Wellington Mara: 'Hometown Hall of Famer' Is a Giant to Remember

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Wellington Mara: 'Hometown Hall of Famer' Is a Giant to Remember
Brian Killian/Getty Images
Former Giants owner Wellington Mara was honored as a "Hometown Hall of Famer."

We are subtly reminded of his legacy every Sunday.

Every center-quarterback exchange, every handoff tucked into a running back’s belly, every arcing pass hauled in by a receiver, every toe-numbing kick and every sky-scraping punt—he is there. Emblazoned on every russet-colored, leather NFL game ball is his name:

The Duke

Longtime New York Giants owner and executive Wellington Mara, who passed away at the age of 89 in October of 2005, was honored as a “Hometown Hall of Famer” by the Pro Football Hall of Fame in conjunction with Allstate on Friday, Nov. 22. His oldest son and current Giants co-owner, John Mara, accepted the award on his late father’s behalf.

“He was very proud of the fact that he was a lifelong New Yorker,” John Mara said in a phone interview with Bleacher Report on Thursday.

Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

The ceremony took place at the Loyola School, a Jesuit college preparatory school in New York City, founded in 1900 by the Society of Jesus. Wellington attended the Loyola School in the early 1930s and later Fordham University, where he first scouted and signed Tuffy Leemans—a Hall of Fame fullback (Class of 1978) and the Giants’ second-round pick in 1936.

Brian Bahr/Getty Images
Wellington Mara is honored on the big screen in Denver before a game between the Broncos and Eagles.

Born in 1916, a young Wellington Mara could hardly wait to get involved in the latest business endeavor in which his bookmaker father, Tim, made a major investment: $500 for a professional New York football club.

In 1925, the year of the Giants’ conception, Tim was barely a football man at heart. Why get involved in the pro game? According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Tim’s now-infamous reasoning was “a New York franchise to operate anything ought to be worth $500.”

Nine years old during the Giants’ inaugural season, Wellington was a different story.

“He dove into [scouting] head-first and was very involved for much of his early life,” John said. “He enjoyed the business on the field much more than the business off the field. … He was the first scout that this organization ever had.”

Although, in name only, he and his brother Jack became co-owners in 1930, Wellington didn’t officially join the franchise until 1937 as an assistant to the president and treasurer. He went on to hold a plethora of front office positions over the next 68 seasons, forging the legacy of a pro football legend along the way.

Wellington established a reputation of incomparable loyalty, stretching from his players to his coaches to every other member of the organization imaginable. Consider former Giants athletic trainer John Johnson, who retired at the ripe age of 90 after six full decades of ankle-taping and joint-icing.

“The old joke around here was your employees of this organization usually left feet-first,” John Mara said. “They had to be carried out of here because he very rarely ever fired anybody, and, quite frankly, those are the traits that sometimes got us into trouble in some of our lean years—in the late ‘60s and ‘70s.”

***

One player that experienced Mara’s loyalty first hand was the franchise’s all-time leading rusher, Tiki Barber. The team’s second-round draft pick in 1997 accumulated each of his 10,449 rushing yards as a member of Mara’s Giants.

“He was my first professional boss, so to speak, and one that I greatly revered,” Barber said in a phone interview with Bleacher Report the day after Wellington was named a “Hometown Hall of Famer.”

Nick Laham/Getty Images
Tiki Barber had a close connection with Wellington Mara.

Barber recalls Mara’s influence fondly, describing it as a “dignified presence.” It was common for Wellington—who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame the summer before Barber’s rookie season—to attend practice during the running back’s tenure with the team. The venerable owner’s company provided the weekly preparation with a tangible sense of prominence.

“To have him literally walking around our field every day,” Barber began, “it made you feel a connection to the history, the past of the great game that we played.”

It just so happens that Barber’s most productive year was Wellington’s last on this Earth. In 2005, with the legendary and beloved owner in failing health, a determined Barber reached career highs with 1,860 rushing yards and 2,390 total yards from scrimmage. With Wellington’s co-owner Bob Tisch also in poor health, head coach Tom Coughlin constantly emphasized that Barber and the rest of the 2005 Giants were a “team of record.”

In October of 2005, one day after Eli Manning connected with Amani Toomer on a last-second touchdown pass to upset the Denver Broncos by a point, Barber received a devastating call from Giants Senior Vice President of Medical Services Ronnie Barnes. Wellington was losing his battle with cancer of the lymph nodes, and the Mara family was requesting Barber’s presence at Wellington's home in Westchester to pay his final respects.

