Rise, Fall and Resurrection: The Story of David Tyree

A.J. MartelliSenior Analyst IMay 26, 2009

He made what was probably the most remarkable and unrealistic catch in the history of the Super Bowl, and he did it wearing New York Giants blue.  


But long before quarterback Eli Manning hooked up with wide receiver David Tyree for the reception that basically won Super Bowl XLII for the Giants, Tyree was a lost soul.


Drugs, alcohol, and an arrest were part of his life instead of receptions and tackles.


After a time of glory, he wasted it all away. But eventually the 29-year-old wide receiver gained it all back and went on to help complete the most talked about play in Super Bowl history.



High School, Syracuse, and the call to the NFL


Growing up in New Jersey, Tyree attended Montclair High School where he began his playing career. He lettered three times in high school and was chosen as a Blue Chip Illustrated All-American.


He was also named all-Essex County player in 1997, and his coach Ed Lebida recognized his hard work on the field.


“It could be 35 degrees or 95 degrees, and he would leave the field every day in sweat,” Lebida said. “It’s hard to teach that kind of work ethic.”


After finishing up his hard work in high school, Tyree went on to play wide receiver for Syracuse University. At Syracuse, he racked up 1,214 yardsgood for 13th place on the school’s receiving record list.


He played particularly well against Virginia Tech in 2002, collecting a total of 229 yards against the school.


In college, Tyree also extended his game and became a good special teams player. He blocked six punts in his college career playing as specialist. But after dominating at Syracuse, Tyree made it to the NFL.


Drafted in the sixth round of the 2003 NFL draft, Tyree went to the Giants. In his rookie year, he played in all 16 games, starting in three of them.


He made a statement in his first NFL season, averaging 13 yards per catch and amassing 211 receiving yards on the year.


In addition to his solid receiving numbers, he was a force on special teams. He was named the special teams player on Pro Football Weekly’s All-Rookie team, as he led the G-Men with 19 special teams tackles on the year.     


But despite a stellar breakout season, Tyree would go through a life-changing ordeal when the season ended.



Wasting it Away and Gaining a New Life


It was just a routine traffic stop on March 2, 2004. But when Tyree was pulled over by the police, he was found with half a pound of marijuana in his car, ultimately arrested for drug possession.


Now finding himself in a Bergen County jail cell, Tyree realized life was out of control.


He remembered the past: drinking the nights away until he passed out at parties and associating himself with less-than-reputable characters in Manhattan, all for the glory of drugs.


And now he was also estranged from his girlfriend (and future wife, Leilah) and their child.


Tyree lived what he described as the “NFL lifestyle.” He lived life surrounded by alcohol, drugs, and women, which were all available to him because he had money.


And now because of the decisions he made, he was in jail and reflecting on those poor choices.


His parents had to bail him out and bring him home to Montclair. While he waited for them, he buried his face in his hands. He needed to change his life.


He did.


Leilah sent him a text message the morning he left jail. The text read, “I’m with child.”


Tyree then promised to visit Leilah in Syracuse, but instead went home and chugged a bottle of Remy Martin cognac. Then she presented him with an ultimatum: his lifestyle or hers.


He chose hers.


Tyree found something better than drugs, alcohol, and women—better than partying until the early hours of the morning and getting high.


He found God.


Promising change, Tyree took a glimpse at Leilah’s bible and began to read from the book of Genesis. In his words, “everything made sense.” He then proclaimed that he would never drink again and has not since.


Tyree then stepped foot into the Bethel Church of Love and Praise in Bloomfield, NJ.


“He sat in the back on the church one day and just kept coming back,” said Charles W. Harris, the pastor of the Bethel Church of Love and Praise.


“He made poor decisions but still had the opportunity to change things. Sometimes, before you can do great things, you have to find yourself."



Back to the NFL and Continuing the Career


Now reconciled with God, his girlfriend, and his child, Tyree came back to the NFL for the 2004 season.


Although only starting one game for the Giants, Tyree made the most of the 2004 regular season. He played in all 16 games and caught ten passes for a total of 155 yards. On Jan. 2 in the Giants’ season finale against the Dallas Cowboys, he recorded his first career touchdown, a 15-yard catch in the fourth quarter.


In 2005, Tyree followed suit and posted some good numbers. He played in 13 out of the 16 regular season games while also getting a nod in the Giants’ Wild Card game against the Carolina Panthers.


For his outstanding efforts on special teams, Tyree was selected to his first career Pro Bowl in ’05, gaining the opportunity to play with the NFL all-stars at Aloha Stadium in Hawaii.


