Wellington Mara, the co-owner of the New York Giants of the National Football League, a presence with the franchise since his father founded the team in 1925, and the senior management figure in pro football, died October 25th at his home in Rye, NY He was 89 from cancer of the lymph nodes, according to a statement by the Giants.
Mara became the patriarch of a marquee family on the New York sports scene. He was the NFL's last link to an era when teams like the Pottsville Maroons, Dayton Triangles and Rochester Jeffersons played in the shadow of the college game and Red Grange of Illinois embodied the football hero.
Mara sat on the Giants' bench at the Polo Grounds as a 9-year-old ball boy on October 18, 1925, when they played their first home game, losing to the Frankford Yellow Jackets. He witnessed the famed "Sneakers Game" when the Giants outmaneuvered the Chicago Bears by wearing rubber-soled footgear in the 1934 championship game on a frozen Polo Grounds field.
After 31 seasons at the Polo Grounds, Mara took the Giants to Yankee Stadium in 1956, and they became the glamour franchise of the NFL, winning the league championship that season and playing in the title game 5 times in the next 7 years.
Mara later moved the Giants to the New Jersey Meadowlands in the 1976, weathering an outcry from New York City's mayor, John V. Lindsay, when he announced his plans. The Giants went to the Super Bowl 3 times after that, winning it twice, and their games at the 75,000-seat Giants Stadium are invariably sellouts.
Mara's father, Tim, who died in 1959, was a charter member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Wellington Mara, the Giants' president and co-chief executive officer, was elected to the Hall in 1997 as the Maras became the first father and son to be inducted.
Preston Robert Tisch, the chairman of the Loews Corporation, purchased a 50 percent interest in the Giants in 1991, but the operation remains very much a Mara family enterprise with three of Wellington Mara's 11 children holding administrative posts.
Wellington Timothy Mara was born in New York City on August 14, 1916. The NFL was five years old when Tim Mara, a legal bookmaker before parimutuel betting arrived in New York, bought the rights to put a team in New York City. He paid either $500 or $2,500, the exact figure lost in the mists of football history.
"My earliest recollection of the Giants was on a Sunday morning in the autumn of 1925," Wellington Mara told Richard Whittingham in "Giants: In Their Own Words." "I was about 9 years old. We were coming out of Mass, and I remember my father saying to one of his friends, 'I'm gonna try to put pro football over in New York today.' Then I recall going to the game. I don't think my father had ever seen a football game before. I had seen one or two - my brother, Jack, had taken me to a couple of Fordham games. "I remember our coach, Bob Folwell, a former Navy coach, turning to one of the players on the bench - his name was Paul Jappe - and saying, 'Jappe, get in there and give 'em hell!' I thought, 'Boy, this is really a rough game.' "
Wellington continued to help out at practices, shining shoes and running errands. At age 16, four years before the first NFL draft, he put together a list of the top pro prospects in college.
He attended Loyola High School in Manhattan, then entered Fordham University. While there, he heard about Tuffy Leemans, a fine running back at George Washington University, and visited him on campus. Leemans thought at first that Mara was simply a young man seeking an autograph, but he eventually signed with the Giants and became a Hall of Famer.
Mara began working for the Giants full time after he graduated from Fordham in 1937. He was a Navy officer during World War II, then returned to the Giants and oversaw personnel while his brother, Jack, concentrated on business affairs. He scouted, supervised draft selections, and during the 1950's became one of the league's early eye-in-the-sky aides, taking photos of opposing defenses with Polaroid cameras from atop Yankee Stadium and dropping them in weighted socks to Vince Lombardi, the offensive coach and his Fordham classmate.
Mara played a central role in assembling the teams of the Giants' glory years, drafting Kyle Rote, Frank Gifford, Roosevelt Brown, Roosevelt Grier, Sam Huff and Jim Katcavage and trading for Y. A. Tittle, Andy Robustelli, Del Shofner, Dick Lynch and Dick Modzelewski.
He played a role in the early 1960's in the NFL's first national television contract in which teams shared equally in revenue, whatever the size of their market, an arrangement that brought long-term prosperity to the league. Pete Rozelle, the commissioner at the time, once recalled how the Giants were getting $175,000 from CBS under the previous contract - the highest payout to any team - while the Green Bay Packers were getting $35,000. "Well argued that the N.F.L. was only as strong as its weakest link, that Green Bay should receive as much money as any of the other teams," Rozelle said.
In much of the 1970's, Mara served as chairman of the executive committee of the NFL Management Council, the owners group that negotiated with the players union.
When Jack Mara, the Giants' president, died in 1965, Wellington, who was vice president, took over the post. But he became overburdened by handling business matters and directing personnel moves. The Giants made a series of poor draft selections and failed to rebuild as their longtime stars departed. The Giants did not have a winning season from 1964 to 1980 while the AFL's Jets gained the spotlight, buoyed in January 1969 when Joe Namath led them to a Super Bowl victory.