“I remember walking into the house and the whole family was there—his grandkids and kids,” Barber recalled. “It was a surreal experience, an image in my mind that I can’t ever forget. It felt like a movie.”

Wellington died not long after Barber's visit. The services were held the following Friday at a packed Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, where John Mara delivered a heartfelt eulogy that Barber described as “perfect.”

But there was still work to be done. The division rival Washington Redskins were visiting that Sunday, and Barber planned to honoring The Duke the only way he knew how—with a tremendous on-field performance.

Brian Killian/Getty Images
Kate Mara sings the National Anthem before the Redskins-Giants game following her grandfather's death.

On the very first play from scrimmage—with the national anthem, sung by Wellington’s granddaughter, Kate, practically still echoing from the Meadowlands rafters he built—Barber took a handoff 57 yards down the left sideline.

“From the very first play of the game, I knew it was that day,” Barber explained. “Because there was no other way for me to honor him…than to go out on the football field and do what he had brought me to New York to do.”

Barber finished the day early, recording 206 yards on 24 attempts, which included a four-yard touchdown on his final carry of the game. After that score, he picked up the ball, jogged over to the sideline, handed it to Wellington’s grandson, Tim, and watched the Giants close out the remainder of a 36-0 shutout victory.

“I grabbed that football and took it over to Timmy and said, ‘Timmy, this is for you and your family and your grandfather. I can’t thank you all enough for being who you were to me,’” Barber said. “I had done what I wanted to do: honor a great man on a great stage in a great way.”

***

It wasn’t always a beautiful ride for Mara and the Giants. As John pointed out, there were lean years that began in the late 1960s and extended through the entire abysmal decade of the 1970s. From 1964-1980, New York suffered through 17 straight postseason-less campaigns, posting just two teams with winning records during that span.

“Those were seasons where he was under a lot of attacks from the media and from fans because our team was so poor,” John said on the phone. “There was a lot of criticism directed at him personally, which is something that he felt very deeply.”

"The Fumble" epitomizes the Giants struggles of the 1970s.

Only a few seasons before the Giants’ drought began, they were in the midst of a dynasty with six NFL championship appearances in eight seasons. Due in part to the Giants’ popularity, pro football was poised to usurp baseball’s title as America’s most popular sport, and, ironically, it was an unpopular decision supported by Mara that ultimately enabled it to do so.

Major media markets, like New York and Chicago, were dominating the pro football scene, while smaller markets, like Green Bay, were struggling to turn a profit. At a time when the “good of the collective” was still a faraway notion, Mara supported revenue sharing as a way to build the league’s strength as a whole.

“I think his belief always was that, in order to have a strong league, all the teams had to have a fair opportunity to compete and had to have enough revenue to compete,” John explained. “With the advent of television and television rights, he believed it would be best for the league, in the long run, if those rights were shared equally.”

"Today, on this field of painted mud..."

Wellington’s support allowed all teams to compete on an equal playing field. Yet, in the years to come, his team would not perform up to par. The game was growing more complicated, and, after taking on additional business responsibility following his brother Jack’s untimely death in 1965, Wellington reluctantly realized that changes had to be made. He had to “rebuild [the] organization a little bit,” as John put it.

He was rewarded mightily, as his franchise re-established its dominance in the 1980s. Players like linebacker Lawrence Taylor and quarterback Phil Simms returned Mara’s team to stardom, claiming victories in Super Bowl XXI and XXV.

“My greatest memories from Super Bowl XXI and XXV were seeing him up on the platform, accepting the Lombardi Trophy,” John said. “To have survived that and to have gotten to a point where our team had reached the top of the NFL was something that he was very proud of.”

***

Wellington’s time on Earth expired before his Giants won either of their two most recent Super Bowls, but his son insists he would have been “very pleased” with both of those teams. Still, it’s not as if the former owner is completely gone. His portrait can be found around the Giants facilities. His impact on not just his organization, but also the entire league, remains very real, and everyone who ever knew him remembers him fondly.

From Tuffy to Tiki, no one would dispute The Duke as a true Hometown Hall of Famer.

 

Kevin is a New York Giants Featured Columnist and Game-Day Correspondent for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand, unless noted otherwise. You can follow Kevin on Twitter here.

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