February 5, 2012 is a day that I will never forget. On that Sunday, the Giants defeated the Patriots 21-17 in Super Bowl XLVI at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana – and my dad and I were there.
Super Bowl XLVIII is today and yesterday was my dad’s 60th birthday, so what better time than now to relive such a memorable day.
A LITTLE BACKGROUND…
Sports are a pretty large part of my life and I owe all of that specific personality trait to my dad. I never had a choice when it came to choosing a favorite football team – that decision was made for me long before I was even alive. My dad taught me everything that I know about the Giants and we have been watching/attending games together for the past two decades.
It doesn’t take much of a description to evoke memories of games that we either watched or attended. “Botched FG in San Francisco,” “shut out vs Carolina in playoffs,” “the game Coughlin’s face froze,” “Tyree catch in Super Bowl,” “the Jim Burt Game” (also known as the game the Giants blew out the Vikings 41-0 in the NFC Championship game… We sat next to Jim Burt during this win so that’s how I’ll always remember it). The list goes on and on.
Watching games together is an experience. Emotions run high and the rest of the family knows not to bother us. Saying we are superstitious is an understatement. There have been times when we would sit in the car in our driveway and listen on the radio to avoid messing up a good offensive drive. If the Giants scored while I was watching in the basement, I stayed in the basement for the rest of the game. Completing 10 passes outside at halftime without dropping the ball is also mandatory, no matter the temperature.
I know that everything we do is crazy but I don’t care at all. A couple of years ago, we were lucky enough to watch a Giants game with Jerome Bettis and he witnessed our crazy first-hand. This is a man who made millions playing in the NFL and he looked legitimately shocked at how we jumped around and reacted to every play. But no matter the situation or the company, I can’t turn it off. It’s how we watch games and I wouldn’t want it any other way. It’s too much fun.
In 2011-2012 the fun continued and the Giants barely made the playoffs, finishing the regular season 9-7. While certainly not expecting a Super Bowl run, we knew anything was possible and maintained our optimism. Once Lawrence Tynes hit the game-winning field goal that secured the Giants’ spot in Super Bowl XLVI, I knew we had to go. Luckily, a good friend helped dad secure two tickets and my mom made the last-minute travel arrangements.
ARRIVING IN INDIANAPOLIS…
We flew out to Indianapolis on Friday, just in time for the influx of fans and media. Super Bowl weekend was busy to say the least. I had never been at the absolute epicenter of the sports world before and Indy was a fantastic host city with its centrally located stadium and hotels. There was a palpable electricity all over the city leading up to the game.
The Super Bowl Village was a site to see. Complete with a zip line, Indy car display, ice sculptures, Olympic curling area and thousands of shops, there was plenty to do. The sheer of amount of media and fans was also pretty astounding. A constant crowd assembled outside the famous St. Elmo’s steakhouse to spot celebrities as they either entered or exited. The open container alcohol policy added to the party atmosphere. Overall, it was a spectacle that was a lot of fun to be a part of.
But the pregame festivities were not the reason we came. Once Sunday rolled around, it was all about the game and 6:30 PM couldn’t come fast enough. Dad and I entered the stadium 3 hours before game-time and did a lap, just taking everything in. The seating ushers let us walk right down to the railing and we were right on top of the players during pregame warm-ups.
Everything felt a little surreal – looking up at Super Bowl signage, I wondered, “am I really here?” We then made our way to our seats with the reality of the situation setting in. Our favorite team was about to play in the Super Bowl and we have two seats in the building.
If that wasn’t enough to get us excited, we were greeted by a nice surprise once we got to our 200-level end zone seats. Sitting directly to our left was former Giants quarterback Kent Graham and his wife. You’re kidding me right? We get to chat up a former NFL player while his former team plays in the Super Bowl?! I should have known this was a sign it was going to be a great night. Kent couldn’t be nicer and I thoroughly enjoyed talking to him during the game. How often do you get to watch your favorite team with a former player – let alone the Super Bowl?
After some small talk with Kent, everything started to get very real. The fanfare and general buzz in the stadium was electric. My phone ceased working and it would work very sporadically over the next 3+ hours. Texting my friends a picture of our seats quickly became out of the question.
