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NFL loses a guiding light (cont.)

Posted: Tuesday October 25, 2005 6:12PM; Updated: Tuesday October 25, 2005 10:04PM
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We're all in this together.

That was Wellington's attitude, all the way back to age 9, when he went to grammar school with tickets to the team his family had just bought, the Giants, cramming his pocket. He was a cog in the machine, and he never pretended to be more than that, though he certainly was.

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Why do teams share television revenue and why do the Green Bay Packers exist today? Because Mara the owner (along with Bears icon George Halas) knew that for a sports league to exist and prosper, a certain socialism had to be accepted. Mara pushed for a new commissioner, Pete Rozelle, who would fight for equal distribution of TV money. He told me once, "If we didn't share revenue equally, the Green Bays wouldn't survive. Then who would New York play?''

Why did the Giants have a great team in the late '50's and early '60's? Because Mara the general manager built them, gathering Frank Gifford, Y.A. Tittle and Del Shofner to make the most dangerous offensive team of 1963. And he built a good defense too.

Why did Paul Tagliabue get the commish job in 1989? Because Mara the peacemaker could accept the fact that the new guard in the NFL simply wasn't going to elect the man Mara and the old guard wanted, Jim Finks. Instead of falling on his sword for Finks and forcing a second search committee to look at new candidates, Mara sided with Tagliabue, and the anti-Tagliabue dam burst. Tagliabue got the job. "The last thing I wanted,'' Mara told me, "was to have the league go outside for a candidate.''

Now I'm going to say something I absolutely cannot prove. It's just a gut feeling. I believe the two most important people in the NFL's modern history are Rozelle and Mara.

Rozelle, obviously, because he guided the NFL to such great business success and made so many smart decisions.

Mara because of the person he was, and how his unflagging conscience and goodness ruled everything he did. When a very powerful man is a good man, that influences the decisions that are made from that power base. Like sharing television revenue, like protecting the small-market teams, like giving struggling beat writers Christmas gifts. If the NFL were being created today, the business would be ruthless. It's not quite as ruthless today because of the rules good men like Mara -- especially Mara -- set up.

The sad thing about Mara's passing will be if the people ruling this league forget his egalitarian and generous spirit. There's enough in the game for everyone, folks.

When I profiled Mara on the occasion of his 70th birthday in 1986, I asked him when he planned to retire.

"It's not in my plans,'' he said. "There are times when I think there are things I'd rather do, but then I think: 'I can always do them tomorrow.'"

I'm with Polian. I'm glad football got all of Mara's tomorrows.


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