Coughlin: Hero's poignant words inspired Giants
In his new book, "A Team To Believe In," coach Tom Coughlin chronicles the Giants' road to Super Bowl glory. Here is an excerpt.
Pride is on the line during the week of practice before Washington, and I notice Eli Manning elevates his focus and his effort. The Redskins are 2-0, with wins over Miami and Philadelphia, and against Washington Eli will have to deal with a strong pass rush and a boisterous crowd.
All you really need to know about the Washington game takes place in 58 seconds and in the space of three feet.
Fifty-eight seconds left on the game clock: New York 24, Washington 17.
Redskin quarterback Jason Campbell has hit Antwaan Randle El on a 20-yard pass on third and 13 to set up first and goal from the 1-yard line. Campbell spikes the ball per instructions from Joe Gibbs, as the Redskins have no timeouts remaining and the coach wants to get his goal line package in the game.
We trailed in this game, early and often. Our offense turned the ball over, our receivers dropped balls -- Plaxico Burress alone had three drops -- our defense couldn't stop much of anything, and we went into halftime trailing 17-3. But there's a reason why we play the second half.
"We are just a few plays short," I reminded my guys in the locker room. "We simply must make the plays when we need to. Let's take the opening drive and score to cut the lead to seven."
And we did just that when Reuben Droughns ran it in from 1 yard out. The defense locked down and held Washington to just 81 total yards in the second half. Our offense started to click, and Plaxico had five catches for 86 yards, including a spectacular 33-yard catch and run touchdown to put us ahead with just over five minutes to play. Still, despite the impressive second-half comeback, the possibility of getting a much-needed NFC East road win comes down to 58 seconds.
At moments like these, you generally don't know what is going through the minds of your players. But right now, I know I'm not alone in thinking about the words we heard last night, words that will carry us through a season -- and through the next 58 seconds.
I can still recall the exact moment when I first met Lt. Colonel Gregory Gadson. It was outside the banquet room at the Loews Madison Hotel, which doubles as our team meeting room when we travel to Washington. Greg is sitting in his wheelchair with his wife, Kim, by his side. I had spoken to him over the phone a few times, but being in his presence is something unique. His legs are amputated above the knee, and my eyes quickly go to that spot. Then they dart to his upper torso and you can tell that he is strapping and strong. One of his arms doesn't bend, so it sticks straight out. This is a man who is not trying to hide anything. I look into his eyes, see the gleam, and know that this is a real American hero.
Greg grew up in the Tidewater region of Virginia, a devout believer in his faith, his country and football. His athletic prowess and commitment to discipline earned him a prestigious appointment to West Point. After joining the Corps in 1985, Greg's zest for life and for country roped in those around him, including his teammates.
Though not overwhelming in size, Greg played linebacker at Army and helped lead the team to 29 victories in his four-year career, including three victories in the Army-Navy classic. After graduating from West Point in 1989, he began his military career, which would soon take him to battlefields in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq.
In May of 2007, Greg was the commander of the 2nd Battalion, 32nd Field Artillery, based in Baghdad, a 400-man unit made up of young American warriors. Iraq was a dangerous place in 2007, and every time a member of the U.S. military stepped off the base, there was a chance he or she would not return. In the first week of May, Greg and many members of his battalion bravely traveled to a memorial service outside of the city for their fallen comrades. It was on the way back, on a road south of Baghdad, that Greg's life changed forever. The armored vehicle he was riding in was blown apart by an improvised explosive device. As soon as the blast hit, chaos erupted.
In a flash, those men and women he had trained to win battles were at his side, imploring him to hold on to life. He remembered the helicopters flying in to take him out. The next thing the Lt. Colonel knew, he awoke in Walter Reed Army Hospital outside of Washington, D.C. In the ensuing days, doctors would have to remove his left leg due to extensive artery damage; shortly thereafter, over his wife's wishes, Greg agreed to have his right leg amputated as well. His life was changed forever, but not in the way you might think.As he began to recover and started his grueling rehabilitation at Walter Reed, with his wife and children, Gabriella and Jaelen, at his side, football came back into his life. Word had spread quickly among his Army football teammates after the incident in Iraq and, unbeknownst to Greg, some had rushed to his bedside at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, even while he was unconscious. When he was transferred back to the States, even more teammates arrived to lend their support. One of those men was Mike Sullivan.
We had hired Mike to be the wide receivers coach with the Giants in 2004, after he'd worked with us in Jacksonville. Mike graduated from West Point with Greg Gadson in 1989, and went on to graduate from the U.S. Army Airborne, Ranger and Air Assault schools. On a trip to Walter Reed to visit Greg, Mike brought along a Giants jersey with Greg's Army football number, 98, stitched on the back and front. Before Mike left, Greg told him he would love to bring his kids to a Giants game one day.
That one day would be Sunday, Sept. 23rd, in D.C., just a short drive from Walter Reed and Greg's home base, Fort Belvoir, Virginia. Mike had told me about Greg a few weeks earlier, and he suggested that Greg come visit us on Saturday night before the Redskins game. Now, I had never met the man, but I trusted Mike, and after hearing Greg's story, I was confident that he had a worthwhile message. I normally do not bring in guest speakers on Saturday nights as some other coaches do, but I felt this was worthy of exception. Greg and I traded a few phone calls, and he was receptive to the invitation of talking to the team.
So it was on Saturday night outside of that banquet room that I got to shake Greg Gadson's hand and thank him for his service to our country. As the players filed in to take their seats, Greg sat in the front corner of the room while his wife looked on.
"You have to play the game for one another," he said. "For your teammates. You have to fight for the guy on your left, the guy on your right."
And later, espousing a theme of ours now about finishing, he said, "Be vigilant and fight for every yard."
As Greg spoke, the grown men before him were riveted. He went on to talk about how his Army teammates rallied around him when he most needed their support and about how we all need to appreciate the opportunities in our lives. In a nod to his audience, he told us how meaningful sports are to soldiers overseas and just how badly he wanted to get back to the war theater to be with his men.
"Truly great teams form a bond by going through something together, and whatever you are going through right now, no success ever comes easy. Nothing is promised to anybody in this life, starting with tomorrow."
Everyone took away something different from a story like Greg's, and here is what stuck with me: vigilance.
The manner in which Greg spoke, the experience he possessed to back up the words, left an imprint on me and on the players. As soon as he was done speaking, the players and coaches stood up in unison and give Greg a long ovation that all of the hotel guests could surely hear. I shook his hand again and thanked him for speaking. All of the players, one by one, took turns expressing their thanks and shaking his hand as well.
We had previously invited Greg and his family to watch the game on the field on Sunday, and now it will be even more meaningful. Something he said -- really, everything he said -- resonated with these Giants.
The Redskins elect to stay in their goal-line package. After spiking the ball on first and goal costs them a play, the Redskins call a play-action pass on second down, a dump off to fullback Mike Sellers. Sellers drops the ball, though Kawika Mitchell is all over him even if he had held on.
As time continues to tick away, our defense hurries back to the line. On fourth and goal, again with no huddle, with the game on the line, Betts tries again to score through the left, but this time Justin Tuck, with some help from Aaron Ross and James Butler, shuts him down. New York Giants win.
And it is at that moment, on that field, that our season seems to turn around. We came together to fight for the men on our right and left, and we finally found a way to finish. I know we have a long way to go, but I am excited to have our first victory under our belt.
I hand the game ball to Greg Gadson. He smiles. We are honored to consider him one of us.
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