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Berger’s Burg: Team owner eases fan’s giant disappointment

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I began writing this column Jan. 5 on the plane ride from San Francisco; however, I didn’t have the mindset to finish it until now. Please forgive the delay.

“39 to 38! 39 to 38!” Those numbers screamed in my ears. It was, of course, the final score of the game eliminating the Giants in the first round of the playoffs. It was a bitter defeat because the Giants were leading 38 to 14.

It was a game the Giants could have, should have and would have won “if only, if only, if only.” It was the most depressing Giants loss for me, superseding the previous one — Joe Pisarcik’s game-losing fumble in 1978. I feared that the nightmare of the “39 to 38” score would stay with me forever.

Gloria knew I needed a catharsis to carry me beyond this unimaginable, inconceivable and unbelievable happening. She insisted I write a column describing the game objectively to erase my despair when we returned home; I started the column on the plane, but after the first paragraph, my fingers refused to respond to my brain’s command. The horror was too great.

Why did I carry on this way, you ask? As every reader must know by now, I am a fanatical Giants football fan. I am not unique. There are thousands of other fanatics like me, including Ray Romano, Andy Rooney and Jon Bon Jovi. We all live, breathe and bleed Giants Blue.

I have been following the fortunes of the Giants since I was a young boy. I vividly remember my first Giants game 45 years ago at Yankee Stadium. That game was described as the “greatest game ever played.” It was the 1958 championship game in which the Giants lost in sudden overtime. The game was, and still is, one of the highest and lowest points of my life.

Over the years I have witnessed many great Giants seasons, many run-of-the-mill seasons and many poor seasons. Through them all, I was a permanent fixture at every home game (and several away games) despite inclement weather, job demands, illness and other personal distractions.

I am proud to say that, as a season-ticket holder, I remain the loyal fan cheering them on at every game. (Did you know that there is a 30-plus year waiting list for Giants season tickets? The Jets merely have a 10-year waiting list.)

This past season, many “experts” picked the Giants to finish last in their division; however, despite numerous injuries, they rose to the occasion and made it to the playoffs. The first playoff game, against the 49ers, meant the team, and I, had to travel to San Francisco.

With the Giants leading 38 to 14 midway through the third quarter, I wore a smile as wide as the mighty Mississippi. Plans for the next playoff game for the Giants in Tampa, the following week, danced in my head. But alas and alack, our apparent victory turned to stunning defeat.

I refuse to discuss the morbid details of the game, but suffice to say the 49ers staged the second greatest comeback ever in playoff history and rallied to beat the Giants “39 to 38!” I was in denial for a long time afterward. The loss had to be just a bad dream. But it wasn’t.

Shocked and confused, Gloria and I walked, heads down, out of the stadium, amid the chants of jeering 49ers fans. It was very humiliating.

As good fortune would have it, outside the stadium we crossed paths with Wellington Mara, co-owner of the team. Despite the crushing defeat he exhibited a smile that spoke volumes – “Keep your chin up,” it expressed defiantly. “We’ll get them next year!”

At that instant, I recalled an earlier personal contact with this grand gentleman of the Giants. Following a particularly heart-breaking loss a few years back, I was very despondent. Mr. Mara passed me by and flashed that encouraging smile which changed my sadness to laughter. I smiled all the way home. And sure enough, the following year the Giants rose to win the championship.

Not many people outside of football know this man. No one in the history of professional sports has enjoyed a career like that of the 86-year-old Mara. This year was his 78th consecutive season he has been associated with the Giants.

The Giants were first organized when Wellington’s father, Timothy J. Mara, purchased the team in 1925. The city of New York was introduced to professional football on Oct. 16, 1925, when the New York Giants played their first home game against the Frankford Yellow Jackets. It was on that day that Wellington Mara, then 9 years old, began a lifelong relationship with football, and the rest is history.

In 1930, Timothy Mara turned the ownership of the team over to his two sons, Jack, 22, and Wellington, 14. When Wellington earned his college degree in 1937, he immediately joined the Giants full time. When Jack died in 1965, his half-ownership went to his son, Tim, and in 1991 Bob Tisch purchased the Tim Mara holdings with Wellington still retaining half-ownership.

Because of his extensive background, Mara is recognized as one of the league’s most respected and influential leaders. He has been instrumental in the outstanding accomplishments of the Giants, such as 18 NFL Divisional championships and six NFL championships, including two Super Bowl championships. He was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1997.

Although I left my heart in San Francisco after that Giants game, Mara helped me bring it back to New York. Now, whenever I think of that “39-38” score (and I do quite often), I remember Mara’s encouraging smile. I know then that, “We will get them next year!” Go Giants!

Reach columnist Alex Berger by e-mail at timesledger@aol.com, or call 1-718-229-0300, Ext. 140.

Updated 10:26 am, October 12, 2011
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