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Legend In the Making
Paul Zimmerman
September 09, 1987
After only two seasons, tight end Mark Bavaro has quietly become a giant among Giants
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September 09, 1987

Legend In The Making

After only two seasons, tight end Mark Bavaro has quietly become a giant among Giants

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In New York, where Pro Football tradition and legend interweave, they spin their yarns into the night, and often you can't distinguish the narrators from the performers. Wellington Mara tells stories about his old Giants, Ward Cuff and Tuffy Leemans; Y.A. Tittle tells about Sam Huff; Huff tells about Frank Gifford; Gifford about Tittle, and on and on, a narrative hall of mirrors. The Giants love their legends, but how about now, with a full off-season to savor their Super Bowl victory? What stories will they tell for the next 20 years at banquets? Which ones will become the legends?

"Oh, we've got one, even if he's only 24 years old," says Phil Simms, the quarterback-turned-narrator, in the best Giants tradition. "We've got our legend." Simms pauses for dramatic effect, rolling the name off his tongue, drawing it out. "Bavaaaro! Mark Bavaro. Great big kid. Real quiet. Some guys have never heard him talk. Loves to block, knock people down, plant 'em. First game [of 1985, his rookie season] we rush for 192 yards, more than in any game the year before. Against Cincinnati he breaks the club record with 12 catches for 176 yards. We're a veteran team, but we're a little bit in awe of this guy."

Bavaro made the All-Rookie team, and he was the NFC's starting Pro Bowl tight end after that wonderful '86 season. The one-handed catch became his specialty—grab the ball over the middle, lower the shoulder, watch the tacklers bounce, one, two, three. It took at least five 49ers to bring him down last December on a play that will live forever in Giants highlight films. That 23-yard gain, say Bavaro's teammates, triggered their comeback win after they were down 17-0. Some players counted seven would-be tacklers.

"I show people films of that play, and I have them count the people who had shots at Mark," says wideout Phil McConkey. "One, two, three, now there's Lott bouncing off, now Williamson, seven total. On the sideline we just looked at each other in amazement."

The legend grew. The city tuned in. Two nights later, at a tasting of Grandes Marques champagnes at the International Wine Center in Manhattan, the instructor, Ed McCarthy, held up a 1979 Cuv�e William Deutz. "The Mark Bavaro of champagnes," he said. "It drags the taster 15 yards."

"Save your body," guard Billy Ard told Bavaro. "It's O.K. to break a tackle or two, but when the issue's decided, hit the dirt. Your body can't take it."

Bavaro stared at him. "No," he said.

His toughness was almost scary. Broken toe, sprained ankle, cracked jaw. He played through them all last fall. Against New Orleans, defensive back Antonio Gibson broke Bavaro's jaw early in the game. They got him into the locker room, where X-rays revealed a hairline fracture. He played the whole second half.

His silence added to the legend. What was there to talk about? You went out and did it. "People always ask me, 'Is he really that mean? Is he really that tough? Is it true that he doesn't talk to anybody?' " says McConkey, Bavaro's closest friend on the Giants. "I tell them, 'Look, he's a gentle, sincere person,' and they laugh. They think I'm crazy."

They make an odd pair, kind of like a rhino and a tickbird. McConkey is 30 years old, 5'10", 170 pounds, knobby-looking, battle-scarred. Bavaro is 24, 6'4", 245 pounds of chiseled marble, and startlingly handsome in a sleepy-eyed, innocent-looking way.

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