Wednesday, November 08, 2006

My Day as a Giants Beat Reporter [J. Mark English]

From the New York Giants website:

The first act of my first day as a member of the press corps for a New York Giants home game began sixteen years ago in September of 1990. The third game of the season for the Giants had the 2-0 Giants playing against the Dolphins. I knew nothing of the team and nothing of the sport of football. My brother, a true-blue fan of the Giants, took it upon himself to convert me and tutor me in the ways of Big Blue. Following the Dolphins game, he handed me a roster of the team, and made me memorize each player with their corresponding jersey number.
As the season began to unfold, I became the cliché sponge, soaking up the Giants into my bloodstream as if through osmosis. My brother had created a football junkie: I was completely addicted.
The team had a Cinderella season, winning Super Bowl XXV over the Buffalo Bills by the score of 20-19. Bill Parcells had coached his last game with the team, and the dominant team from the 1980’s transcended into the mediocre team of the 1990’s.
Despite those struggling years, I failed to lose my addiction to the boys in blue. My family scored our first package of season tickets in 1991. Section 240, row 3, seats 23 & 24. Our seats offered perfect visibility; looking down the field from behind the goal post. Some games were memorable, some were average, some were downright depressing. Rodney Hampton became my favorite player. Dave Brown was not my favorite player.
Fifteen years later, I find myself writing a sports blog ( and working for a sports memorabilia and charity auctions company. I never dreamed that I would have the opportunity to cover the team as a member of the press, with full credentials.
Kevin Corbett of the New York Giants front office provided a junkie with his ultimate fix. His call last week extended to me an invitation to cover the Big Blue Wrecking Crew. I was asked to speak with the tailgaters, members of the press, the fans that sit around me, and finally, the players in the locker room following the game. This was all to provide a “fan’s-eye” view. Some insight that a regular reporter may be too jaded or too involved to convey accurately.
Parking outside of the general parking lot, allows me to walk some distance until finally reaching section 4B. Every Sunday, the first thing you’ll see there is a red moving truck with the logo “Al Smith’s Moving Truck” painted across the side. Here, you will meet Mr. Smith himself, as his sons help him remove a full living room set from his truck. The living room is equipped with every need for a tailgater. You’ll find large speakers to blast classic rock, a bar, sofas, propane tanks, direct satellite T.V., a fridge, and enough food to feed an army.
I met another tailgater, Gene, who comes with up to forty people and two R.V.’s. For most games he’ll arrive by 8 AM. For next week’s game against the NFC- leading Chicago Bears, he’ll most likely arrive by noon, a full eight hours before kickoff. For the nationally televised games he brings out the big guns. Two years ago against the Dallas Cowboys, he hooked up a 50-gallon spit to the R.V. and cooked up lobsters, as well as a pig.
After receiving invitations to next week’s tailgating party from several other fans, I made my way finally toward the stage itself: Giants Stadium. The Stadium itself may not be the most spectacular place for a football game, but to the fans who attend every game, it is a place where they can show their love for their beloved team. I look forward to the new place the Giants will call home, but this current facility will always be cherished by Giants fans. It is where the Giants beat the Redskins to advance to their first Super Bowl. It is where we cheered and thanked greats like Harry Carson, Lawrence Taylor, and Phil Simms. It is the site where the Giants family came together last year to say a final goodbye to Wellington Mara, and willed the team to play a perfect game as the great owner enjoyed his new skybox.
My credential only allowed me into the press box and hours before the game I enjoyed the same luxuries as the media. A fully catered buffet was served to any and all in the press. Along with the food, a multitude of televisions could be found airing political talk shows, as well as NFL countdown shows.
Most people were unrecognizable. I spoke with “Zach” who represented the Houston Texans’ Public Relations department and gave me some insight as to how Houston is adjusting to its four-year-old team. I cornered Coach Dick Vermeil, who said he’d rather be on the sidelines than be in the press box during a game. Carl Banks vented about his frustrations with the Michigan State football team, a team that recently fired their head coach. Bob Papa snuck in shortly before game time to get in a last-minute meal but TV duties made him late for this weekly ritual.
The Game
As the start of the game approached I made my way to my seats in section 240. To my left sits George Frangos, a season ticket holder for over thirty years. He can remember attending his first game in Yankee Stadium, when the Giants played the Rams in 1972. During those dark years for the Giants, George still found time to trek up to games at the Yale Bowl and watch Giants quarterbacks run around for their dear lives. He sat in his seat for the first game at Giants Stadium. In those same seats he witnessed true brilliance as the Giants manhandled the 49ers in the 1986 playoffs. Mr. Frango’s tickets have been in his family for fifty years.
