On the joy and pain of rooting for the New York football team
"Why did football bring me so to life?" Frederick Exley asks himself in the opening pages of his 1968 "fictional memoir," A Fan's Notes. "I can't say precisely. Part of it was my feeling that football was an island of directness in a world of circumspection. In football a man was asked to do a difficult and brutal job, and he either did it or got out." It's no surprise Exley was a fan of the New York Giants. His succinct answer is a compact manifesto on what it means to prize hard work over big championships, scrappiness over finesse—in short, to be a fan of the underdog.
On Sunday night, it was wet, windy, and cold at Candlestick Park. The New York Giants were meeting the San Francisco 49ers for the eighth time in the playoff history. In January 2003, the last time the two teams faced each other in the playoffs, the Giants lost by one point, a real heartbreaker. This game, of course, was going to be different. The mood in the air was tense. The 49ers fans booed the Giants as Kristen Chenoweth sang the national anthem. Old rivalries never die. The game was being touted as one to remember before it even started. Prior to the opening kickoff, it was reported that, during an emotional pre-game meeting, Giants coach Tom Coughlin told his players that the upcoming game was "one you will want to tell your grandkids about someday."
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In the week leading up to the game, Pete Prisco at CBS Sports continued to refer to the Giants as underdogs, even as he and the rest of his staff unamiously named them as their top picks of the week. Bleacher Report called the team underdogs while predicting they would win by at least ten points. Curtis Eichelberger at Bloomberg refers to the Giants as underdogs even as he salivates over the potentional television ratings for a rematch with the Patriots. Bill Barnwell at Grantland exclaimed that "the Giants can't keep playing at this high of a level," immediately prior to picking them as the winner. In a column last week, Mike Lupica casually mentioned the "two more underdog games" ahead for the Giants, as if the destinction, and winning, were assumed. It was as if being the underdog was a badge of honor, a compliment.
On paper, the 49ers were clear favorites on Sunday. They had the better regualr season record, a comparable offense, and a defense ranked fourth in the league. Their special teams were the best in the NFL, an unstoppable force. As surprising as the Giants' win last week was over Green Bay, what was more shocking was how badly the Packers played. The Giants got lucky, and were smart enough to take advantage. The 49ers' win against the Saints was just as surprising, but the way it went down—in the final seconds, to the amazement of all watching—made a big difference. It was a big win, in a big way, the kind of motivational factor that can decide an outcome down the stretch. The Giants' win against Green Bay also meant San Francisco secured home-field advantage, a big coup at this stage in the playoffs. "Our fans turned that stadium into a fortress,"49ers coach Jim Harbaugh told the Wall Street Journal about playing at home. "That was as good as it can get. Our crowd was behind us, our players felt it, it was a great environment."
Even though predictions were split down the middle, the New York still entered San Francisco the team on the bottom. For the Giants, the underdog is a familiar position, one the team, and the fans, feel comfortable, even prefer, occupying. They are the squad that's always running uphill. It's been near impossible to read about the Giants in the last couple of weeks without running into a reference to the 2007 season, in which the Giants, seemingly out of nowhere, went on to win the Super Bowl against the towering New England Patriots. It's a season, an overwhelming feeling, which fans want to relive, again and again. I don't blame them. It was a great year. The benefit of sticking with the underdog is that those stories will eventually multiply; you'll be able to pick and choose your moments.
You'll hear fans talk about the slow burn of the 1981 season, featuring the rookie linebacker Lawrence Taylor. A new team learning to get comfortable, they made a late season streak that squeezed them into the playoffs, for the first time since 1963. A few years later, in the 1986 season, they would win it all, but after almost two decades of disappointment and defeat in the 1970s, the unexpected turnaround of a season is the one fans remember.
Others will quickly remind you of the 2000 unexpected blowout victory against the Vikings in the NFC Championship game. That the Giants went on to a humiliating defeat against the Ravens in the Super Bowl that year hardly matters. It's the reason why Giants fans still talk about the Miracle at the Meadowlands, the legendary fumble by quarterback Joe Pisarcik in the final seconds against the Philadelphia Eagles. Cheering for the underdog is also remembering that it can always be worse. That one win, that one story, good or bad, is more than enough.
For Exley, the story was Frank Gifford. Exley saw Gifford as a distorted mirror image of himself, the version that went out on the playing field and performed miracles. The championship Gifford won for the Giants, in 1956 against the Chicago Bears, largely goes unmentioned by fans today. When talking about Gifford, it's always about the injury—a hard tackle in 1960 that knocked him out of commission for 18 months. Many felt he would retire, but he returned two years later, switching positions, once again becoming a dominant presence on the field before his retirement in 1964. His legacy was never about wins. To many, his greatest game was the 1958 Championship showdown against the Baltimore Colts. The Giants lost in sudden-death overtime. Gifford would later write an entire book about the game.
It still hurts, of course, to see your team suffer defeat. Any fan who says otherwise is a liar. But rooting for the underdog is an uneven bargain. You have to be prepared for pain and frustration. The underdog stories don't always turn out the way we hope. Sometimes they disappear only to return when we least expect it. At the end of A Fan's Notes, after a long absence, Exley returns to his underdog hero, Frank Gifford. At the end of his career, 34 years old, Gifford is now the butt of barroom jokes by casual fans. He looks a little sluggish on the field. It's the story that draws Exley back in - the former hero, old and dusty, back to prove everyone wrong. If you stick around long enough, you learn to live with the losses. You figure out how to turn defeats into the kindling for the next barnstorming, underdog season, the next win. Sometimes you just need to sit around and wait.
Back at Candlestick Park, the rain started once again. The score was tied, 17-17 about to enter overtime. It had been a long, tough game. The players looked exhausted, caked in mud and grass. The Giants called tails on the coin toss; they won, and chose to receive the ball first. Three possessions, back and forth, nothing happened. The Giants punted, the 49ers fumbled. It all happened very quickly. The fans hung on the edge of their seats. A quick field goal and it was all over. Another chapter of the rivalry finished. The underdog won again.
Now it's on to the Super Bowl, against the New England Patriots, the underdog once again. I guess stories do repeat themselves. The New York Giants have been here before, and they'll be here again.