Once the players came out in uniform, everything took place in hyper speed. The team introductions, coin toss, national anthem, PA announcer’s instructions about our role in Madonna’s halftime show – it all happened in the blink of an eye. Two weeks of waiting for a game and it was finally here.
Now aside from the thousands of flashbulbs, it was just another football game. Everything that was talked about for the past week – who said what on media day, who ate dinner where, which celebrities rooted for which team – was suddenly irrelevant. Whichever team executed on the field was going to be the Super Bowl Champion.
I knew attending a Super Bowl featuring the Giants was a once in a lifetime opportunity so I did everything that I could to take it all in. I was about to watch a football game that I would never forget, regardless of the outcome. The next three hours were an emotional roller coaster filled with highs and lows that only sports can provide.
THE GAME ITSELF…
The Giants got off to a fantastic start and we had a lot to cheer about early on. We got the ball first and moved quickly into Pats territory. Just on the edge of field goal range, Eli got sacked and we were forced to punt. [I know that I am not on the team but I have always used “we” when referring to my favorite team.] Obviously, I really wanted to get points on that opening drive but it was a solid first possession and we were in position to have Weatherford pin them in.
That’s exactly what he did and Brady was forced to start his first possession from his own 6-yard line. During the commercial break after that first Giants possession, Kent turned to my dad and I and said “Eli looks really sharp today.” Little did we know at the time how sharp he actually was on that day. Looking back on it, when a former QB tells you another QB is locked in, you should take note and expect great things.
The Giants D took the field and on Brady’s first play from scrimmage, he ran play-action and felt heavy pressure while standing in his own end zone. With Tuck closing in, Brady threw it down the center of the field with no receiver in sight. I looked at my dad and said “that should be intentional grounding.” He agreed but would they actually call it? After about 5 seconds, a referee dropped a flag onto the ground. Just like that the Giants had a 2-0 lead and we were as happy as everyone who placed a safety prop bet was richer.
On the ensuing possession, Eli led us right down the field for a well-orchestrated 9-play, 78 yard touchdown drive. It ended with a Victor Cruz salsa in the end zone that we were sitting directly behind. The Giants led 9-0 and Tom Brady had only run one play. It was the ideal start… was this going to be a blow out? The thought crossed my mind but of course not – this was still Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. They wanted revenge for 2007 and there was just no way that this game was going to be decided by more than one score.
The crowd was tough to categorize. I honestly felt it was 50/50 Giants and Pats. We were surrounded by plenty of fans of both teams. The people in the row in front of us were Pats fans, which made me feel a little weird about celebrating our score. But then again, the Giants were playing in the Super Bowl and I’m never going to see the people in the row ahead of us ever again. No reservations, I’m “all-in.”
The Pats returned the ensuing kickoff to their own 28-yard line, which is where Brady would start his second offensive series of the day. With significantly more room to work with than his first possession, Brady started doing what he does. He completed his next 4 throws to lead the Pats into Giants territory. The first quarter ended with New England in the red zone after a 10-yard completion to Wes Welker.
A 9-0 Giants lead after the first quarter was a fantastic start. If you had told me on Friday or Saturday that we would have a 2-score lead after 15 minutes of play, I would have said “where do I sign?” But with the Pats knocking on the door, there wasn’t much time to revel in our fast start. New England had 1st and 10 on our 17 yard line and our 2-score lead could become a 2-point lead in just one play. But that didn’t happen. Our defense was able to tighten up and hold the Pats to a field goal. The Giants led 9-3 and that’s the way it would stay for the majority of the 2nd quarter.
Eli led us into New England territory twice only to stall out on consecutive drives. It was frustrating to watch us move the ball across midfield only to have a holding penalty or poor execution prevent us from putting any points on the board. You only get so many opportunities throughout the course of a game and it felt like we squandering too many against such a good team. Those 2 Giants punts book ended a Pats 3 and out.
At least on the second of those frustrating punts, Weatherford was able to do his thing and punt it out of bounds inside the 5 yard line. Last time Brady was this close to his goal line, we got a safety. Now he was starting a drive from his own 4 yard line with 4 minutes to go in the first half. I was hoping for another 3 and out and then good field position to try and add to our lead before the break.