In 1971, Mara announced that the Giants would leave Yankee Stadium for a new stadium in New Jersey, but before it could be built, New York City officials essentially evicted the team when they began a renovation for the benefit of the Yankees. The Giants played at Yale Bowl in New Haven, CT and at Shea Stadium until Giants Stadium was completed in 1976.
The franchise's low moment came on November 19, 1978, the play known as the Fumble, when Giants quarterback Joe Pisarcik, needing only to fall on the ball to secure a victory against the Eagles, handed it off. The ball went astray, and Eagles defensive back Herman Edwards, scooped it up and ran for a game-winning touchdown. Three weeks later, during a game against the Cardinals, a fan flew a private plane over Giants Stadium with a streamer reading "15 Years of Lousy Football - We've Had Enough." There were more than 24,000 empty seats, and many of the fans who did turn out chanted, "We've had enough."
"People said we were cheap and didn't care if we won, because all our games were sold out," Mara told The New York Times in 2001, recalling the 1970's. "That got under my skin. We weren't cheap. We were just stupid. We made a lot of poor personnel decisions on the football field. That's why we lost." Coach John McVey was fired after that 6-10 season in 1978, and Robustelli, a former star defensive end for the Giants who had become the team's director of operations in 1973, resigned.
However, Giants management was still in turmoil. Wellington Mara and Timmy Mara, Jack Mara's son, who had become vice president after his father's death and whose side of the family controlled half the team, barely spoke to each other. Timmy was convinced that Wellington, who made all the important decisions, was too set in his ways to keep the team competitive.
Then NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle recommended that George Young, who had been an executive with the Colts and the Dolphins, take over as general manager in 1979. Young got the Giants back to the playoffs in 1981, and with Bill Parcells as coach, they went to the Super Bowl in January 1987, defeating the Denver Broncos.
"Wellington never told me what to do," Young once said. "But I listened to him, because he had all this experience. He was an owner who had directly run a football team. People asked me if I consulted him and I told them, 'If I lived next to a great big library, I would take advantage of the great, big library.' "
The Giants won a second Super Bowl in January 1991, beating the Buffalo Bills, and then Preston Robert Tisch bought the 50 percent of the team controlled by Jack Mara's family, paying $75 million. The Giants went to the Super Bowl again in January 2001, losing to the Baltimore Ravens.
As co-owner, Mr. Tisch, who has been battling brain cancer, is the Giants' chairman and co-chief executive officer. John K. Mara, Wellington Mara's oldest son, plays a major role in overseeing the Giants' administrative affairs. Wellington Mara's son Chris is vice president of player evaluation and another son, Frank, is director of promotions.
Wellington Mara married Ann Mumm in 1954. She survives him together with 11 children, John Kevin, Susan Ann, Timothy Christopher, Stephen Vincent, Francis Xavier, Sheila Marie, Kathleen Mary, Maureen Elizabeth, Ann Marie, Meghan Ann, and Colleen Elizabeth; and 40 grandchildren.
Mara regarded the Giants as his extended family. That sense of loyalty extended notably to Steve Owen, the captain of the Giants' 1927 team, who served as head coach from 1930 to 1953. The next three head coaches, Jim Lee Howell, Allie Sherman and Alex Webster, had been Giants assistant coaches, and Howell and Webster had played for the Giants. Francis J. Sweeny, the team physician for almost three decades, was Owen's brother-in-law. The Rev. Benedict Dudley was a familiar presence as the Giants' chaplain.
Mara often attended Giants' practices but disliked the news media spotlight and generally shunned public pronouncements. When he spoke to the players late in the 1999 season after two straight blowout losses, urging them to end the year on a positive note , it was the first time he had addressed the team in that kind of setting in 30 years.
In early December 2003, after a loss to Buffalo, Mara promised changes as the Giants headed toward a dismal finish, taking the rare step of revealing his thoughts to reporters in the locker room. "I don't know exactly what he said, but when he says something it definitely carries all the weight in the world," defensive end Michael Strahan remarked.
Frank Gifford, the Giants' Hall of Famer and the longtime ABC Monday Night Football broadcaster, admired Mara's character. "Well Mara lives the perfect spiritual life," Gifford wrote in his 1994 memoir "The Whole Ten Yards." As Gifford put it: "For all the years I've known him, and they number more than 40, I've never heard him utter a swear word. He goes to Mass almost every day and has put all 11 of his children through Catholic colleges. Well pours the same devotion into the Giants, showing up at virtually every practice, attending to the tiniest detail of the team's operation. That's Well's life: his family, his church and his Giants."
Source: New York Times