As a forward at Georgetown, Tagliabue averaged 10.9 points and 9.0 rebounds, the latter still good for ninth on the Hoyas' alltime list, ahead of NBA All-Stars Dikembe Mutombo and Alonzo Mourning. When asked if his athletic career gave him an advantage in his current job, Tagliabue smirked. "I think it helps a little, but I don't overestimate the idea that because I played basketball and ran track and field, I can go into a locker room and understand the dynamics right away."
"It helps," says Upshaw. "He never once did not accept the players as equals."
By the time Tagliabue attended New York University Law School on a scholarship in 1962, he had become as confident academically as he had always been athletically. He was at the top of his class, edited the law review and made many of the friends he still invites to the Super Bowl every year. "He was a lot of fun, but he worked hard," says Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Tagliabue's law-school roommate. "We cooked grilled-cheese sandwiches and put ketchup on them and had messy rooms.... He's a big, energetic, athletic guy. His size and presence and athletic skills have always made him a leader."
Bill Plunkett, another law-school friend of Tagliabue's, recalls waiting in line for books when another student asked if they wanted to play some ball. The threesome headed over to the courts on West Fourth Street and got into a very physical game; at one point Tagliabue took a hard foul that sent him sprawling. "That's how the game is played in New York," the offender told Tags.
Tagliabue nodded, dusted himself off and told Plunkett, "Next time down the court, throw it up near the rim."
Plunkett did, and as Tags came down with the ball, he laid a hard elbow right into the thug's nose. "Paul can play very tough," says Plunkett. "Don't let the soft-spoken, smooth lawyer fool you."
Tagliabue met his wife, Chandler Minter of Milledgeville, Ga., while at law school. She graduated from the Georgia State College for Women with a degree in English and French in 1964 before moving to New York City. Sharp featured and sharper tongued, she was initially dismissive of the quiet but confident third-year law student when they met at a party. "For some reason he was pretending he was from Tennessee," she recalls.
The two were married in 1965, and they moved to Washington, D.C., that same year. Chandler, who would eventually earn a master's degree in English from George Washington, attempted to educate her young attorney in arts and letters. "He hadn't really read any fiction before me," she says. "When we met, he began to make an effort, but he's still a nonfiction guy."
They have two children: Andrew, 37, a corporate headhunter in New York City who lives with his partner Mark Jones; and Emily, 34, a former schoolteacher who is married to John D. Rockefeller V, the son of Senator John D. (Jay) Rockefeller (D., W.Va.), and has two daughters. Paul and Chandler were honored in October by the New York chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays for their public support of their son--the commissioner spoke from the dais of his love for Andrew and Mark. All three generations gather annually at the family's summerhouse in Maine.
IN A LUXURY box at Giants Stadium, behind the western end zone, Paul Tagliabue sat sprawled in a stadium seat, his long legs draped over the back of the empty seat in front of him, his brown, tasseled loafers resting on its armrests. As he watched Eli Manning guide the Giants down the field against the Saints, he spoke about the almost religious role football plays in American society and about his position as the guardian of that sacred trust. On evenings like this, under hot lights in packed stadiums while millions tune in across the country, it is hard to not be stunned at the scope of the NFL. Even Tagliabue admits to sometimes marveling at it all and wondering about the significance attached to men playing a game. But he also argues that football is unique among all sports in its "contrived adversity"--his favorite description of the game. He believes fans relate to players because they push themselves to the limits emotionally and physically. "Football develops all the qualities that are needed to be successful in life," Tagliabue says. "That, and it looks great on television."