WHAT I love about NFL Football is how the sport parallels real life. The game is a contest of character. For me, that was never truer than Christmas Eve 2011, when the NY Giants and NY Jets collided on a billion-dollar field in Jersey. Both teams needed a win to keep their playoff hopes afloat. It was sports drama, with a touch of holiday excitement, and I was there.
I made the two-hour drive from Albany with my wife, Lynda. We own a Mazda. We’re teachers. Teachers are Mazda people. She loves the Giants because I love the Giants. Her all-time favorite player is Brandon Jacobs. That day she wore her Jacobs jersey and Santa hat. We tailgated, then went inside for kickoff.
We sat on the second level near the fifteen yard line. To see live the moving parts that make an NFL game go is something everyone should experience. I’d been to a few venues, and maybe I’m New York-centric, but football looks bigger and better and brighter at MetLife Stadium. And before MetLife opened, I thought the same thing about Giants Stadium. Giants Stadium’s a parking lot now. “Only thing a fan can ask for,” I told Lynda, “a chance to play meaningful ball come Christmas.”
They showed Giants head coach, Tom Coughlin, on the jumbotron. “There he is,” I said to Lynda. I always say that when I see Tom Coughlin. He wore thick glasses under his blue NY ball cap. He wasn’t quite as virile as he was when the Giants hired him in ‘04. I was twenty-two and washing cars back then. I watched the press conference on the TV in the break room. Coughlin promised to fix a team in total disarray. I knew he was the right guy. Most Giants fans wanted Charlie Weis or Romeo Crennel. Most Giants fans were wrong.
Eight games into his first season, Coughlin tanked the team’s playoff chances by handing the reins to rookie QB Eli Manning, a long-sighted move that most coaches wouldn’t dare in a win-now society. The next few years were marred by nonstop battles between Coughlin and the team’s top stars. I sat in the nosebleed seats with Lynda--my girlfriend then--when the Saints hung a one-sided whooping on the G-Men in ‘06 and 75,000 fans chanted, “Fire Coughlin!” The fans were wrong, and thirteen months later, Coughlin’s Giants claimed the most unlikely
championship in Super Bowl history.
So much in my life had changed since Coughlin came to New York. I quit the car-washing gig and finished college. I married Lynda. We bought the house. We started our careers. We made plans to have kids. And every Sunday I’d turn on the TV and see Tom Coughlin. “There he is,” I’d say to Lynda. For me, Coughlin embodied Giants football. He was disciplined and detail-oriented. He never blundered under the mega glare of the NYC media. And sometimes, but not always, that’s as important as winning. But now it was Christmas Eve 2011. The Giants were 7-7 and facing a third straight playoff no-show. Winning was the only option.
Then Jets head coach Rex Ryan filled the jumbotron, donning a black vest and dark shades. Rex unabashedly believed he was the man to bring the Jets back to their first Super Bowl since Joe Namath. He promised days of the “same old Jets” were done. He backed up all that talk with two straight trips to the AFC Championship. But Rex’s third season had been hard. His quarterback Mark Sanchez had regressed and pundits were beginning to wonder if all the bluster was just bluster. The Jets limped into Christmas Eve at 8-6. If Rex’s boys fell flat, his own job security would be up for debate. Winning was the only option.
The first few minutes were a slop fest of three-and-outs. By the second quarter the Jets were manhandling Coughlin’s Giants. The entire crowd-- half in green, half in blue--held its breath on every play, waiting for disaster to strike. I believed the blue-shirted fans would need something like magic to keep the G-Men playoff bound.
Then something like magic showed up.
Facing a tricky 3rd & 10 in the shadow of his end zone, Eli delivered a dime to Victor Cruz. It was a first down and I unclenched my whitened knuckles for another play. But Cruz wasn’t done. With a nifty move between two Jets, he hit the sideline, and 89 yards later, was dancing the Touchdown Salsa. The Giant faithful chanted “Crrruuuzzzzz,” and Big Blue claimed a 10-7 advantage. “Our game,” I told Lynda, “our night.”
As the temperature dipped and the ring of stadium lights came lit, the Giants defense assumed control. Gang Green had the ball on five drives in the third quarter and did nothing but punt four times and throw an ugly INT. “We should be up by three scores,” I said. But we weren’t. Eli added just one touchdown, extending the advantage to a tenuous 17-7.
The horizon went dark as the fourth quarter clock ticked. The Jets had dug in and put another 7 on the board. The green-shirted fans chanted
“J-E-T-S, Jets! Jets! Jets!” The tide was turning. Rex Ryan suddenly looked like a genius Darth Vader. All season the Giants had struggled to maintain leads and finish off opponents. “It’s now or never,” I said.
