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Newsday: A giant of a man remembered


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A giant of a man remembered



October 30, 2005

John Mara said his father never would have wanted this much fuss made over him.

The police escort down Fifth Avenue to St. Patrick's Cathedral. The bagpipes outside the church. The dignitaries, coaches, NFL executives and current and former players who came from as far away as California to honor his legacy inside the cathedral, a group of well-wishers numbering about 2,000.

Wellington T. Mara would have had none of it, according to his son. "I couldn't help but think he would have been so embarrassed by all this," John Mara said during a moving tribute, part of a 1½-hour Mass celebrated by Cardinal Edward Egan. "He would have just shook his head and tried to hide somewhere."

But Wellington Mara's imprint on the Giants and the NFL was so meaningful and spanned so many years -- 80 in all -- that there was no hiding from those who chose to pay tribute to Mara, who died Tuesday at his home in Rye after a long battle with cancer. He was 89.

Among those in attendance yesterday: Cowboys coach Bill Parcells, who led the Giants to their only two Super Bowl victories; Patriots coach Bill Belichick, the former Giants defensive coordinator; Browns coach Romeo Crennel, another former Giants assistant, and Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis, who also worked for Mara's Giants.

NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue was there. So were NFL owners Woody Johnson of the Jets, Jerry Jones of the Cowboys and Pat Bowlen of the Broncos. Broadcaster and former Raiders coach John Madden was there. NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw, too.

All of the current Giants players and coaches attended, and several dozen former players were there, including linebacker Harry Carson, tight end Mark Bavaro, center Bart Oates, guard Billy Ard and punter Sean Landeta. Former Giants coach Jim Fassel was there. So were former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Yankees general manager Brian Cashman.

They were there to pay their respects to one of the most respected owners in professional sports history, a man known as much for his sense of decency as his passion for football.

"What made Wellington Mara was his faith and his family," Egan told the mourners. "He has run the race of life, and he has won. Wellington Mara was a giant in every sense of the word."

Mara is survived by his wife, Ann, 11 children and 40 grandchildren.

John Mara and former Giants running back Frank Gifford spoke about the former Giants co-owner, who started off as a ball boy at age 9 and wound up taking over the franchise as president and co-chief executive officer. Mara's Giants teams won six NFL championships, including two Super Bowls.

"I had three stages of knowing Wellington Mara," Gifford said. "He was my boss for a long time and he was a father figure. And finally, as we got older, he was my friend."

Mara was one of the first owners of an NFL team, and he saw the league rise from obscurity into the greatest spectator sport in the country. The Mara family's insistence that the league evenly distribute revenue is seen as the biggest reason for the league's sustained success, and why the NFL is in many ways the envy of every other professional sports league.

"Wellington Mara could have made millions more and driven the league in an entirely different direction," Oates said after the funeral. "But he didn't do that. He sacrificed money from himself and made sure the league would thrive and grow to the point where it is now."

John Mara offered a more personal tribute to his father, citing his devotion to his family, his football team, and his Catholic faith. "[Former Steelers owner] Art Rooney once said to me, 'You will never find anybody better to emulate,'" he said. "He was right."

Mara recalled his father's final days, when he summoned his children to his hospital bed in New York and told them: "Take care of your mother. Take care of each other."

Mara remembered something once told to him by a family friend. "Many years ago, his good friend Tim Rooney said something to me that I have reflected on many times since: 'You realize, don't you, that your father is the best example of how we should all live our lives. You will never find anyone better to emulate.' Over the years, as I have watched my father live his life, I have come to realize how true those words were and what a role model he really was."

John Mara also recalled one of the few times his father ever got angry about something written about him. A few days before the 1975 season, a columnist was critical of the Giants' poor record in recent seasons.

"'What can you expect from an Irishman named Wellington whose father was a bookmaker?'" Mara quoted the columnist. "A local sportswriter derisively wrote those words about 30 years ago during a time when we were going through some pretty awful seasons. My father usually didn't let criticism from the media affect him very much, but those words stung him in a very personal way."

John Mara recalled Wellington's reply. "'I'll tell you what you can expect,' he said at our kickoff luncheon just a few days later. 'You can expect anything he says or writes may be repeated aloud in your own home in front of your own children. You can believe that he was taught to love and respect all mankind, but to fear no man. And you could believe that his abiding ambitions were to pass on to his family the true richness of the inheritance he received from his father, the bookmaker: The know.ledge and love and fear of God, and second, to give you a Super Bowl winner.'"

The first Super Bowl winner came 11 years later. Yesterday, players, coaches, fans and well-wishers from that and many other seasons said goodbye.

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