NFL will sorely miss Mara

The NFL will miss Wellington Mara, but it will miss the things he stood for even more, writes Greg Garber.

Originally Published: October 25, 2005
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

Through the tears, amid the deep sadness, came the same steady stream of words -- values from an age we seem to have lost.

Humility. Modesty. Stability. Dignity. Goodness. Respect.

Wellington T. "Duke" Mara, the New York Giants' owner who died Tuesday at his home in Rye, N.Y., at the age of 89, represented everything that today's sport is not.

Wellington Mara
Evan Pinkus/WireImage.comWellington Mara has been an NFL fixture since his dad bought the Giants in 1925.
"It's a different world today," said former Giants quarterback Phil Simms (1979-93) from his home in Bergen County, N.J. "Mr. Mara didn't do things to try and get attention. Nowadays, those are the people that go unnoticed.

"I hope what he did and who he was don't go unnoticed."

Not to worry.

As much as any other man -- including Pete Rozelle, Vince Lombardi and Paul Brown -- Mara helped build the National Football League into the enormous success it has become. When his father Tim bought the team in 1925 for $2,500, professional football was not at the top of the food chain. Not even close.

"Football had no grip at all," Mr. Mara told me, a young sportswriter working on a book about the history of the game, some 20 years ago. "It was hardly mentioned in the papers at all. It was regarded around the level of professional wrestling."

"Professional wrestling?" I asked, genuinely amazed.

Mr. Mara smiled and dismissed my alarming lack of perspective with a wave. Sitting there in his office at Giants Stadium, his impossibly light blue eyes flashed and his voice grew emotional when he talked about the old days. He was young again. It made sense; his trajectory and the NFL's traced similar curves. He was born in 1916, six years before the NFL came into being. He was nine years old when his dad bought the team and immediately became a ball boy. For 80 years, he was involved on a daily basis, almost to the very end.

Giants General Manager Ernie Accorsi knew Mara for 33 years and worked for him for 12 years.

"The NFL can never be the same," Accorsi said from his office. "He saw the first game ever played by this franchise in 1925. He shaped nearly every rule and philosophy we have in our league today. And 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: George Halas, Pete Rozelle, Art Rooney, Paul Brown, Leon Hess, Vince Lombardi, all of whom left us with a feeling of emptiness with their passing."

Mara's influence is difficult to exaggerate. Lombardi and Tom Landry were assistants for five years together in the 1950s with the Giants. The Giants have been to the playoffs 26 times, the second-highest total in league history, and won six NFL championships. The last two, Super Bowl XXI and Super Bowl XXV, came after he signed off on the hiring of an anonymous assistant coach named Bill Parcells.

It's a different world today. Mr. Mara didn't do things to try and get attention. Nowadays, those are the people that go unnoticed. I hope what he did and who he was don't go unnoticed.
Phil Simms, former Giants QB

Today, the NFL's approach of shared revenue is the model for professional sports. More than 40 years ago, it looked like financial suicide.

Mara and his brother Jack -- co-owners since 1930, at the ages of 14 and 22 -- ran the team in the NFL's biggest market in the early 1960s. But instead of selling the lucrative rights to their games to CBS as an independent contractor, as was their right, they agreed to share equally with smaller franchises in Green Bay, St. Louis and Pittsburgh.

This had a profound impact on a league struggling to establish itself in the hearts and minds of sports fans. Next year, the NFL's revenues from television contracts will approach $4 billion.

"There couldn't have been anything more important at that particular time," said Steelers owner Dan Rooney said from his office. "He understood the importance of television. If we don't have it, the whole scope of the business changes.

"Without television being divided equally, you don't have the fact of any team being able to beat another on any given Sunday."

From a different era

"When Well Mara stood to speak at a league meeting, the room would become silent with anticipation," said NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, "because all of us knew we were going to hear profound insights born of eight decades of league experience."

Greg Aiello, the league's vice president of public relations, got to know Mara when he was the public-relations director for the Giants' rivals, the Dallas Cowboys.

"Well Mara loved the game and all of the people who were part of it," Aiello said. "He was the National Football League in so many ways. His integrity and grace were qualities that stood out so sharply. He made you proud to be part of the NFL.

"It was inspiring to be in his presence and you always hoped you could live up to what he represented."

With all due respect to the NFL's owners, today's league falls somewhat short.

Mara was the last man standing from the original, old-school NFL. Vince Lombardi passed away, far before his time, in 1970. George Halas died in 1983. Art Rooney departed in 1988. Paul Brown died in 1991, while Pete Rozelle left five years later.

Today, an NFL franchise costs upwards of $600 million. Owners, necessarily, make their money in oil or cars or real estate and often buy a team as a hobby. For Mara, football was his business.

"He had the Giants in his heart, but he never lost view of the league's interests," said Bengals owner Mike Brown from his office at Paul Brown Stadium. "It wasn't about money, it was about the game. That's where he was focused, always.

"I appreciated how he espoused his views ... even as times changed. Some might see it as quaint, but I see it as the very essence of what we're supposed to be about. You stray too far from it and you pay a heavy price."