It quickly became clear that this wasn’t going to happen. Brady led the Pats on an impressive 14-play, 96 yard touchdown drive to give New England a 10-9 lead. On top of that he used the almost the entirety of the four remaining minutes, getting the score with just 8 seconds left in the half. It’s at this moment that you remember why the Pats have been so successful in the past decade. They have one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time.
The Patriots led 10-9 at the half and I was more than a little upset about it. With the exception of that masterful Pats drive, we completely outplayed them in that first 30 minutes. We dominated the field position battle and had all the momentum after the safety gave us the lead. But those stalled drives prevented us from scoring more than one touchdown and now after being the better team for the first half, we were losing 10-9.
My dad and I broke down the half (as we always do) while hundreds of volunteers wheeled equipment onto the field to set up Madonna’s halftime show. We agreed that it was disheartening to be losing after playing better but there was still a lot of time left. The game would come down to halftime adjustments, as most football games do. There’s no way we could give up another long touchdown drive to Brady and expect to win. There was also no way we could keep punting from inside the Pats territory and expect to win.
The halftime show was very cool but it’s so different watching from so far away as opposed to on television. You can’t really see anything from your seat so watching the screens (like everyone else is at home) is really the best way to get the full performance effect. The most fascinating part of the halftime was how quickly they transformed a football field into a concert arena. To construct and deconstruct an elaborate, multi-level stage in less than half an hour is a feat worth celebrating. Overall, Madonna was entertaining and I appreciated the Super Bowl scale of the performance.
30 minutes of football remained in the 2011-2012 season. Both teams re-took the field and the next two quarters would decide it all. The Pats got the ball first to start the second half and my dad, Kent and I all agreed that this was a pivotal possession. The Pats touchdown drive to end the first half swung the momentum in their favor and even though Madonna, MIA’s middle finger and the halftime show did its best to interrupt that momentum – it hadn’t gone anywhere. Working out of his usual no-huddle, it didn’t take long for Brady to have his team in Giants territory again. Just 4 minutes into the 3rd quarter, Brady connected with Aaron Hernandez for a 12-yard touchdown pass, capping off a 79-yard drive.
Shit. Back-to-back scores for New England gave them a 17-9 lead. Even though we were still within one score, this was not good. We didn’t capitalize when we had the chance and now the Pats were running away with it. This was by far the low point of the entire experience. It didn’t look like we could stop them anymore and our offense didn’t seem like it could keep pace in a shootout.
A good run back by Jernigan on the ensuing kick-off gave us pretty good field position. Starting on our own 35-yard line, Eli moved the ball into Pats territory yet again. We were in prime position to answer back with a 1st and 10 from New England’s 25-yard line. Three straight incomplete passes (all from the shotgun) brought up 4th down and Tynes came out for a 38-yard field goal. After connecting, the Pats lead was now 17-12 with just under 7 minutes to go in the 3rd quarter.
Any points were crucial at this stage of the game and I was happy to answer back but we couldn’t help lamenting over the fact that we didn’t score a touchdown. Nonetheless, we had stopped the Pats’ momentum a little. The defense would completely halt New England’s momentum with a three and out on their next possession. This was a pivotal moment in the game because not only did it get the Giants the ball back, but it restored hope that we could stop their offense. A little confidence goes a long way.
Mesko punted and again we were handed fantastic field position. Starting on the Pats’ 48-yard line, we had the opportunity to take back the lead. The Giants worked their way inside the Pats 10-yard line but Eli got sacked on third down and we settled for a field goal… again. Tynes’ second of the game made it 17-15. As my dad and I often do, we looked each other and said “we needed 7 there.” Field goals were not going to win this game.
The third quarter ended with the Pats still holding on to that 2-point lead. During the commercial break, Kent turned to my dad and I and said, “whoever gets the first turnover in this game is going to win it.” I hadn’t realized that neither team had turned the ball over yet. Kent was right – we just needed to make sure the Giants were on the right side of that change of possession.
New England had the ball on their own 43-yard line and we desperately needed the D to come up with another stop. Kent looked over at us again and reiterated, “we could really use a turnover right here.” Right on cue, Chase Blackburn, a guy who was signed off the couch midway through the season, intercepted Tom Brady for the game’s first turnover. (It would be the only turnover of the game). Unreal. Kent Graham called it. Now we had the ball and the momentum. You can’t script stuff this good.
