Saturday, February 4, 2012

An Old Allegiance

The championship of American football will be played in Indianapolis IN tomorrow at 6:30 pm. It's the New York Giants versus the New England Patriots, a rematch of the epic 2008 game. The Patriots were undefeated coming into that game. They were hoping to become only the second team in history to go undefeated and win the league championship. The Giants were huge underdogs. It was thought that the record-setting Patriots offense could name the score. but the Giants hung in and won an improbable victory, 17-14.

The state of Connecticut lies between New York and Massachusetts. Its capital city is Hartford: "Halfway between Boston and New York City!" It hasn't had a major sports team to call its own since the Hartford Whalers hockey team left for North Carolina. Needless to say, it is the Mason-Dixon line of local sports affections. Yankees or Red Sox? Giants or Patriots? Knicks or Celtics? Rangers or Bruins? One has to tread lightly for fear of offending.

I grew up in south western Connecticut. I could walk from my parents' house to a railway platform and be standing in Grand Central Station 45 minutes later. I watched New York news on television, read the Daily News and New York Times newspapers. I could not have named the governor of Connecticut was, but I always knew the mayor of New York City. I was far more New York than Boston.

I've never cared for hockey. I can't skate. I used to go to a pond down the street with my sisters and skate during the winter. One day I fell flat on my face and lay on the ice. I looked down and was eye to eye with a fish, frozen in place. "That's it!" I said to myself. I took off my skates and walked home. Hockey never had any interest for me.

I was a terrible baseball player. The Yankees fell into decline when I was young after decades of dominating the sport. The Red Sox were irrelevant. But the St. Louis Cardinals had fantastic teams and the best pitcher ever: Bob Gibson. My love for the Cardinals came in handy years later: it kept peace between me and my father-in-law, a lifelong Yankees fan.

Basketball was the game I loved once I reached my teens. I started playing the game at the end of the Bill Russell era, so I was a fan of the Celtics. There were a couple of years of adjustment after the sublime Russell retired, but Red Auerbach quickly surrounded John Havlicek with enough talent to pick up the torch again. Tom Heinsohn was their fiery coach, leading them into battle with the next great team in the NBA: the New York Knicks. They played a beautiful style that emphasized passing, moving, and finding the open man. All my friends were Knick fans. I had to stand alone, a minority of one. It was agony when they lost to the Knicks in the Eastern Conference finals in 1972 and especially 1973. They won 68 out of 82 games that year, but lost when John Havlicek hurt his shoulder running into a pick while guarding Bill Bradley, the Knicks' perpetual motion machine.

But before basketball, I was obsessed with football. There was no good reason for it. I was a skinny little kid. I had one uncle who was 6'2" and a big man; he had a great throwing arm in his youth (or so he told me). Another was 6'4" and a legendary basketball player until he lost his left leg in WWII. I prayed every night for their genes to pass down to me so I would grow to a size better suited to the game I loved.

My team was the Giants, but they were never very good. I suffered through year after year where the best I could hope for was a season where the wins balanced the losses; more often than not the character-building losses came in waves. But I loved the team. I had a red plastic helmet that I'd wear out to play with my friends. We'd head over to the nice football field at a nearby private school, put on helmets and pads, choose up sides, and have at each other in 3-on-3 games. My sister Mary always had an artist's eye. She offered to paint my helmet a replica of the Giants. She did a magnificent job! It looked beautiful - I loved it.

A friend of mine offered to bring me to the Giants training camp one summer. I was so excited! I drew up a play with complex X's and O's and lines running all over the place. I put it in an envelope with the intention of offering it to Allie Sherman, the Giants head coach. We had a great time that day: watching practice, following the players around, getting autographs. When I saw Mr. Sherman I sprinted over, introduced myself, and offered my envelope for his inspection. I don't remember much about the conversation.

That following Saturday night the Giants were in Green Bay playing an exhibition game against the mighty Packers. It was a hot night. My father's sister, my Aunt Bea, was visiting from California for two weeks, as she did every other year. Of course we had the game on television. The Giants took the opening kickoff and marched down the field. I cheered when Joe Morrison, their stalwart running back, scored the first touchdown of the game. As the players lined up to kick the extra point, the yellow wall phone in the kitchen rang. My mother answered, listened for a moment, and then turned to me: "It's for you!" I heard an unfamiliar voice on the other end of the line: "Michael Duffy? This is Allie Sherman. We just scored a touchdown on your play!"

I don't know if it was a hoax, but if it was the timing had to be the most perfect of all time. (How did he get my phone number? Did I put my address on the envelope?) All I knew was that I was one happy, believing boy, and the Giants would be my favorite team forever.

The Giants eventually accumulated enough good players and coaches to win their first Super Bowl in 1986. They won it again after the 1990 season, beating the Buffalo Bills to win their second just six weeks before my father passed away. They had another chance in 2000, but they were steamrolled by the Baltimore Ravens that year. The victory over the Patriots in 2008 was their third triumph.

My nephew Gavin is a Patriots fan. He asked me who I'd be rooting for on Sunday. He didn't know my history; I had never told him about my trip to training camp. But knowing that, how could it be otherwise? I'll be hoping for another Giants victory at this time tomorrow night.

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