"People have been asking me, what was Wellington's legacy?" Rooney said. "What was the one thing he did? Well, what he did was constant. His integrity came through on any issue you care to talk about. Labor. Where's the Super Bowl going to be played? Charity. He always was the one to say, 'We have to do the right thing.'"

Lamar Hunt, the owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, now becomes the league's patriarch.

"I first met Wellington Mara in the late summer of 1959, near the time of the formation of the American Football League," Hunt said. "I knew him first as a friendly adversary and later, after the 1966 merger, as a compatriot and partner in what I believed to be the most successful sports league in the world.

"I will always remember his sense of humor and friendship and most of all his wisdom and guidance."

Bill Ard, a Giants' guard from 1981-88, is now an investment specialist for UBS Financial Services in Weehawken, N.J.

"It's not about him, it's about the organization," Ard said. "Today these owners, today it's all about them. These owners today are all Johnny-come-lately guys who are just buying their toys. He was there for every single day.

"Yeah, he made a ton of money, but he didn't change one bit. He was just a good, solid guy."

A player's owner

The players, almost universally, loved Mara. Linebacker Harry Carson (1976-88) had a closer relationship than most.

"The thing that stands out in my mind about Wellington Mara was, even though he was the owner, he was like a player," Carson said. "After every game, he was the first one to come into the locker room. After a win, you'd see a big, broad smile on his face and he would congratulate every player. After a loss, he'd come around and tell the players to hold their heads up. Even though he was the man who signed the checks, he was one of us.

"In winning the Super Bowl, I think George Martin, myself -- guys that had been around -- in winning a championship, we were happy for ourselves, but we were also happy for him because we knew some of the stuff he went through with the fans and the media back in the '70s and early '80s. That was part of the good part of winning a championship. We were able to bring a winner to the Giants fans, but more so for Mr. Mara and his family, because they've been around for a long time. We had gone through a lot of ups and downs together."

"I remember reading an interview of his in 1988 or 1989," Simms said. "He said the coaches were extremely organized and thought they worked the players hard. He said he thought they showed a lot of discipline. If that doesn't sum up the man in just a few sentences ... he just looked for core values.

"The only correction I would have made was that they worked the players way too hard -- those were the days of two-a-days with full pads under Bill Parcells."

Chris Godfrey played guard for the Giants for only four seasons, from 1984-87, but he made a friend for life. Now a lawyer in South Bend, Ind., Godfrey always stopped in to see Mara when he came to the East Coast. He visited Mara at his home just a few months ago.

"He had just come back from the hospital for a little while before he had to go back," Godfrey said. "It was killing him to be out of the stream of things, almost like an injured athlete.

"It's funny. Great and powerful men tend to make their power felt. He was just the opposite. He was always helping people behind the scenes, but you never read about that stuff. What a great man he truly was."

Giants head coach Tom Coughlin took time on Tuesday to remember Mara.

"It's very difficult for me right now to think about the New York Giants without Wellington Mara sitting in that office every day," Coughlin said. "But I do know what he would want from all of us, and it's about carrying on. That's exactly what his legacy would be. One day before he went into the hospital I knew he was in the office, so I went down to see him. We talked back and forth and maybe a minute or two into the conversation, he said, 'Well Tom, you better get back to work.' Back down the hall he sent me.

"I'll never forget when I was here as an assistant in 1988. 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."

NFL royalty

Pat Hanlon, the Giants' vice president of communications, said it was an honor to learn from one of the league's founders.

"He was NFL royalty, and he would not be happy that I chose those words, but it's true. He was royalty who possessed the humility and touch of the common man."

I always appreciated that about him. Back in the 1980s, I used to bring my dad, an insufferable Giants fan from Yonkers, to training camp when it was at Pace University and, later, Fairleigh Dickinson University. Mr. Mara was always cordial and would welcome him with a handshake and, after practice, a nod toward the bar for a little scotch on the rockets.

When I first covered the team, for the Morristown Daily Record in 1983, the Giants were still in the practice of paying for the airfare for sportswriters of small local newspapers. Eventually, those newspapers, in a sudden burst of professional ethics, began paying their own way. Still, I always got the impression he would have been happy to continue underwriting the cost.

On Tuesday, people spoke of an era gone by. Here's another example:

In the 1980s, when the Giants were on the road, Well would host something we called the 5:30 Club. In a classy hotel suite in Dallas or St. Louis or Philadelphia there would be a terrific spread -- shrimp, classy appetizers and an open bar featuring a dozen bottles of Pouilly Fuisse. It was always a great party, bringing together Well's family, front-office folks, assistant coaches and, incredibly, sportswriters, some of us wearing ties and jackets.

I miss that feeling of community.

This year, on my annual visit to training camp at the State University of New York at Albany, I scanned the practice field -- looking for the thin man with white hair, a blue golf hat and windbreaker to match -- and was upset when I couldn't find him. I had heard he was quite sick, but for my 20 years of following the team, he was a fixture at training camp and practices. Finally, for the first time in 80 years, cancer forced him to stay away.

There was a consistency, a constancy to him that was comforting. It's a horrific cliché, but the NFL truly will miss Wellington Mara. It will miss the things he stood for even more.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.

ALSO SEE