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THEIR PATHS WIND TOGETHER through the 20th century and into the 21st—modern sports stories but business stories as well, two enterprises that began small and together became very big. So it was fitting that on the first Sunday in February, as the National Football League celebrated a Super Bowl that validated its runaway growth in American sports and culture, the New York Giants were crowned champions for the fourth time.
A roomful of adults could be entertained long into a cold winter's night by debating which is the most iconic NFL franchise. Is it one of the two great Midwestern rivals, the Chicago Bears of George (Papa Bear) Halas, Mike Ditka and Walter Payton or the Green Bay Packers of Curly Lambeau, Vince Lombardi and Brett Favre? Is it the Pittsburgh Steelers, the only franchise to win six Super Bowls, while remaining so tethered to its community that it's difficult to separate the two? Or perhaps even the San Francisco 49ers, who helped revolutionize the game under the brilliant Bill Walsh and have won five titles in barely three decades? Or the Dallas Cowboys, "America's Team," or the Miami Dolphins, with their undefeated season of 1972? So many arguments to make.
None fit the iconic mold better than the Giants. A member of the NFL since 1925, the team has shared the league's New York home and its intensely spit-shined image for nearly nine decades, selling buttoned-up Big Blue professionalism to the biggest market in the country and seldom succumbing to the quick fix. If the NFL were an insurance agency, the Giants would be the agent in the first office on the right, with nary a wrinkle in his suit or a hair out of place.
The two individuals who best convey this image through the long history of the team are distinguished owner Wellington Mara, who first became involved with the team at age nine and died 80 years later in 2005; and current coach Tom Coughlin, who is so straight that a pre--Super Bowl press conference in which he laughed a couple of times was reviewed as if it were The Hangover Part III.
Yes, it's wickedly ironic that the multipierced, Mohawked lead role in the movie The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is played, in an Oscar-nominated performance, by Rooney Mara, whose father, Chris, is the Giants' senior vice president of player evaluation and whose uncle John is the team's president and CEO. But even that development is somewhat analogous to the NFL, where rules demand homogeneity (a strict uniform code) and stifle creativity (minimal touchdown celebrating), even as the league benefits when its players are controversial.
A montage of Giants history encompasses many of the classic moments in the history of the league. In the 1934 championship game it was Giants coach Steve Owen who put sneakers on his players for better footing on the iced-over turf at the Polo Grounds. In 1958 it was the Giants who lost in overtime to the Colts at Yankee Stadium in the game that launched the modern era of televised professional football. In 1960 it was Giants All-Pro Frank Gifford who was knocked unconscious by the Eagles' Chuck Bednarik, creating one of the most memorable photographs in football history. It was Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor who not only revolutionized pass rushing but also snapped Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann's leg on Monday Night Football in 1985. And it was the Giants' unlikely hero David Tyree who saved Super Bowl XLII in 2008 by catching a pass against his helmet. It is the Giants' highlight reel, but it is the NFL's too.
In the last decade the NFL has transformed from a successful major professional sports league into the most valuable sports entertainment property in the world. The Giants were on the cutting edge of that climb with their victory over the Patriots four years ago and now return to the apex of the sport with their familiar gray pants, white jerseys and blue NY helmets, nearly as ingrained in NFL lore as the navy pinstripes of their New York baseball brethren.
And the Giants won this season because they operated conservatively and stuck to their approach, despite the almost daily turmoil created by the fiercely competitive New York (and, by extension, national) media. Coughlin, who served under Parcells when the Giants emerged from the dark winter of the late 1960s, '70s and early '80s, was hired in 2004 and remained embattled until that Super Bowl win over the Patriots in Arizona.
Then almost immediately Coughlin was embattled again, as the Giants were bounced from the playoffs after one game in 2008 and then failed to qualify in two ensuing years. Yet the Mara family and the co-owning Tisch family stayed with the coach, almost as if it would have been unseemly to let him go too soon, viewing such impulsive action with the same distaste as the league views, say, Randy Moss pretending to drop his pants and then rub up against a goalpost in Green Bay.
The Giants could only have pleased the league when they struck that 2004 draft deal that brought Eli Manning, more football royalty, to New York. They have stuck with him when a posse (seemingly forgetting his heroics in Super Bowl XLII) formed to find his replacement during and after his 25-interception season in '10.