"When we broke camp last season," McConkey says, "we were staying at the Sheraton near the stadium. One night he says, 'Conk, let's go into New York to get something to eat.' I took him to the Hard Rock Cafe. He was wearing a pair of shorts, a Celtics tank top and a jeans jacket. And he had his normal three-day growth. When we walked in, you could see the girls falling off the stools. I mean it looked like flies dying. So we sat there eating, and he's oblivious to everything. No one came over. They were too intimidated. He's so cool, without spending one iota of energy on it. He hasn't got a phony bone in his body."
The Giants didn't know what to make of Bavaro as a rookie. They tried to get him to talk, to draw him out. He would answer their questions with clipped phrases. "A master of summary," his father, Wally, says. They would strain to hear him. Whatever he said became a story to tell.
"In the Dallas game his rookie year he's talking to Jeff Rohrer, their outside linebacker," Simms says. " 'You're the worst linebacker I've ever seen,' Mark tells him. I mean this is the kid's fifth game as a pro.
" 'Who the hell are you?' Rohrer says.
" 'I'm nobody,' Mark says, 'which makes you even worse.' "
Simms pauses, his eyes twinkling. How the Giants love to tell Bavaro stories. " Houston game his rookie year," he continues. "We're winning 35-14, and we're running out the clock. I call a weakside slant, away from the tight end. Mark starts grumbling in the huddle, uh, uh, uh, like that. I ask him, 'Something wrong with the call, Mark?'
" 'One more time,' he says. 'I wanted to hit him [linebacker Avon Riley] one more time.' "
The Giants fell in love with him that rookie season. The night before a game a bunch of them went to see the movie First Blood, and when they came out they started calling Bavaro Rambo. He hated the nickname. He had an uncle and cousin who served in Vietnam. But he was a rookie, so he kept his mouth shut. The next year, when he came back to camp with some credentials under his belt, he announced, "I don't want to be called Rambo anymore."
In some NFL locker rooms such a pronouncement would be a solicitation for verbal abuse. Doesn't like it, eh? Well, that's all he's going to hear. With the Giants, though, the nickname was immediately dropped. "You know how every neighborhood has a guy who's really tough?" says left tackle Brad Benson. "Not loud or demonstrative; in fact he never really has to prove himself, because nobody's going to take him on. People just know he's the real thing. That's Mark."
He had it when he came to the Giants as a fourth-round draft choice, a quiet, almost brooding quality that didn't lead to easy friendship. He had it at Notre Dame and he had it growing up in Danvers, Mass., a town 20 miles north of Boston. "I never had friends as a kid," says Bavaro. "I was shy. I felt more comfortable hanging out with my father at track practice—he's the track coach at Chelsea High [in the town of the same name 12 miles south of Danvers]—or with my grandparents in East Boston, where I was born. I used to get picked on a lot in junior high. When I got big and I got good in football, my personality changed, and I'm not proud of what I became. I became kind of surly, almost arrogant.