Gladiator.)

I needed that championship that year. The phrase “I would have been crushed” is overused when talking about sports, but it applies to my relationship with the Giants in 1990. I was emotionally fragile and I had a lot invested. Had Norwood made that field goal, I think my reaction would have been worse than the typical disappointed child’s tantrum-and-done routine.

IN 2007, WHEN I WAS 27, I HAD A JOB AND WAS LIVING WITH MY GIRLFRIEND. It was the year the Giants came from out of nowhere and strung together four straight playoff wins, each more thrilling and improbable than the one before, to win the championship.

There’s a semi-iconic NFL Films image of Eli Manning getting choked up on the podium in the middle of the field after the game. He’s not crying, technically, but the moisture has made its way to the surface and he wipes it down with his palm. That’s what happened to me. 2007 put me back in touch with 1986, and everything it had come to represent.

Yet my experience of the two seasons couldn’t have been more different. If my faint, myth-infused memory of 1986 bespoke a child’s vision for what life should be—a preordained journey to glory—my experience of the 2007 was full of adult complications. It was a bumpy, frustrating season, during which the Giants were mostly mediocre. The year before, during a particularly dismal home loss to New Orleans, I joined approximately 70,000 of my fellow fans in Giants Stadium in chanting for Coach Tom Coughlin’s ouster. As late as Week 15 of 2007, I was of the belief that Eli Manning era was over, or at least that Manning couldn’t ever succeed under Coughlin because of his own fragile confidence and Coughlin’s suffocating uptightness.

2007 turned out to be a perfect bookend to 1986. I had always carried 1986 around with me as a paradise lost, a time before chaos intruded into my perfect world. 2007 showed that chaos itself—unexpected career turnarounds, the randomness of sports, the ruining of someone else’s preordained march to glory—isn't always so bad.