For years the two brothers waited. Their father's absence sat in the house like some godawful heirloom, a piece of Shockey family history everyone had learned to avoid. It wasn't even that hard to pull off: Avert your eyes long enough, ignore a big, ugly fact day after day, and soon you can act as if it never existed. The brothers didn't ask about their father, and their mother didn't bring him up. She had left her husband when Jeremy was three and James was four. They lived in a patch of Oklahoma beloved by oilmen and ranchers and few others. They kept on.
The boys waited. They took to pounding each other as brothers often do, with Jeremy always the worse for it. She wondered if the boys hated each other; they were best friends, of course. The father was a no one. He never phoned and never visited, so that's what she called him: an absolute no one. When the boys were old enough, she told them, Apparently he doesn't want anything to do with you. They didn't cry. They absorbed the truth like little men.
Still, they waited. But it wasn't because the boys—teenagers now and still growing-nursed every abandoned kid's fantasy: tears, a hug, Christmas mornings together. No. It was all about mat moment of impact: Who's going to get to the door first? That's what they wondered. When he came back, which one would swing open the door and take the first measure of his dark hair and too-strange, too-familiar features? Who would be the lucky one? Which brother would have the honor of smashing his father's face?
Jeremy Shockey dreams of mayhem. He sees himself making catches no one has ever made—behind the back, one-handed, with defenders draped all over him. He envisions himself running over people and maiming them, he says, "hitting them until their bones crush." This comes as no surprise. Anyone who saw the New York Giants' rookie tight end barrel through the NFL last season could feel the joy he took from inflicting punishment.
"People pay money to watch people get hurt," Shockey says. "They're looking to win, but you ask nine out of 10 people and they'll say, 'I'd rather see Jeremy Shockey run over somebody and break his arm or leg than see him catch a touchdown.' They pay all that hard money for their seats? I'm going to give them what they want." He'll enjoy it too. "That's what excites me," he says.
This is not the usual mind-set of an offensive player, but then Shockey doesn't fit many of the game's modern molds. At 6'5", 252 pounds, with 4.64 speed in the 40, he's a wide receiver in a tight end's body—except that most wide receivers will do anything to avoid contact. Shockey seeks it like a linebacker. "He hunts people," says Giants quarterback Kerry Collins. But in an era in which opponents share agents and vacations and greet each other after games like lost soul mates, no linebacker so openly treats football as life's best chance to exact revenge.
Before playing against the Giants on Dec. 22, Indianapolis Colts safety David Gibson said Shockey was "just another player" and not as good as Kansas City Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez. On the first play of the second quarter Shockey caught a pass and leveled Gibson. "I wanted to kill the dude," Shockey says. "I saw him, and I ran right over him. I love proving people wrong."
In the Giants' final game of the regular season, against Philadelphia, Shockey taunted the Eagles' All-Pro safety, Brian Dawkins, on behalf of Giants wide receiver Ike Hilliard, whose season had been ended by a savage hit from Dawkins two months earlier. Then, after he outjumped Dawkins for a touchdown catch, Shockey snarled, "I got you this time!"
In the ensuing days San Francisco 49ers linebacker Julian Peterson baited Shockey in the runup to their first-round playoff showdown by saying, "He'll get frustrated and then blow a couple of plays." Early in the second quarter Shockey hauled down a pass from Collins, flattened 49ers safety Zack Bronson and began rolling to what seemed a sure touchdown. He had only to sprint right to score. Instead, like a bull seeing red, he spied Peterson at the one-yard line, veered left and buried his head in Peterson's side. He didn't score. He didn't care.
"Everybody who's ever done anything bad to me, anything that ever went wrong, I try to take it out on somebody—every game," Shockey says. "It's like when you see Michael Jordan's highlights and your hair sits up on your arms? I'm like that the whole game. I feel the hair on my arms, the hair on the back of my neck standing up, and my heart's beating 100 miles an hour. I couldn't picture myself doing anything else. I'm not out there just doing my job. I take everything personally. A guy beat me up five years ago? If I find his ass, I'll get him back."