A Football Memoir, With Tears
A new book by the former coach of the Giants offers a human counterbalance to the heroics and chest-thumping of the Super Bowl.
Toward the end of Tom Coughlin’s new memoir about Super Bowl XLII, when his New York Giants defeated the previously unbeaten New England Patriots in arguably the greatest upset in pro-football history, he recalls the immediate aftermath of that 17–14 victory. “The moments afterward are kind of a blur,” he writes. “The confetti rains down, you raise the Lombardi trophy at a midfield podium, and for the next few hours it’s like you’re in a dream world, being taken from one place to the next, carried along by your happiness. It took forever to get to the locker room; I never actually got the opportunity to give that one speech to all the guys where I could say, We are world champions.”
Coughlin’s observation attests to more than his own state of mind. He has also identified the occupational hazard of the usual championship-season memoir by a player or coach: a lack of critical distance from the events. To that understandable myopia can be added another, commercial factor. The typical how-we-won-that-title book is produced in haste so it can be released before the next football (or baseball or basketball or whatever) season, which begins roughly six months ahead. The “writing process” generally involves the manager or coach or athlete being interviewed by a journalist co-author, who massages the transcripts into a publishable narrative.
Fittingly enough, the genre of the football autobiography began with the legendary Green Bay Packers, first with Run to Daylight!, the head coach Vince Lombardi’s diary about the 1962 NFL championship team. That was followed five years later by Instant Replay, the offensive lineman Jerry Kramer’s memoir of the Packers’ 1967 season, in which they held off the Dallas Cowboys in an NFL title game played in 13-below weather (remembered as the “Ice Bowl”) and then routed the Oakland Raiders in the second Super Bowl. So fresh did those books seem that the title of each became part of sports lexicon.
In the more than half a century since, though, what was once unique has become obligatory and rote. There are post–Super Bowl books by Bill Walsh, Jimmy Johnson, Bill Parcells, Jon Gruden, and Doug Pederson, among many others. I say this without disparagement. In a sense, these coaches are just doing what presidential candidates do when they crank out a first-person book in time for their primary campaign. And yet, from a literary standpoint, the risks are very evident.
“In truth,” the author and former NFL player Pat Toomay told me, “it takes time for all of the disparate elements to rise up and assemble themselves into a cohesive whole.” Practically speaking, the experienced co-author Nathan Whitaker explained in an email, “the typical championship memoir is … attempting to analyze the prior season, and synthesize those events into a narrative of ‘here’s how we did it,’ all the while attempting to do it again (for the next season). There’s an element of the Heisenberg principle.”
What immediately separates Coughlin’s A Giant Win is its timing. He wrote about the 2008 Super Bowl nearly 15 years after the fact. By then, he was in his mid-70s and retired. As odd as the comparison may be, Coughlin’s perspective, and his focus on a single game, made me think of Patti Smith’s luminous memoir Just Kids. Rather than recount her entire protean career, the middle-aged, widowed Smith looked back on a specific moment in time, when she and Robert Mapplethorpe were young artists trying to make their names in New York. And something else intrigued me about Coughlin’s decision to undertake his book when he did. During the summer of 2021, he wrote a wrenching and unflinching op-ed essay in The New York Times about his wife’s affliction with progressive supranuclear palsy—he described it as “a brain disorder that erodes an individual’s ability to walk, speak, think and control body movements”—and his physically and emotionally draining experience of serving as her caregiver. The article revealed a vulnerability, a nakedness, very different from Coughlin’s long-standing image as a rigid disciplinarian who was prone, paradoxically, to explosions of temper on the sideline.
The open question as I began reading my way into A Giant Win, though, was whether Coughlin and his co-author, Greg Hanlon, could transcend the limits of the championship memoir. Coughlin convincingly establishes the dramatic tension at the outset. The Giants had entered the 2007 season with fans and media exhausting their patience with Coughlin as head coach and Eli Manning as quarterback. In the pair’s three previous seasons together, the Giants had gone a mediocre 25–25, including two first-round losses in the playoffs. Manning had sealed his reputation as a wildly inconsistent player—equally capable of fourth-quarter comebacks and drive-killing interceptions—and Coughlin had cemented his as an irascible hard case known for demanding that team meetings start five minutes ahead of schedule. As he recounts in the book, New York’s tabloids were calling for his firing, star players such as the defensive end Michael Strahan were alienated, and even his family was deeply concerned; one son asked him, “Is it worth it?”
Ultimately, of course, Coughlin decided to stay at the Giants’ helm. Thanks to stalwart offensive and defensive lines, the team earned a wild-card playoff berth with its league-leading sacks and power running. Manning was Manning, mercurial as ever, winning 10 games even as he tied two other quarterbacks for the dubious honor of leading the NFL in interceptions. (In the one Giants game I attended that season, he tossed four, three of them returned for touchdowns, in a 41–17 humiliation by the Minnesota Vikings.) In the playoffs, however, Manning suddenly performed flawlessly as the Giants defeated favored Tampa Bay, Dallas, and Green Bay, all on the road.
