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U the Man
Like every other NFC championship contender, the Giants have their flaws. Eli Manning is a terrific prospect but makes some Ryan Leaf--type throws, the secondary is green and placekicker Jay Feely is suddenly a mess. But one element of New York's game has been near perfect: The defensive front is pressuring the quarterback like no other Giants team since the mid-'80s. "I've been praying for this for sooooooo long," 13-year veteran defensive end Michael Strahan said on Sunday, after New York had whacked the Cowboys 17-10 to improve to 8-4 and move a game ahead of Dallas in the NFC East. "Finally, I'm not getting double-teamed every play. And when I am [doubled], I know we've got all these young guys, especially Osi, to clean up for me."
Osi--that's the magic name around the Giants these days. You might remember that 280-pound Nigerian defensive end Osi Umenyiora (OH-see YOU-men-yore-ah) was the player the Chargers asked for when New York and San Diego were working out the 2004 draft-day deal that would bring Manning to the Giants. New York G.M. Ernie Accorsi called the request for Umenyiora a deal-breaker, and the trade almost didn't happen. ( San Diego finally relented, and New York got Manning for the Giants' first-round pick, quarterback Philip Rivers, plus first-, third- and fifth-round picks.)
Coming off the best game a defensive end had had in years against Seattle Pro Bowl tackle Walter Jones--eight tackles, two sacks, one forced fumble on Nov. 27--Umenyiora, 25, had become the Nigerian Nightmare heading into the Dallas game. The Cowboys were well aware that Strahan, on the left side, now had disruptive company on the other end of the line. Nevertheless, Umenyiora put on a stunning performance, playing right end in the regular 4-3, middle linebacker in some dime situations (opening a spot for another Giants rush end on the rise, rookie Justin Tuck) and even alongside Strahan on a couple of downs.
On Dallas's first series Umenyiora helped stop running back Julius Jones for a three-yard loss. On the second series he drove tackle Torrin Tucker into quarterback Drew Bledsoe, earning his NFC-best 11th sack. In the fourth quarter, with New York clinging to a 17-10 lead, Umenyiora wasn't fooled by a counter and dragged down Jones from behind, a yard shy of a first down. On the Cowboys' next series Umenyiora, in pass-coverage, tripped up tight end Jason Witten coming off the line, causing Bledsoe's pass to sail incomplete.
Umenyiora is one of the NFL's best--albeit least known--stories. He was born in London to Nigerian parents in 1980 and lived in England for seven years, before the family moved to Nigeria. When Osi was 14 his dad, a businessman who emphasized education, sent him to live with his older sister, Nkem, in Alabama, where she was attending Tuskegee. Umenyiora began playing football at Auburn ( Ala.) High but was pressed to improve his schoolwork. "My sister and older brother [Ofor] made me quit football my senior year because my grades were slipping," says Umenyiora. Still, he had already shown enough to get a scholarship to Troy State, where he had 25 sacks and earned a business degree.
Umenyiora was a surprise second-round pick in '03, but by his second season he'd developed into the player that had made San Diego so covetous, leading the Giants in sacks (seven), fumble recoveries (four) and forced fumbles (three). Last spring and summer he worked extra hard on speed and stamina, to become quick enough to run around or through offensive tackles, as well as bull-rush them.
After Sunday's game he accepted a hug from former Giants linebacker Harry Carson. "You're just what I would have been if I'd played defensive end!" Carson told him. "You attack! I love that!" It's a popular sentiment among Giants fans.
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