Sunday, October 15, 2023

Books: "Once a Giant" By Gary Myers, On Beloved '86 Champs


Once a Giant: A Story of Victory, Tragedy, and Life After Football

By Gary Myers

PublicAffairs; hardcover, 304 pages; $30.00

Gary Myers is the former NFL columnist for the New York Daily News and Dallas Morning News, and has covered the league since 1978. He has authored six books, including the New York Times bestseller Brady vs. Manning, an inside look at the greatest rivalry in NFL history, and recently My First Coach (please click here for our review) and How 'Bout Them Cowboys (click here for our review). Myers also was a long-time member of the cast of HBO's Inside The NFL and the YES Network's This Week in Football.

The New York Giants have won four Super Bowls since 1986, and as Myers points out, that is the most in the time period since then, aside from the six titles that the New England Patriots have won. Of course, the last two of the four Giants' championships were their stunning upsets over the Patriots.

While those two recent Giants title teams were fronted by Head Coach Tom Coughlin and quarterback Eli Manning, the first two championships, in 1986 and 1990, had a distinct look as well. 

Head Coach Bill Parcells and his wunderkind defensive assistant Bill Belichick were at the helm, and the team was full of players whose names are now legendary and roll of the tongue of any Big Blue diehard, future Hall of Famers and All-Pros Phil Simms, Lawrence Taylor, Mark Bavaro, Harry Carson, George Martin, Carl Banks, Pepper Johnson, Maurice Carthon, and Mark Collins.

The one that holds a special place in Giants' fans hearts, because they watched the team build up to the moment, in a way a football team can't develop anymore is 1986. The Giants raced to a 14-2 record, the best record of their four Super Bowl champions. They then ran through the stalwart San Francisco 49ers and Washington Redskins in the NFC playoffs before dominating the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl, to deliver the Giants their first ring in 30 years.

The '86 Giants are the focus of Myers' new book, Once a Giant, and while the insights on that season are incredible, it is a story of friendships, how close members of that team were then and are to this day. 

This was a tight-knit bunch that knew how to force each other to play their best, while also having fun. They constantly played practical jokes on each other, in the locker room throughout the season and at training camp, such as the day Jim Burt pulled multiple pranks on Phil Simms, starting the day by spraying a fire extinguisher into his room and leading him to think his $50,000 car was missing by parking it across the Pace campus. Hazing, which was common in that era, was nearly non-existent with these Giants, especially after Carson and Banks nearly came to blows in the locker room in 1984. 

When the gridiron glory faded, chronic pain, addiction, and in some cases, crime followed. Many football players face these realities, but the Giants have confronted and survived them as one. With unprecedented access, Myers gives a window into Bavaro's battles with injuries, Lawrence Taylor's struggles with sobriety, and the breakup and reconciliation of Parcells and Belichick. They had a falling out after Belichick reneged on coaching the Jets in 2000 after Parcells stepped down, and he went to the Patriots, where Parcells had bolted from to take the Jets job in 1997. After they reconnected, Parcells even recommended Belichick move into the same development in Palm Beach county, and when both are in town at the same time, they meet regularly for breakfast on Saturday mornings. 

In this excerpt, Myers writes of how these players are still looked after by their coach to this day: "Parcells feels indebted to his former players for buying into his demanding program and risking their health and bodies for him and the team, ultimately making him a very successful coach and very rich man. He feels responsible for their well-being and wants to assist if they need money.

'They sacrificed so much for me,' he said.

'A lot of guys have trouble with career transitions and a lot of them placed calls to Bill to help out,' Martin said. 'Bill has the means to do some things. He doesn't get the credit for it and doesn't want it. The $4 million is just the tip of the iceberg. There are so many others who need money.'

Some of the '86 Giants made it big in their post-football lives. Some continue to struggle. Either way, they consider one another family. Parcells knows the inherent brutality of the NFL surely has led to the health issues, many serious, that his players have endured. If the best way to assist them is with an open checkbook policy to pay for doctors or lawyers or child support or to reduce overwhelming debt and provide peace of mind, he asks a few questions and sends the money. It's his form of philanthropy, but he first makes sure his former player really needs the money. He has embraced what he considers his responsibility.

'Why wouldn't you feel that way?' he said. 'Some of these guys spent ten to twelve years with me. Some of them didn't have fathers. I feel an obligation to help them.'

Banks has done very well in the business world as the president of G-III Sports, an apparel company with licensing agreements in professional and college sports. He has also managed a herniated disc in his back without requiring surgery. Carson had a sports consulting company. Simms jumped right into television after he retired in 1994 and has worked for ESPN, NBC, and CBS. Collins is an ambassador for the Kansas City Chiefs in addition to being the founder and CEO of 2FiveSports, a recruiting service for high school athletes. Gary Reasons has worked in a wide variety of fields as a college football broadcaster, an executive with Hewlett Packard Enterprise, and has helped establish telehealth for retired NFL players through the NFL Alumni Association. Pepper Johnson and Maurice Carthon had long careers as NFL assistant coaches.

Parcells had an impact on all of their lives on and off the field - and many applied the lessons he taught them in their second careers. 'Bill really was a hard-ass. He knew he had to be that way to win championships,' Simms said. 'This is just his way of paying back the players one more time. I say one more time because he paid everybody while he was coaching by changing all of our lives. When it's all over and he sits back, he wants to reconnect with the players in a different way. He has a soft side to him, and he shows it with his generosity to lot of his ex-players.'

Simms believes that Parcells disburses the money with not one thought about getting repaid. 'My dad had a great line: Never lend anybody one cent. Just give them the money. If you lend it, you will lose a friend for the rest of your life. If you give it, it will be all fine,' he said.

The '86 team turned Parcells into a cult figure in New York and provided the momentum to set him up for the rest of his life. That was the team of his life, the team of their lives. He gets fifteen calls a year on Father's Day from players telling him they love him. They call him on his birthday. He calls often to check up on them and frequently ends by telling his former players he loves them."

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