- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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PHOENIX -- To date, the United States has 3,940 confirmed deaths in Iraq. Back in May, U.S. Army Lt. Col. Greg Gadson, a battalion leader, very nearly found himself on that list. An IED (improvised explosive device) thoroughly shattered his body. Only 70 pints of blood, the exceptional field work of men in his 1st Infantry Division and the skill of doctors saved his life.
His legs weren't so fortunate.
The New York Giants, however, consider themselves blessed to have made this double-amputee's acquaintance. They credit Gadson, who played football at Army with New York wide receivers coach Mike Sullivan, with helping to salvage their season and making it something approaching superb. His stirring pregame speeches and his living example of courage and perseverance have inspired them all the way to Super Bowl XLII.
ESPN's Sunday Countdown
Check out Rachel Nichols' report, on Super Bowl Sunday, featuring U.S. Army Lt. Col. Greg Gadson's inspirational impact on the Giants. Sunday Countdown, 11 a.m. ET, ESPN
"I think sometimes I'm given a little too much credit for, quote, being inspirational," Gadson said on Monday in an interview at Walter Reed National Army Medical Center in Washington. "I may be, and if people take inspiration from that I'm glad and I'm grateful. But at the same time, I think I'm just trying to fight, and I'm trying to survive."
Even so, the Giants have won an NFL-record 10 consecutive road games, including three in the playoffs, leading up to Sunday's game against the Patriots. They believe Gadson has been a significant factor in that success.
"Coaches and everybody always want to say football is like war, it's a battle -- no," Giants linebacker Antonio Pierce told ESPN's Rachel Nichols last week. "This guy, he lives in the real war, the real battle. He knows what it's like to hear bombs and stuff going off.
"We're playing a kids' game, trying to have fun. He put that in perspective: Enjoy life, enjoy the moment, enjoy what you're doing, because it's rougher out there than what you really think it is."
The story begins at West Point in the summer of 1985, when Gadson first met Sullivan. Gadson was an outside linebacker, viewing his responsibilities in terms of territory; the perimeter could not be exploited. Sullivan was a defensive back.
"Mike was a high-energy guy," recalled Gadson, who was a three-year starter. "He had a great, positive spirit. He's going to pick you up, and that's what I respect and remember [of] him as a teammate."
Over the years, they lost track of each other. After graduating from the U.S. Army Airborne, Ranger and Air Assault schools, Sullivan got into coaching. His first NFL assignment, as a Jacksonville Jaguars defensive assistant, came in 2002, in Tom Coughlin's last season as Jacksonville head coach.
Gadson, meanwhile, was commissioned in time for the Gulf War -- he was a platoon leader in an artillery battalion -- and went on to serve in the Balkans and Afghanistan.
Gadson had been on the ground in Iraq for three months when he returned one night from a memorial service for two soldiers from his sister battalion. His vehicle was hit and with only 15 minutes left in the "golden hour" -- the 60 minutes following a critical injury in which a person's life often can be saved if proper care is administered -- he arrived at the hospital.
Gadson's life was indeed saved, but a week later, when his arteries began to deteriorate because of an infection, doctors amputated his left leg. One week after that, they took the right.
Sullivan, who had been in and out of touch with Gadson, came to visit him at Walter Reed in mid-June.
"It was very, very moving," Sullivan said. "He was such an amazing player in college, fast and strong, and then you see someone in the chair, in a life-altering type of condition, it was tough to see. I went there to lift his spirits -- and he lifted mine."
Sullivan presented Gadson with a Giants jersey bearing his name and No. 98, his number at West Point. There was a helmet, a hat -- and a reconnection. Sullivan asked him if there was anything he could do for him.
"Well," Gadson said, "when you guys come to town, I would love to see you guys play."
Before the Sept. 23 game at Washington, Sullivan mentioned Gadson to Coughlin.
"I have so much respect for those serving our country in Iraq," Coughlin said. "He's a real hero, he's the real deal. This is a guy who's given a tremendous sacrifice of himself so we can sleep under the blanket of freedom, so I wanted to meet this guy."
He was such an amazing player in college, fast and strong, and then you see someone in the chair, in a life-altering type of condition, it was tough to see.
