But nothing Shockey did last year-expressing, on The Howard Stem Show, his wariness of having a gay teammate; derisively challenging the Eagles' secondary in the week before their pivotal season-ending game; or proclaiming his intention to run just as hot this season—has caused the Giants' brass to do anything but speak vaguely about the need for limits and then grin like sloppy drunks.
"Everything he's doing, you love to watch," says Mara. "He's got a great spirit. You just wish everyone would have the same get-up-and-go that he has."
In his 27-year career Giants trainer Ronnie Barnes has never seen a rookie challenge the veterans as Shockey did last season. Just days after their brawl, Short saw Shockey run over the Houston Texans' Kevin Williams in the Hall of Fame preseason game and fell in love. "That's what we need!" Short shouted on the sideline.
Strahan knew the Giants had something different when, during training camp, he lined up to cover Shockey on the goal line and Shockey caught the touchdown pass almost before Strahan could get out of his stance. But Strahan knew they had something special when he watched Shockey devote himself to blocking and pester Giants defenders to show him any trick or move that could make him better. Whenever he saw any player sitting out, Shockey demanded to know why he wasn't practicing. No one resented the brash rookie, because no one outworked him: This spring, on his own, Shockey ran himself through two-a-days in Miami so brutal that Fassel demanded he gear back.
"People don't see the Jeremy who shows up at 6:30 in the morning every day to work out," Strahan says. "They don't see the Jeremy who stays after practice and catches balls—or does catching drills in the time between other drills, when everyone's on a knee. Jeremy makes it look easy because he works at it when no one's looking. We definitely have guys who're more competitive now than they've been in the past. He just brought in the attitude that I'm not going to let you beat me on any play."
"He's our bell cow," Fassel says. But as New York's mercurial performance in its first-round playoff game in San Francisco showed last January, following Shockey's lead has its perils. Up 24 points in the third quarter, the Giants ended up losing 39-38 in the second-biggest playoff gag in league history. Julian Peterson was right about Shockey's tendency to get frustrated and blow plays. Midway through the first quarter, after Shockey complained that he had been interfered with on a pass route, he was seen on TV flipping his middle finger as he walked off the field. Then he sat on the bench and, without looking, fired a cup of ice over his head into the stands behind him. The ice hit two kids; one burst into tears, and cops asked their father if he wanted Shockey arrested. Shockey apologized to the family in the locker room after the game and gave the kids a signed football. But the father ripped him in the press anyway, and Shockey was fined $5,000 for throwing the ice (plus $5,000 for flipping the finger).
"I'd do it all over again," Shockey says. "I feel sorry for the kids who have to be raised by a father like that. He came in the locker room, acted like he was my best friend, acted like nothing happened. Then he's in the papers trashing me and saying how the NFL needs to make an example of me. His kids have no chance in life, because their father's going to take one little accident and blow it up just to get himself publicity. I gave him free balls and free hats; what do you want me to do? His kids, it didn't hurt them. It was a cup of ice. Toughen up, you know?"
As for that nationally televised middle finger, Shockey says he wasn't directing it at the fans. "I flipped off a player," he says. Shockey won't give a name, but he says he was responding to one 49er who came "up to me in my ear, when I'm walking away off the field, [and said], 'No bleepin' white cracker bleep is gonna catch a pass on me.' " Shockey says he got back at San Francisco by scoring on the next series. (Not long after he flipped the bird, Shockey outjumped safety Tony Parrish for a touchdown.) Then things fell apart: In the third quarter Shockey dropped a touchdown pass that would've put the Giants up 42-14, and the 49ers roared back. That mistake, he says, he forgot about the next day. But the insult? The revenge? Shockey remembers it clearly.
All his talk about payback and bad fathers would prompt the obvious conclusion—if you didn't know that Jeremy had a bullheaded feistiness even before his father, Jimmy Shockey, dropped out of his life. The boy always went straight ahead, at full speed: After watching Superman crash through walls on TV one day, the five-year-old Jeremy sprinted across the family garage, slammed face-first into a wall and walked away with blood streaming down his forehead. Throughout football, throughout sports, throughout America there are children who were abandoned by their fathers, but there aren't many who, in high school, risked arrest and expulsion by hopping in a fire truck and driving it across a parking lot merely because it was blocking his way.
His father is the one topic that still makes Shockey squirm. Jeremy doesn't want Jimmy Shockey getting any credit for his success, even as an indirect source of motivation. He's an absolute no one. "That's f———over," Jeremy says. "How I look at it is, my mother took so much pride in raising me and my brother, she did such a great job, there was no need to ask, 'Hey, where's our father?' He didn't opt to come back. Me and my brother look at it like, Hey, it's his loss—not ours. Me and my brother knew my mother was going to raise us, and we were going to do great things. Now she's the one reaping all the benefits. She's living like a queen." (James is studying to be a real-estate agent.)