The Greatest Loss

By Ian Gold
Updated: October 27, 2005

ILLINOIS—Sport can bring us so close, the bond between a fan and their team is nuclear. A fan will root for a player as if they had been friends since childhood and feel actual pain when their team fails. I have never met Wellington Mara, but I shed tears when he passed away Tuesday.

I realize that I am a Jersey boy, a Giants fan, placed down in the middle of people who get their New York sports from the ticker; but I write this, and you should read this because in an era of greed and foul play, Mara exemplified traits that not only made him a great owner but a great person as well.

Wellington Mara passed away at the age of 89. During his long career, he had the chance to win championships, lose championships, have great teams and have terrible teams – all the while caring about the people that surrounded him and caring about the league that he represented. I remember celebrating Mara’s 80th birthday and trying to imagine the Giants organization without his influence – impossible.

Mara was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977 for being one of the leagues still-living founding owners and for his creation of revenue sharing. In the early 60s, teams from smaller markets were having trouble on the grand scale. It was then that the owner of the most powerful market stepped forward and introduced the idea of distributing money to even the playing field.

When in your lifetime have you seen a businessman – because that’s what the NFL is – turn down huge sums of money and a guaranteed powerhouse team for the good of the group?

His impact on the NFL was gigantic; for the past 30 plus years he has been the father figure of the league. He has gone out of his way to council other owners and give direction. But what I admire most about Mara is the way he treated people inside of his organization, past and present.

There are various examples of how he came through with love and compassion for his Giants family. Before players received huge contracts, retirement was a financially dangerous time. Since he took over the team in 1930, Mara has paid for all medical expenses for his players and even kept financially unstable players on the payroll long after their retirement.

When the country was caught in segregation and the color barrior was still freshly broken, Mara had no reservations about hiring African-American athletes. When we credit people that enforced change, we find ourselves reaching way back. Mara was fiscal, he was real to me.

When the world turned its back on a drug-abusing linebacker, Mara wouldn’t quit and saw the person inside his indulgent star. Lawrence Taylor was misled by “friends” numerous times, was spending more on drugs then his league leading contract could finance and found his family life heading to shambles.

It was Mara, whom Taylor no longer played for, who stepped up and brought the fallen star into his final rehab. It was Mara whom Taylor credits his life to.

To honor the long-time owner, the Giants threw a surprise party on his birthday. He was led into a ballroom which had every Giant, past and present, from every piece of the team, quarterback to the ballboy.

Mara was the Giants ballboy at the age of nine when his father Timothy owned the team. For 80 years, Mara has shaken the players’ hands when they came back into the locker room.

For 80 years, he had come to every practice and encouraged his team with his smile of integrity, and for 80 years he has led by example trying to make his community as great as possible.

Mara was unable to attend any games this year because of his illness and was forced to watch most of this season from his bed.

Before the Giants last game against the Broncos, the team was told about its owner’s condition.

As Mara had done many times before in life, he watched his Giants win – a final heroic drive orchestrated by Eli Manning, which gave the ailing owner one last win. Mara’s wife Ann said that Mara had trouble staying awake during the game but was awake for the last drive, smiled, and told her that he loved her and closed his eyes for the last time.

When the Giants reached the locker room they chanted Mara’s nickname, “Duke”, over and over again in celebration. The “Duke” had a piece in everyone’s heart and made sure to do everything in his power to keep it there. He will surely be missed, and because I didn’t personally meet him, I will let Giants great Phil Simms do the honor.

“Mr. Mara was right. You don’t appreciate it until you quit, but there is no such thing as ex-Giants, there are just old Giants. Since I quit playing, I appreciate that a lot more.”

As a player, you play for yourself and your family and all your friends and your team. And I always wanted to play and do well to please Mr. Mara and the Mara family. One of the best moments after a game was to come into a winning locker room. But to come in and to see him smiling and to have him shake your hand, that made it even more special. And he would be there to shake your hand after every loss, too.”

“My wife said it best when we talked about Mr. Mara, and I told her he was really not doing well. 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.”