With the ball back in Eli’s hands, I felt confident that he was going to lead us down the field for the game-winning drive. But on the second play of the drive, Bradshaw fumbled and the ball was loose on our own 11-yard line. Chris Snee, who is head coach Tom Coughlin’s son-in-law, jumped on the ball to recover it – making Coughlin happier than the day he walked his daughter down the aisle. (I assume). Even if that last part about Coughlin isn’t true, Snee saved the game. Giving the Pats the ball on the Giants 11-yard line would have certainly decided the outcome and we would have been on the losing end.
After the recovery, Eli picked up a couple of first downs and again got into New England territory (noticing a theme here?). Just as it had happened a couple times prior, the drive stalled out and we were forced to punt, still trailing 17-15 with 9 and a half minutes to go. Welker made a fair catch at his own 8-yard line and we were again relying on the defense to force a punt and get the ball back in a timely manner.
In case you forgot, Tom Brady is the quarterback for the New England Patriots, so I should have known better than to assume a quick punt. The 3-time Super Bowl champion converted a 3rd and 3 to lead his team to the Giants 43-yard line. The defense stopped BenJarvus Green-Ellis for a loss on the ensuing 1st down, bringing up 2nd and 11 from the 44. Time was running out – there was less than 4 minutes left. We couldn’t let the Pats get into field goal range with another first down and we couldn’t let them keep running down the clock.
In sports (as in life), you don’t know what the most important moment is going to be. The players understand that the stakes are high in the 4th quarter of the Super Bowl but there was no way of knowing that the upcoming 2nd down play would be the biggest of the game. This 2nd down play would define legacies.
Brady dropped back and threw one up for Welker down the left side. Welker had gotten behind the Giants defense and my heart stopped. Shit, he’s wide open. The ball was thrown to Welker’s outside shoulder so he jumped and turned to make the catch. The ball bounced right off his finger tips and Welker landed on his back. Incomplete.
I still can’t believe he didn’t catch that ball. Just like the fumble that Snee recovered, a completion there would have pretty much ended the game. Welker put his head in hands, kneeling face first on the turf, realizing the magnitude of the play.
It was a lack of execution on both sides. The Giants failed to cover Welker and the Pats failed to complete the pass. Brady’s wife, Giselle Buncheon, would later say that it’s not her husband’s fault that his receivers can’t catch. Brady and Welker probably complete that pass 99 times out of 100. Fortunately for us, the one incompletion happened to come in the 4th quarter of the Super Bowl. The defense still needed one more stop… Brady’s 3rd down pass to Dion Branch was incomplete and New England was forced to punt.
Eli was going to take the field with a chance to lead a Super Bowl winning drive against the Pats, exactly like he did in 2007. The Giants started from their own 12-yard line needing just a field goal to win their second Super Bowl in 4 years. Just as the Pats didn’t know which play was their biggest, I can only assume Eli was equally unaware. The next play was it though.
Eli dropped back and threw it down the left side for Mario Manningham. It was a perfect throw, right in stride to Manningham who was covered tightly by 2 defenders. Tiptoeing the sideline, Manningham miraculously (and skillfully) caught the ball and got two feet down before stepping out of bounds. It was a spectacular play. I am still not sure how he was able to look the ball into his hands, while simultaneously knowing exactly how much room he had for his feet. With the play being reviewed, my dad and I looked at the replay on the scoreboard both moving our arms up and down with our fists in the air, motioning the referees signal for a completed catch.
Kent compared it to Tyree’s catch in Super Bowl 42, as I’m sure most football fans did at that exact moment. How were the Giants coming up with these ridiculous catches – both varying degrees of skill and luck – in the biggest of moments? After the catch was confirmed, the Giants set up for 1st down at midfield. Needing just a field goal to win, we immediately began calculating how many yards we needed for Tynes to comfortably knock it through.
On the next play, Eli connected with Manningham again, this time for 16 yards. We were now technically in field goal range but getting closer and making it a more manageable try remained the goal. Once a completion to Nicks brought us down to the Pats’ 18 yard-line, Bill Bellichick decided he wasn’t going to be beat by a last second field goal. New England called timeout. We continued to run plays to try and kill the clock and get even closer. With a minute left, it looked like New England might let us into the end zone to score the go-ahead touchdown, ensuring that they get the ball back with a chance to win it themselves. It’s a smart strategy but it was unclear exactly how it was going to play out.
