Giants co-owner, NFL Hall of Famer Mara dies

Updated: December 12, 2005, 3:05 PM ET
Associated Press

NEW YORK -- Every NFL fan owes a huge debt to Wellington Mara, who died Tuesday at 89.

So does every owner, executive and player.

Wellington Mara
Wellington Mara became a Giants ballboy in 1925 after his father, Timothy J. Mara, bought the team.

Mara, who joined the New York Giants as a ballboy the day his father purchased the team 80 years ago and became co-owner as a teenager, was the face of the franchise for more than a half century.

But he also was the patriarch of the NFL, a man who was willing for more than 40 years to split the millions in television revenues he could have made in the nation's largest market with the Green Bays and Pittsburghs of the league.

It put the NFL at the top of America's sports hierarchy.

"He shaped nearly every rule and philosophy we have in our league today," said Ernie Accorsi, the Giants general manager. "Most of all, he was the moral conscience of the National Football League. He now joins the pantheon of incredible men who made this league what it has become."

Said commissioner Paul Tagliabue: "Wellington Mara represented the heart and soul of the National Football League. He was a man of deep conviction who stood as a beacon of integrity. When Well Mara stood to speak at a league meeting, the room would become silent with anticipation because all of us knew we were going to hear profound insights born of eight decades of league experience."

The last of the NFL's founding generation, Mara, elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1997, died of cancer at his home in Rye, the team said.

One of Mara's greatest contributions came in the early 1960s when he and brother Jack agreed to share television revenue on a league wide basis soon after Pete Rozelle became commissioner. That deal allowed the NFL to thrive and remains in place today.

"Wellington Mara was a true pioneer who understood what it took to make the National Football League great," said Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Association. "History will show that his vision, integrity and willingness to share with small market clubs paved the way for economic success."

In 1989, Mara and group of older owners wanted Rozelle's successor to be Jim Finks, then the New Orleans general manager, rather than Tagliabue, then a league lawyer. Mara thought the league should be run by a football man.

But Mara and several other "old-guard" owners finally agreed to break a stalemate of four months by throwing their votes to Tagliabue. Mara became one of the new commissioner's staunchest supporters, a man Tagliabue often leaned on for advice.

Mara became a Giants' ballboy at age 9 on Oct. 18, 1925 after his father, Timothy J. Mara, bought the team. He stayed fully involved in New York's operation for almost 80 years, except for the three years he served in the Navy during World War II. Until he became ill last spring, he attended most practices and every game.

In 1930, at 14, his father made him co-owner with older brother Jack.

He ran the club until several years ago, when his son John took over day-to-day operations. But from 1979 on, while the team was run by general managers George Young and Accorsi, Mara had final say on football decisions. He was the one who decided to fire Jim Fassel after the 2003 season and replace him with Tom Coughlin.

Coughlin remembered Mara as an owner who stayed away from the coaches -- except when he was needed.

"I'll never forget when I was here as an assistant in 1988," he said. "We lost the last game of the year to the New York Jets and didn't go into the playoffs. The next day he was in the coaches' meeting room, and he went from coach to coach, shaking everybody's hand. In 1989 we were in the playoffs and the next year we won the Super Bowl. We never saw him at that time. He didn't have to be there. He was there when he was needed. He always said and did the right thing."

Before last Sunday's game against Denver, Coughlin told his players of Mara's condition. The Giants won on a touchdown pass from Eli Manning to Amani Toomer with 5 seconds left. In the locker room after the game, the players chanted "Duke, Duke, Duke," Mara's nickname.

Manning later said he had been told by one of Mara's grandsons that the owner awakened in time to see the winning play, then smiled and went back to sleep.

Two other Giants stars, Tiki Barber and Jeremy Shockey, went to Mara's home on Monday. "We were able to say a prayer and say goodbye, and that meant a lot to me," Barber said.

Mara always repaid his players -- once a Giant, you were a Giant for life.

When former players became ill, Mara would find them doctors, pay their medical expenses and arrange help for their families. Many old-timers were on the payroll as scouts or advisers. Even in this era of sophisticated scouting, it wasn't unusual for Young or Accorsi to get a call from a former player recommending the Giants look at some prospect.

The team was almost always well aware of the prospect, but Mara never dropped any of those old "scouts" from the payroll.

Mara always considered himself a football man first, running the on-field operations through the 1950s until 1979 while Jack and then Jack's son Tim ran the business end. The team was successful during the '50s and early '60s with such stars as Frank Gifford, Y.A. Tittle, Sam Huff and Roosevelt Brown and a coaching staff that included Tom Landry and Vince Lombardi as assistants.

But after losing to Chicago in the 1963 NFL championship game, the Giants began a long slide, failing to make the playoffs again until 1981 as Wellington and Tim, by then the co-owner, feuded.

In 1979, on the commissioner's recommendation, the Maras agreed to hire Young as general manager and the team again became a power.

It won Super Bowls in 1986 and 1990 with Bill Parcells coaching a team that starred Lawrence Taylor and Phil Simms and stout defenses. The 1990 team featured one of the best coaching staffs assembled: future head coaches Coughlin, Bill Belichick, Al Groh, Charlie Weis, Romeo Crennel and Ray Handley.

Parcells left after that season and the Giants slipped into the middle of the pack.

They made the Super Bowl again after the 2000 season, losing to the Baltimore Ravens, owned by Art Modell, Mara's close friend and longtime partner in league matters. Mara never openly criticized Modell's move from Cleveland and they celebrated getting to the Super Bowl together.

In 1991, Tim Mara and his family sold their share of the team to Robert Tisch. Tisch and Wellington Mara were officially co-owners and Tisch ran much of the business affairs. But it was always clear this was Wellington's team.

Still, he was never an authoritarian. He would greet players after every game -- win or lose -- flashing a shy smile at stars and scrubs alike.

"My wife said it best when we talked about Mr. Mara," said Simms, the quarterback on the Giants Super Bowl teams and now a television analyst. "She said, 'There are so few icons left.' That's what Mr. Mara was. He was from an era where there were certain men who handled themselves differently than everybody else. I don't know if you can be that person anymore in this day and age. I don't know if society would let you be like him."

Mara is survived by wife Ann, 11 children and 40 grandchildren. The funeral Mass will be Friday morning at St. Patricks Cathedral in New York.


Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press

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