--Giants assistant coach Mike Sullivan on Greg Gadson
On a Saturday night at the Giants' hotel, following the offense, defense and special-teams meetings, Sullivan introduced Gadson to the team.
"I talked to them about their gifts as athletes, and their privilege and special opportunity that they have," Gadson said. "I told them that when you're deployed, we're fighting for our country and our flag and mom and dad and apple pie, but when it comes down to it, those things are the furthest thing from your mind.
"You're fighting for that guy that is right next to you. Just like my soldiers, they came and fought for me and saved my life. I told them about the 18-year-old PFC medic that didn't want me to lose consciousness. He's yelling at me and just literally willing me to stay conscious and keep fighting."
The Giants, to a man, were moved.
"I never remember a room being that quiet," Sullivan said. "As the meeting broke, it was a standing ovation."
Said Pierce, "It really put [things] into perspective for us, because at the time we were an 0-2 team, and we didn't know which way we were going."
The Giants' defense had allowed a total of 80 points in their two previous losses, to Dallas and Green Bay, and they were trailing the Redskins 17-3 at halftime. But the Giants scored three unanswered touchdowns in the second half, the last one a 33-yard pass from Eli Manning to Plaxico Burress with 5:22 left.
Burress did not spike the ball. Instead, he sprinted to the Giants' sideline and dropped it into the lap of Gadson, who was sitting in a wheelchair.
"That's when," Gadson said, "I became one of the Giants."
The Giants' season may well have swung on the final 51 seconds of that game. Washington had a first-and-goal at the Giants' 1-yard line when quarterback Jason Campbell spiked the ball. The Giants stopped the Redskins on the next three plays to win the game.
"To see a guy fight in those circumstances, you really can't help but give your best and give your all," said defensive end Justin Tuck, who helped stop Redskins running back Ladell Betts on fourth down. "It kind of put us in that situation to stop taking things for granted. We really focused from that point on."
The Giants won their last seven road games, then finished the regular season with a rousing home loss to the Patriots, 38-35. When the Giants arrived at the team hotel before the wild-card game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers the next week, Gadson was waiting for them in the lobby -- and somehow, he was standing.
"It was just kind of a priceless moment for me," Gadson said, "making eye contact with them."
He had been fitted with prosthetic legs and, even though he had difficulty walking, was standing there, accepting hugs and handshakes. The younger players called him "sir," but one veteran felt comfortable enough to chide him, "Hey, Greg, you look a lot taller now."
"To see him taking a couple of steps was amazing," cornerback Corey Webster said. "We were so happy for him."
Gadson had hoped to attend the divisional playoff game in Dallas, but when doctors performed another operation on his legs, he wasn't allowed to travel. When the Giants upset the Cowboys, the Giants named him an honorary captain for the NFC Championship Game at Green Bay, and he and his 13-year-old son, Jaelen, made the trip.
The wind chill was below zero, but Gadson didn't want to watch the game from the warm suite the Giants had arranged for him.
"He wanted to be right out there on the front lines, so to speak," Sullivan said. "You'd see players would go up to him and he'd look them right in the eye, and you could tell they were feeding off his courage and his inspiration."
The game was in overtime when Webster intercepted Brett Favre's pass at the Packers' 34-yard line. That ball too was deposited in the hands of Gadson.
"I felt like he deserved the ball," Webster said, "because he's a big motivating factor for me, personally, and for the team."
Four plays later, Lawrence Tynes kicked the winning field goal and, improbably, the Giants were on their way to Phoenix. Yes, of course, Gadson will be there. He has become part of the team. Burress, who also comes from the Tidewater region of Virginia, calls him regularly and exchanges text messages with him.
The Giants, substantial underdogs in Super Bowl XLII, have not lost a game when Gadson is on the sidelines. They would not be surprised if it happens again.
No matter the outcome, while the risks and results of war and the game of football are vastly different, Gadson said there are many parallels.
"In war, people's lives are changed forever," he said. "Everybody who knows me has been affected by the injuries, and I'm blessed to be alive. [But] as a football player, I had the same kind of commitment that I have as an Army officer and a soldier. Your mind does not distinguish between the commitment. The emotional, never-quit attitude, the fighting attitude is all the same.
"I don't coach them. I don't call plays. But I think that they represent themselves well. I'm very proud of them."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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