Overall for the 2005 season, he caught five passes for 52 yards and added another NFL touchdown.


Tyree returned to the Giants in 2006 and had arguably his best season. He played in all 16 regular season games while starting one of them. He also played in the Giants’ Wild Card game against the Philadelphia Eagles.


He caught a career-high 19 passes and totaled 197 receiving yards with two touchdowns on the year.


Unfortunately the Giants were not finding much success. They had been eliminated from the playoffs in the first round in 2005 and 2006, but were about to go through the most miraculous game of their storied history.


And Tyree was in the middle of it.



The 2007 Season


Starting the 2007 season, the Giants were unlucky. They blew their first game against the Cowboys in week one, and in week two were demolished by the Green Bay Packers.


Tyree was out with a fractured wrist and did not play in the games against Dallas and Green Bay.


But then the Giants went on a tear, claiming victories in their next six games.


Yet the winning was emotional for Tyree, as he dealt with the loss of his mother Thelma. He was in a team meeting when Leilah broke the news to him, and she described it as the “hardest thing she ever had to do.”


Thelma suffered a heart attack while doing ministry work in Florida. She was only 59.


“I know my mother is at peace,” Tyree said.


“She is in a better place, and I know she’d be proud of me.”


Tyree missed two games because of the death of his mother, missing a loss to the Washington Redskins on Dec. 16 and the Giants’ playoff-clinching win over the Buffalo Bills on Dec. 23.


Although it was an emotionally difficult season, Tyree had a somewhat decent year numerically in ’07.


He played in 12 games during the season, and caught four passes for 35 yards. He may not have recorded a touchdown in the regular season, but when playoff time came around, he brought his A-game with him.


The Giants finished the regular season with a 10-6 record, and went into the playoffs with high hopes. They took care of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Wild Card weekend and then edged the Cowboys in the divisional round.


In the NFC Championship game, the Giants beat the Green Bay Packers in overtime and were now up against the undefeated New England Patriots.


Overall in the playoffs, Tyree had two catches for 10 yards. But what happened in the Super Bowl defied logic.



Super Bowl XLII and “The Catch”


Super Bowl XLII was a classic David vs. Goliath match-up. The Giants had an incredible playoff run. The Pats had established themselves as the most dominant team in football, going 18-0 throughout the course of the season and playoffs.


Down 7-3 in the fourth quarter, Tyree caught a five yard pass from Manning, giving the Giants a 10-7 lead. But the bigger catch came later in the period when the Giants were trailing 14-10.


On third down and with five yards to go on the Giants’ 44-yard line, Manning looked doomed. Three New England defenders swarmed him and he looked to be going down for a sack.


But somehow Manning eluded the defensive linemen, wound up and heaved a pass down field.


Leaping in the air for the football almost directly over the Super Bowl logo painted on the field, Tyree trapped the ball on his helmet, held onto it and gave New York a miraculous first down.


That catch enabled Manning to later hook up with Plaxico Burress and give the Giants a 17-14 lead over New England.


Tyree’s father Jesse was sitting in section 125 of the University of Phoenix Stadium holding a sign that simply read “TYREE.” When his son made the catch, he slapped hands with everyone around him.


“I didn’t know he could jump that high!” he exclaimed.


Pastor Harris was with about 150 members of his congregation watching the game on television. He fell to his knees after Tyree caught the ball, and as a tear trickled down his cheek, he asked God for a New York Giant win.


Leilah was watching on the jumbotron while making her way to the field.


“By faith at the two-minute mark, I just started to walk,” she said. “It just got more exciting as I got closer.”


The man who had been in jail for drugs, alienated his family, and almost threw his whole life away had just made the most spectacular catch in the history of the Super Bowl.


His team held on to win it, 17-14.


Tyree was unable to play in 2008, needing offseason knee surgery after the Super Bowl. He was put on the physically unable to perform list, and later went on injured reserve.


In his career, he has played in 73 regular season games. He has started only five of them, and played in six postseason games. He has notched 54 career receptions and four touchdowns. On special teams, he has 85 career tackles.


But he also has something more.


He has a life lesson learned the hard way. He learned that when you get caught up in the negative parts of being rich, bad things can and will happen. The “NFL lifestyle” can ruin a life.


Tyree may have slipped, but did not let it ruin him. He gained his life, his family, and his career back and on the way completed a play that will be talked about for years to come.


Giants’ general manager Jerry Reese said, “There’s always one player that comes out of the shadows for the Super Bowl. It was David Tyree for us.”


Indeed Tyree did come out of the shadows. And back into the sunlight.


Media Credit: New York Times, Star Ledger, Giants.com


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