At the time my dad and I began to argue. “Let’s just score and get the points on the board,” I said. He wanted us to milk as much clock as possible and even kneel at the 1-yard line if we had the opportunity to score. Anything can happen in football, so I just wanted the points on the board and sure enough New England decided to let Bradshaw go into the end zone with one minute left. Bradshaw was surprised by the defenses lack of pursuit and when he got to the one yard line, he quickly thought about kneeling down. Instead, he fell butt-first into the end zone, giving the Giants a 21-17 lead.
It was the weirdest Super Bowl winning touchdown in history. The celebration was not pure joy as it should be when your team takes the lead with less than a minute left in the Super Bowl. The circumstances surrounding such a difficult strategy decision meant a celebratory high-five and then immediate discussion. My dad was still disappointed we were giving the Pats the ball back and he and Kent talked about how they would have had Bradshaw kneel down on the 1-yard line. I countered with, “what if we had fumbled the snap or something stupid? It’s not worth the risk.” Either way, the decision was made and we had the lead needing to hold off Brady for just 60 more seconds.
The Pats started from their own 20 and Tuck sacked Brady on 3rd down to force a 4th and long. Surely, this was it. We were about to stop them and win the Super Bowl. But Brady somehow converted that 4th and 16 with a 19-yard pass to Branch. They were still alive. My palms were small lakes. We had been standing for pretty much the entire second half and I couldn’t feel my feet under me. What a great game but there was no way I could appreciate what a fantastic finish it was at the time. Seconds continued to tick away, ever so slowly.
Five ticks remained and the Pats had it at midfield. This was it. This was the final play. Brady dropped back with everyone sprinting towards the end zone. He evaded the rush, shuffling around the pocket until he could find a lane to step and throw. The ball spiraled through the air, heading towards the end zone we were standing directly behind. A group of players crowded where it would land, like they were playing jackpot on a playground. The clock read 0:00 as everyone in the end zone jumped in unison. I held my breath. Three Giants defenders tried to swat the ball directly to the ground. It went off a couple of fingers and hung in the air about chest high. An injured Rob Gronkowski lunged to try and pluck it out of the air but gravity took over and the ball fell to the ground before he could get his hands to it. Incomplete. The game was over. The Giants were Super Bowl Champions.
The next hour was a complete blur. I remember watching confetti fall, hugging my dad, hugging Kent Graham, going down by the railing to get as close to the field as possible and meeting up with friends who were also in attendance to celebrate. We all stood on stadium seats 2 rows away from the players celebrating on the field while “We Are The Champions” played. It was a surreal experience that will never be duplicated. We got on a flight home less than 3 hours after that final play.
2007 was a dream season but I’ll always remember 2011 as my favorite Giants season. The overall season in 2007 was better. It was a magical year in which I saw the first Giants Championship (well, the first that I could comprehend – it was hard for me to understand what was happening when I was one year old in 1990). But 2007 was also my first year of college, meaning it was the first Giants season in which I didn’t watch all of the games with my dad. We spoke on the phone before and after every game (and for hours after they won it all) but we weren’t in the same room for some of the best Giants moments. That was the one thing that always kept that 2007 Giants season from being absolutely perfect for me.
The 2007 and 2011 Giants have a lot of similarities. Both were not dominant during the regular season and clinched a wild card berth late into the season. They each won their opening playoff game on the road by multiple scores. Both pulled amazing upsets of the 1-seed in the divisional round (Cowboys in ’07 and Packers ’11). Each had epic overtime road wins in the conference championship game (Packers on the literally frozen tundra in ’07 and Niners in ’11). Finally, they both beat the favored Patriots in the Super Bowl with the help of miraculous plays on the go-ahead drives. Eli Manning won the MVP in both games and the Giants pulled off the unexpected – beating Bill Belichick and Tom Brady in the Super Bowl.
The only difference was that when the confetti fell in Indianapolis, my dad and I were there and it was an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world. While I’m not in the business of ranking championships, I think you can figure out which one was my favorite. For better or for worse, sports will always be an important part of my life. Some people say it’s crazy to care so much about something that you can not control. They may be right but when it all comes together like it did on February 5, 2012, it’s all worth it and the only crazy people are the ones who didn’t take the time to care in the first place.