Those improbable victories set up the seemingly impossible task of toppling the New England Patriots. The Patriots entered the Super Bowl unbeaten at 18–0 and had set what were then regular-season records for team points (589), Tom Brady’s touchdown passes (50), and Randy Moss’s TD catches (23). The team’s precision was computerlike, beyond human. If Manning and Coughlin, in their respective affects, brought to mind Dennis the Menace and Mr. Wilson, the scamp and the curmudgeon, then Brady and the Patriots head coach Bill Belichick were a matched set of cyborgs.
All of this exposition helps explain why A Giant Win has the potential to succeed as a gridiron page-turner. Within those pages, Coughlin effectively breaks down key plays. He shares inside details, such as the fact that the wide receiver Plaxico Burress sprained his knee slipping in the shower during game week and was barely able to play on an unstable leg. But those tidbits, however juicy, only hint at the deeper, more textured qualities that elevate A Giant Win from so many similar books.
The proximity of death and the prospect of failure recur in Coughlin’s narration: serving as an altar boy for funerals in the parish church; losing a favorite player, Jay McGillis, on his Boston College team to leukemia; having his own son, Tim, who worked for a financial-services company in the Twin Towers, evacuate just in time to survive on September 11, 2001.
Two of the most penetrating scenes featuring Giants players depict them at moments of personal crisis. During his rookie season, Manning panics against the Baltimore Ravens’ fierce defense and, after his team’s disastrous performance, shows up in Coughlin’s office “extremely emotional—near tears.” More like a son with his father than a player with his coach, Manning pleadingly promises, “I know I can be the quarterback of the New York Giants. And I know we can win.”
The other episode centers on David Tyree, a reserve wide receiver mostly used on special teams. Soon after Coughlin was hired by the Giants in 2004, Tyree was arrested for possession of half a pound of marijuana. Begging Coughlin not to cut him, Tyree “[broke] down in tears, asking for another chance. He owned up to everything he’d done, but said he’d changed. He said he had become religious and had dedicated himself to God.” Despite his own reputation for zero tolerance, Coughlin writes, “my intuition told me he was sincere.”
Coughlin’s emphasis on his bonds with Manning and Tyree fits masterfully into his retelling of the 2008 Super Bowl, because those two players were the leading actors in the game’s episode of highest drama. From the second after it happened until the present day, the play has been known as “the Helmet Catch,” and it has been rated by some sports journalists as the greatest play in Super Bowl history. Trailing the Patriots 14–10 with about 1:15 remaining, not even across midfield, the Giants had a third down with five yards to go. As soon as Manning took the snap, he was besieged by Patriots rushers. Hardly a scrambler by nature, Manning managed to tear himself away from two different defenders, retreat to an open spot, and heave a pass far downfield. Tyree leaped to grab it, protecting the ball from a Patriots defensive back by pinning it against his helmet. That 32-yard gain to the Patriots’ 24 set up the Giants for their final push toward Manning’s game-winning pass to Burress, with 39 seconds left.
The standard-issue Super Bowl book would wrap things up tidily from there. But after Coughlin devotes a few pages to the Giants’ victory parade in Lower Manhattan’s Canyon of Heroes and their celebratory visit to the White House, he turns to a somber epilogue, simply titled “Judy.” Judy is Coughlin’s wife, and he tenderly rolls time back to their courtship in high school and then forward through the adult years, when she forwent her own career as a teacher and a coach to be a mother and a wife, handling most of the domestic and emotional labor during her husband’s climb up the coaching ladder through Boston, Green Bay, Jacksonville, and New York.
“For decades, while I pursued my career and worked around the clock, Judy had been looking forward to a period in our lives where I’d be retired and we could enjoy our time together,” Coughlin writes with palpable remorse. “The disease has stolen that from her. As for me, the disease has stolen my wife from me while she’s still alive.” Instead of walking together on the beach, swimming in the ocean, and listening to Celine Dion albums, in their last years together, Tom guided Judy’s wheelchair and gazed into her eyes for a flicker of recognition. (Judy died in November 2022, when A Giant Win was in production and unable to be amended.)
“The repetitiousness of everything is mind-numbing,” Coughlin admits of the toll of his caregiving. “I lose my sense of time and self. I’m mentally and physically exhausted.” And then, with painstaking understatement, Coughlin explains what compelled him to return in memory to a Super Bowl from 15 years earlier: “But as time has passed, I’ve been able to draw on some of the virtues I’ve tried to embody … Those are the same virtues shown by the 2007 Giants.”
I do not mean to oversell A Giant Win as a literary achievement. When it comes to memoir, Tom Coughlin is no Patti Smith. His language is plain, not poetic, and he reveals periodic weaknesses for clichés and sentimentality. Within the football canon, despite its gifted co-author, Coughlin’s book does not approach the stateliness and sweep of the genre’s masterpiece, When Pride Still Mattered, David Maraniss’s biography of Vince Lombardi.
Yet Coughlin has delivered far more than the norm: incisive analysis and description of the game itself, empathetic attention to human nature, and a moving comprehension of the tragic nature of life. It’s not only at the Super Bowl, you realize by the final pages, that the clock inexorably ticks down to zero.
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