But no one draws Shockey's ire more than Bob Stoops. The Oklahoma coach ignored Shockey when he was a Sooners-crazy high school senior, then came calling after Shockey put on 35 pounds and had a breakout freshman season at NEO. Stoops, like everyone but the compliance-sensitive folks at Miami, hadn't realized soon enough that Shockey didn't need to stay in junior college for two years; according to Shockey, when Stoops found out that he intended to transfer to Coral Gables, the coach told him he'd never play a down. Shockey has mocked him ever since. His feelings about the man can be summed up thusly: "F—-off, a———," Shockey says. "Next time don't be so dumb." ("I've never told a kid that he'd never play a down anywhere," Stoops says. "I told him Miami had plenty of players, and his opportunities would probably be better here.")
Shockey's stance is ungracious, but then, being proved correct time after time breeds arrogance. This is Shockey's small miracle: Despite a broken home, despite the football programs that showed no interest, despite his lack of a mentor, he developed a bulletproof instinct for the right move. He told college recruiters that he would put on weight, but they didn't listen. Going against home-state pride and every coach in Oklahoma telling him he should stay home, Shockey left for Miami, the nation's most successful football program, sure he could play. And when he decided to skip his senior year and enter an NFL draft thick with tight ends, he again was told he should stay put. "I felt it was better for him," says Coker. "His response was, 'Coach, once they see what I can do, they'll like me better than any of those guys.' "
Shockey knew before anyone else: No college tight end ran cleaner routes or had better hands than he did. No one wanted the ball more; Shockey was legendary at Miami for busting into huddles and snapping at the All-Americas surrounding him, "You're all stupid. Nobody else is going to catch it! Give me the ball!" He couldn't stand it if he wasn't improving. "He's the king of questions: How'm I doing? How do I look? Do I look good?" says Hurricanes running back Jarrett Payton. "I always told him, 'You're good enough.' But he never thinks he's good enough."
And Shockey knew that no one else could deliver his speed and power while enduring the battering experienced by NFL tight ends. Shockey played a full year in high school with a broken knuckle and wrist, lifting weights one-handed, putting off surgery because he didn't want to scare off colleges. He prepared for Miami by running a one-man camp of grueling workouts, lifting twice and running three times daily in the Oklahoma heat, vomiting and collapsing most days on the final sprint back to his driveway. He started his sophomore season slowly, then limped off the field with a sprained right knee in the first quarter against Florida State. He stood on the sideline as the feeling sank in: I'm a failure. But with less than two minutes to play, with Miami down 24-20 and starting its final drive, coach Butch Davis turned to Shockey and asked if he wanted back in. "I'm drinking, I f———can't go in," Shockey says. "But in my heart something split, and I said, 'I'll do it,' and I'm drinking, Why'd I say that? I can hardly run. Let somebody else do it."
That one moment made him. Shockey caught two passes to keep the drive alive, then pulled down one more and smashed into the end zone for the win. "If I didn't make that one play? I'd still be in school right now," Shockey says. Coaches and players began looking to him when they needed clutch plays. No one took it personally when he demanded the ball. "People think he's being cocky and arrogant, but he's just into the game," says Giants receiver Daryl Jones, a teammate of Shockey's at Miami and in New York. "He's into the game more than anybody I've ever seen."
Accorsi, the Giants' G.M., saw that too. He had flown in a private jet to Ada before the draft, landing at an airport that hadn't seen traffic in days. Shockey stood waiting with his back against a truck. He took Accorsi to a famous barbecue joint and said, "You'll never get anything like this again." He was talking food; Accorsi was thinking Shockey. The Giants' offense—bland and punchless—had been pushed around for years, was laughed at even by its own defense. Accorsi wanted Shockey so badly that he was willing, on draft day, to do something unthinkable in the Giants universe: trade picks to move up just one slot. "He's the sort of guy who tilts the field," Accorsi says of Shockey. "He changes everything."
Still, no one knew what to expect when, after a short holdout, Shockey showed up last summer, hungry and sleepless after a long night of travel, at Giants training camp in Albany, NY. In keeping with the usual rookie hazing, Giants linebacker Brandon Short demanded before dinner that Shockey sing the Miami fight song. Shockey said he'd like to eat first. Short insisted. Shockey says he stood up on his chair and said, "Brandon, this is for you," and Short flew at him. The two hit the floor. Chairs snapped, bodies flew across tables, glasses tumbled.
Fassel helped break up the tussle, but he couldn't have been happier. He thought, My man has arrived. My man has arrived right now.
Quarterback Kerry Collins led the Giants to a Super Bowl not long ago. Tiki Barber is one of the best running backs alive. Michael Strahan is the sack-record-setting heart and soul of the New York defense. Mention Shockey, though, and all of them recede into the background. The first word that comes to Hilliard's mind? "He's the franchise," says the Giants wideout. This is not a word used much by football players, not even about quarterbacks; it runs counter to the game's celebration of team. Hilliard doesn't care. "He's too good," he says of Shockey. "I call him the franchise because of what he's done in such a short time—and he's still learning the NFL game. Come on: 70 balls in his first year? He's a tight end. He's the easiest target to find for the quarterback. He's going to have a lot of opportunities to make plays. It's not even fair."
Hilliard's right: It's unusual enough for such importance to be attached to a tight end, no matter that Fassel swears you can't win a Super Bowl without one. But no franchise was less likely than New York to lay its image, its offense and its future at the feet of so wild a child. Even in their championship years, Mara's Giants always displayed a remote, dull efficiency, embodied by good soldiers like Frank Gifford and Phil Simms. To see Shockey attempt to toe that Big Blue line is comical; he couldn't do it even if he wanted to. "He's a great athlete," Shockey says of the Eagles' Dawkins, over whom he made that clutch catch at the end of last season. "I'll probably never get one like that over him again." Then Shockey rolls his eyes, leans over the tape recorder and mouths the words I will.