NEW YORK -- On a crisp autumn morning, perfect for the game he loved, New York Giants owner Wellington Mara was revered Friday as a peerless father, friend and football man at a service packed with luminaries from across an extraordinary career.
Mara's coffin sat in the aisle of St. Patrick's Cathedral flanked by the two most important groups in his long life -- his wife, Ann, their 11 children and an assortment of grandchildren on one side, and this year's Giants on the other.
The Manhattan cathedral took on the cast of Canton, Ohio, as it swelled with NFL greats -- fellow Hall of Famers Frank Gifford, Andy Robustelli, Gene Upshaw, John Madden and Willie Brown. NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue was there, along with Giants favorites from the 1950s through the 1990s.
Mara died at 89 on Tuesday at his suburban New York home after a long fight against cancer. Although tied to the Giants since becoming a ballboy for his father Tim's team at age 9, Mara's family and faith were recalled more than any football games.
An assortment of NFL coaches with ties to Mara also turned out, including Dallas coach Bill Parcells, New England's Bill Belichick, Carolina's John Fox and Cleveland's Romeo Crennel. Their attendance, two days before Sunday's kickoffs, spoke volumes about their level of regard for Mara. Owners from at least another dozen franchises came to mourn, further evidence of his standing as the league's senior owner.
"At this moment, we all feel like family coming together to celebrate the life of Wellington Mara," said Harry Carson, one of the captains of the 1986 Super Bowl-champion Giants. Several of Mara's former players shed tears as his son, John, remembered his dad's low-key presence.
"I can't help but think he would have been so embarrassed by this," Mara said during the Mass celebrated by Cardinal Edward Egan. "He would have shook his head and tried to hide in a corner somewhere."
Mara, who followed his father into the family business, closed by quoting Shakespeare: "Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!"
The altar, like Mara himself, was done in understated style -- just four bouquets of red flowers, two on either side. Mara's black casket was brought into the cathedral accompanied by a bagpiper playing "Amazing Grace."
Mara treated his players as family, too, as many Giants alumni observed. His football sons came in all ages and ethnicities, all colors and sizes. Once they gained admission to the clan, membership was permanent.
"He was definitely a father figure for all of us," said George Martin, a defensive end on the '86 team. "Once you were a Giant, you were always a Giant."
Martin was joined by an assortment of his title-winning teammates: Carson, Phil Simms, Phil McConkey, Karl Nelson, Bart Oates, Mark Bavaro. McConkey said he called Bavaro on Tuesday after hearing word of Mara's death.
"Mark said, 'I never thought there could be a New York Giants without Wellington Mara,'" McConkey recounted. "And there never will be. He will be embodied in the spirit of his team forever."
Before the 1-hour, 45-minute service began, the current Giants team arrived in seven charter buses led by a New Jersey state police cruiser. Tiki Barber, a Mara favorite, led the team up the steps and into the cathedral. Eli Manning, Jeremy Shockey and the rest followed in a somber parade.
Afterward, the players -- old and young -- stood mutely on either side of those steps as Mara's casket was loaded into a hearse. A horse-drawn carriage led the funeral procession as the sound of bagpipes filled Fifth Avenue -- a little touch of St. Patrick's Day in October for the late Irishman.
Teammates Amani Toomer and Michael Strahan, two of the most veteran Giants on the 2005 team, stood side by side watching the scene. Earlier, Gifford -- who was spoke at Mara's Hall of Fame induction -- spoke for both the late owner's families during his eulogy.
"I know we're all still suffering the loss of this great man," Gifford said. "But we can still celebrate his wonderful life."