Mara, who has come to feel that he's damned if he does and damned if he doesn't, says he did not know until after the meeting that the coaches had decided to release Lurtsema, and then he did not want to interfere.
Lurtsema, who is not particularly impressed with that argument, said recently that before he left the players were tense at practice because Mara was always around whispering to the coaches, and several of them were unable to get up for a game because Mara's youngsters invaded the locker room before the kickoff and played ticktacktoe on the blackboard. Mara regards both charges as silly.
Lurtsema was not the only unhappy Giant. Fred Dryer, the defensive end now with the Rams, says, "I had to get out of that place while I had my sanity." He found the organization slipshod, even down to the way the equipment manager dried wet shoes by putting them on top of a heater—"It looked like you were in Holland," he says—and feels that the Giants will never be a winner.
The criticism that stings Mara most is the suggestion that he step aside for a professional football man. "I think I am a professional football man," he says. "I've been in the game my whole life." Now a youthful-looking 56, Mara was nine years old when his father, Tim, bought the New York NFL franchise for $500 and started the Giants. He remembers standing outside church after Mass with his father and a friend and his father saying, "Today's the day we see if professional football can go over in New York." Except for a couple of years when he was in the Navy and two games he had to watch on TV because of the press of business, Mara has seen every Giant game played since 1938.
Tim Mara was a colorful character who liked to say he had founded the Giants "on brute strength and ignorance—the players' strength and my ignorance." The son of an immigrant Irish widow on the Lower East Side, Tim left school at 13 to run bets for bookmakers. In time be began acting as a "beard," or betting agent, for Chicago O'Brien, an astute gambler who did not want his fellow plungers to know what he was doing. Tim prospered by betting his own money on O'Brien's selections and then went into bookmaking on his own, eventually setting up a stand at Belmont Park before the advent of mutuel machines. Through a legal quirk, Wellington and his older brother Jack became the owners of the Giants while they were still youngsters. In 1928, Tim Mara got a bank loan for $50,000 to assist Al Smith in the presidential campaign, with the understanding that the Democratic National Committee would repay the loan afterward. When the Democrats denied making any such agreement, the bank sued Mara. He lost the case, but the bank was unable to collect because Tim had transferred all his holdings to relatives, with Jack as president and Wellington as secretary of the Giants.
Wellington attended Loyola, a Jesuit school at 83rd Street and Park Avenue, just across the street from the family apartment. At Loyola and later at Fordham he used to give away Giant tickets to classmates. Two of his Fordham classmates were Ray Walsh, now general manager of the Giants, and Vince Lombardi, then one of the football team's "Seven Blocks of Granite." Mara, who remembers Lombardi as "a very piercing and tenacious student" in philosophy class, became a great admirer of Lombardi some years later when the ex-Block was serving as an assistant coach on the Giants. In 1959 Mara let Green Bay sign Lombardi with the understanding the Giants could have him back when needed. The very next year the Giant coaching job became vacant, but Green Bay officials, much in the manner of the Democratic National Committee, did not recall any understanding, and Mara signed Allie Sherman instead.
When Mara was graduated from Fordham in 1937, his father wanted him to follow Jack to law school. "I had skipped the fifth grade," Mara says, "so I said to my father, 'Let me have this year with the team.' " His father agreed, and Mara never left the Giants except for service. "All the fellows were my age," says Mara of the 1937 Giants. "I was close to them, part of them. There was an entirely different atmosphere in pro football in those days."
Mara has been president of the team since Jack's death in 1965. No matter what title he has held, Mara has had the same approach to the Giants, concentrating on the players and leaving business details to others. He gets up at six at his Westchester home, attends Mass and receives Communion and drives to the city with Walsh, who lives nearby. In the off-season, he puts in a full day at the Giants' office on Columbus Circle, breaking it with a noontime workout at the New York Athletic Club and then a light lunch back at the office. Four times a year he lunches with Jimmy Dolan, a retired radio executive who used to have lunch with Jack. "Since Jack died, we keep it up," Mara says. "A spring, summer, winter and fall luncheon." There are times when Mara thinks he might get a better press if he were more of a man-about-town.
During the season Mara dons a sweat suit and runs while the Giants practice. On game days he sits in a small booth that hangs from beneath the upper stand on the 50-yard line. There are usually a couple of assistant coaches with him, and Mara shows them the Polaroid pictures he takes of the opposing team's formations. If a picture shows anything of significance, Mara stuffs it into an old sweat sock weighted with football cleats and flings it to the bench below. "The spirit of modern times!" exclaims Mara, thinking about his supply of sweat socks and cleats. "We could have put in a wire, but then that gets complicated. Actually, I just sit up there to stay out of trouble."
A homebody, Mara spends evenings with his wife Ann and their six girls and four boys. Often in the winter he will take some of the youngsters to Madison Square Garden for Knick games. Occasionally Mara and his wife go into the city for the theater. They like musical comedies. Before her marriage, Mrs. Mara worked for the Jesuit Missions. She and her husband met one day at Mass at St. Ignatius Loyola when they went to help an elderly lady who had fainted. Ann Mara, a very attractive, vivacious blonde, says, "It was a sporting courtship. While all my friends were at the Stork Club, I was at the Fordham gym." Although she more than shares her husband's distaste for his critics—"All I need is them burning football helmets on the lawn," she says—she was amused by one story about her husband that said he hung out in P.J. Clarke's, St. Patrick's Cathedral and the New York A.C. Mara himself laughs about that. "I've been to Clarke's maybe four times in my life," he says of the restaurant hangout of New York's blas� sporting crowd, "which is more times than I've been to St. Patrick's."