Behind me sits a slightly-newer generation of Giant fans. Matt Stern and Mike Eckert have been attending games since the first game of last season. Like me, they are in their mid twenties, working for financial companies. Their tickets were given to them by a friend’s parents from school. Priscilla Wasacz gave away her season tickets of forty years to them.
These two guys are perfect to have at a game. They can be loud and may drink a tad too much, but create a lot of noise, giving opposing fans a hard time, and get the crowd into the game. They also know a lot about the team, and the sport of football in general. During last January’s playoff loss against the Panthers they tried everything to psych the team up, including going shirtless for the second half.
Thank goodness for these two, for just as they started to give a disguised Eagles fan a hard time in the fourth quarter, the Giants who had been sluggish all game, finally came to life. Mike and Matt, along with the other great fans in the stadium cheered and chanted “Tiki Barber” as he ran through the Houston Texans defense in a crucial, touchdown winning drive. The Giants squeaked past the Texans 14-10, thrilling the fans despite needing a proverbial defibrillator to avoid cardiac arrest in the stands.
Finding an elevator in the bowels of the Stadium was trying, and difficult. Somehow I wound up taking a lift down with the Tisch Family. On the way I had the chance to speak with Rich Gannon about St. Joe’s Prep in Philadelphia, which both he and my father attended.
Once down on the field level, I navigated my way on to the field. This was not the first time I had been on the floor area of the Stadium. I had once walked this path for a Dave Matthew Bands concert. This time however, the field had just been the setting for a professional football game. I snapped pictures madly while savoring the experience of walking out the players’ tunnel. At the goal post, a generous security guard took a picture of me clutching it with the field in the background.
Next I used my press credential to gain entry into the locker room. Scenes from movies like ‘Any Given Sunday’ accurately depict the mayhem that occurs inside a professional locker room. There are reporters running around trying to get stories from the big name players. The players, fresh from the showers are either barely covered by towels, or stark naked. They have no qualms about doing interviews in their birthday suits.
A swarm of cameras are huddled around Michael Strahan who is getting agitated with the press for bringing up his injury problem. As the cameras corner Strahan, I take the time to speak with David Tyree about his preaching for a church in New Jersey. Eli Manning talks to me about his days growing up in New Orleans as he is putting on his socks. Michael Jennings reveals his gold teeth as I congratulate him on his first start. William Joseph laughs when I ask him if it is true that he is the one that started the “ballin’” tradition for the team. Earlier in the game, after David Carr had scored a touchdown, he had jumped up in the air as if to mock the Giants “ballin’” celebration. David Tyree told me the team really took offense to that, and that provided further motivation to come back and take care of business against the Texans.
The locker room itself is smaller than I would have thought. Hanging above the door on the way out there is a sign that says “Giants Pride”. It reminds me of the famous sign that Notre Dame’s players touch on the way out of their locker room which infamously states: “Play like a Champion Today.” The locker room is shaped in a rectangle with an ‘island’ in the middle of more lockers. The first two lockers you see are dedicated to Harry Carson, and Lawrence Taylor. The players all have their helmets perfectly hanging from the upper right hand corner of the locker. The carpet is a sea of red and blue, and the wall entering into the showers displays a large “NY”. The room is full of the smell of deodorant, sweat, cologne, and dirty laundry.
One by one, a select group of players are called into the press conference room. The press conference takes place in a separate room from the locker room. In the back of the conference room sits scores of cameras focused on a small rising which holds up a podium. Rows of Giant blue folding chairs are mostly vacated as the journalists are crowding the podium. Eli Manning is finishing his conference, and is followed up by the impeccably dressed Jeremy Shockey. For someone who has a reputation of being an over-zealous, and a party-boy, he is surprisingly shy in front of the press. There is a hint of humility in his demeanor and he speaks very well. Finally, he is followed by the great Tiki Barber.
It is at this time that I realize that I may never have a chance to be a part of something like this again. Towards the end I worked up the nerve to bark out a question. I asked him what went through his head when he hear us, the fans, chant “Tiki Barber, Tiki Barber”. His response was “it is one of the reasons why I love this game so much. When our team needed me, I stepped up. That’s what I do.” As he gave his answer he looked right back at me, as if he knew I was only a fan, and that through me he could thank all of us for representing the team and giving them the extra strength needed to win as a team.
Next week I will attend the game as just a fan, and not as a member of the press pool. This was an amazing experience, every fan’s dream. The only job before me next week is as a partisan fan, a junkie, with my fix in full gear, losing my vocal chords as I help will the Giants onwards to victory.