I watched Tom Coughlin, his body bent into the field of play, as DJ Ware came on a sweep right. Ware shifted his shoulders to step out of bounds when Jet defender, Aaron Maybin, shoved the burly running back into Coughlin, whose left leg folded back like a rotted wish bone. The crowd moaned as the 65-year-old coach crumbled. A few plays later, a ripple of applause moved through the stands. When I looked down, Coughlin was hobbling back to his sideline post.
“There he is!”
And that’s what it took to beat the Jets. It was a coach with his back against the wall, in the biggest city in the world, rising above injury to finish. Coughlin had preached that single word all season: Finish! And finally, his Giants had done it. Eli added an insurance touchdown, and the defense scored a two-point safety. Final score: 29-14.
Lynda and I embraced. The jumbotron showed Coughlin begin the long hobble across that billion-dollar field. Maybe a lesser man would’ve skipped out, cited the dilapidated leg as reason, but not Coughlin. Flanked by two goons who kept the cameras and microphones clear, Coughlin extended his hand and Ryan gripped it, mouthed the words, “Good game” and that was it. Coughlin walked off the field and five weeks later the Giants won the Super Bowl.
That was my happiest Christmas Eve. It was our game, our night. I believed that was the beginning of my glorious life with Lynda. We’d have kids. We’d grow old together. One day I’d wear thick glasses, same as Coach Coughlin, and Lynda would be by my side. We’d be happy till the end of time. I was certain of it.
Eighteen months later, Lynda found a lump on her left breast. The doctors were sure it was benign. The doctors were wrong. Lynda was diagnosed with advanced cancer. She was 32. The chemo treatments began. She couldn’t work. She couldn’t teach. Her hair fell out. The life-sparkle left her eye. The woman I married just a few years before was fading away. Because of the intense medicines, there’d be no kids. There’d be no family.
Those days can only be described as the darkest of days.
Football season came again. Every Sunday, I turned on TV and there was Tom Coughlin. The G-Men lost their first six games of the 2013 campaign. That was the first Giants team in history to begin a season so badly. The pundits were predicting Coughlin’s demise. The team wasn’t
responding. It was time for a change.
To me, Tom Coughlin is Giants football. And I never wanted that to change. I didn’t care about playing meaningful ball come Christmas. That no longer concerned me. I just wanted him to stay. Some people will say football’s football. But in my life, at that time, it was the only consistent thing I had. And maybe nothing lasts forever. But I wanted Tom Coughlin to last as long as possible.
Lynda slowly rose up from her nightmarish diagnosis. The tumors shrunk. The bone mets stopped progressing. There was no new cancer. She returned to work. She was teaching again. She started yoga. She didn’t wear pink or bemoan her bad break in life. That wasn’t going to
help anything. Winning was the only option.
The Giants won 7 of their last 10 games and finished 2013 at 7-9. Coughlin was not fired. Four weeks later, Lynda was declared cancer-free.
In my life, I’ve been right about just two things: 1) my wife, Lynda. I married the right woman, and no cancer could ever change that. And 2) my football coach, Tom Coughlin. Back in ’06, when those 75,000 fans chanted, “Fire Coughlin,” I knew he was the right guy. I knew the fans were wrong.
Now it’s August 2014. Summer’s almost over. NFL training camps are in full swing. Thirty-two teams will begin the climb towards a championship. Every fan base believes this year will be their year. Their team has talent. Their team has speed. But NFL Football is like real life. The game is a contest of character.
Brian Huba’s work has appeared in Reed, The Foliate Oak, The Griffin, Down in the Dirt, and The Storyteller. Brian authors a weekly blog for the Times Union newspaper out of Albany, NY. Brian has studied under Booker Award Winner Lydia Davis. Currently, Brian teaches high school writing. You can view his blog at http://blog.timesunion.com/brianhuba/
As fate would have it, the Giants were scheduled to play an exhibition game at the Football Hall of Fame. We decided to buy tickets and rent a room in Canton, Ohio. Fawcett Stadium is a quarter of the size of MetLife in the Meadowlands. We sat on the lowest level. Lynda wore her Brandon Jacobs jersey, even though he retired. I said she should get a new jersey. She said she’ll never get a new jersey. He’s her all-time favorite.
When Tom Coughlin took his spot on the sideline, I said, “There he is.” I always say that when I see Tom Coughlin. We both have our favorites. Maybe that never needs to change.
After the game, they wheeled a portable podium onto the field so the fans could watch the coaches and players do postgame media. Coughlin came from the locker room, flanked by the same goons who walked him off the field on Christmas Eve 2011. He stepped onto the podium and the microphones circled around.
As the coach answered questions, a group of drunken fans began booing and chanting, “Coughlin sucks!” One fan screamed, “7-9, Coughlin, live with it!” The heckling was merciless. I couldn’t help but remember that night in ’06 when 75,000 fans chanted, “Fire Coughlin!” The fans were
wrong then. The fans were wrong now.
I took my wife’s hand and we walked off. And going away, she said, “Sucks to see a game end like that,” and I said, “Don’t you see, it didn’t end. It all begins again.”