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Books | Sports

January 1, 2007

A Quiet Football Visionary

For the New York Giants' first 81 years, Wellington Mara played a host of invaluable roles. He also helped establish the NFL's pre-eminence. His biographer tells Gelf about Mara's life and legacy.

Carl Bialik

Lifelong Giants fan Carlo DeVito got the call soon after the death of team co-owner and NFL pioneer Wellington Mara in October 2005: The sports publishers Triumph Books wanted a biography. DeVito says Wellington was a "labor of love," a chance to pay tribute to the man who had been involved in the franchise since his father Timothy bought the club in 1925. Along with his brother Jack, Wellington Mara engineered the Giants' remarkable run of success from 1958-1963 and helped to shape the fledging NFL. He also was the pioneer behind the league's successful revenue-sharing model and innovated the use of still and video photography in team coaching. And through his eight decades with the Giants, he maintained a low public profile, a legacy maintained by his son and present Giants co-owner John Mara, even during the wildly uneven 2006 season.

Carlo DeVito
Carlo DeVito
DeVito, 44, spoke to Gelf by phone about researching the book, what Mara would have made of this year's Giants, and why the New York team isn't among the top 10 most valuable league franchises. Following are edited excerpts from the interview. (Also, you can hear DeVito and other sports-book authors read from and talk about their works at the free Varsity Letters event presented by Gelf on Wednesday, January 3, in New York's Lower East Side.)

Gelf Magazine: What do you make of this year's Giants team?
Carlo DeVito: It's just killing me watching this team. Once they get to the playoffs against a playoff-caliber team, they're in trouble—their defense is just atrocious.

GM: A lot's changed between the Giants' 36-0 rout of the Redskins last season, their first game after Mara's death, and Saturday night's win over the Redskins. For that win last year, were they brought together by Mara's death?
CD: You could see from the very beginning how absolutely intense and focused the Giants were. The Redskins were sitting there waiting for the other shoe to drop when that game happened. There wasn't even a need to play it. You could see from the attitude and intensity that it was going to be a blowout, right from beginning. I do think they focused, and used Wellington for that focus.

GM: I guess that hasn't carried over to this season.

CD: No, I guess not. There are rumors about how unhappy the players are with the coach and the coaching staff. On the field, I've seen people like Plaxico Burress giving up on plays. But they also certainly were wracked by injuries. The two main stars that they had focused the defense around—defensive ends Osi Umenyiora and Michael Strahan— both missed six games at the same time together. It was a big blow to a defense that really counted on its front four. They also lost Justin Tuck on front the line; he was supposed to be a hammer of the defense.
Any team that starts losing starts pointing fingers at each other, and it can get pretty ugly, and it did in New York. But as you watch Eagles coming back—they faced a lot of adversity, and here they are making it happen at the end of season—you realize it's not that it can't happen. But things spiral out of control in New York a lot faster than in other cities, given that it's a media capital.

GM: Not that the Philly press is easy on its teams.
CD: No, that's the city that booed Santa [USA Today]. But there's slightly less media in Philly, and things seem to get out of hand in New York so quickly and easily.

GM: How would Wellington have dealt with the finger-pointing this season?
CD: I think, if he were alive, he would have tried to talk to some of the stars he had connections with. By all accounts, Tiki Barber and Jeremy Shockey were two players he was fairly close to. If he were in good health, he might have pulled one or both of them to the side and tried to talk some reason to them. But that's the farthest he would go. He might give them some advice, and relate to the situation at hand. He tried to be a good owner.
He would have been more hands-off than people would like, but he would have also had that older man's patience to sit there and say, let me throw some small bit of advice out. It would have been much more in a fatherly tone, especially later in his life.

GM: Was Wellington involved in acquiring Eli Manning in 2004?



Wellington Mara

Courtesy New York Giants

Wellington Mara
CD: They certainly had his blessing and his input. Eli seems like the type of player that Wellington would like: conservative, not brash, level-headed, and from a family with a good football tradition. I don't think there would have been any downside in Wellington's eyes.

GM: Did you ever meet Wellington?
CD: No, I never did. I certainly have talked to a number of people who knew him. But I never met him, unfortunately.

GM: Did you start working on the book before he died?
CD: No. I got a call from someone over at Triumph Books, and he had been given my name by two different sports editors in New York who said, if you're going to do this, you should call Carlo, because he's a fanatic about the Giants. And truth be told, I would have written it for free. To me, it was a labor of love.
I wasn't interested in doing a rip-and-read, where you read a bunch of articles, and put together a 256-page quickie. I went through 1,200 articles, I interviewed folks, I read through 250 books—I took time off out of my professional career so I could dedicate the time to do a real biography. If I was going to do it, I wanted to do it right.

GM: Were you able to speak to his children?
CD: A lot of his family chose not to participate. I had contacted his son John Mara, and went back and forth with him a few times, but he didn't talk to me. He didn't say this, but I'm assuming Wellington's death was still a little too close to them. But I was able to talk to other people.

GM: The Maras tend to be private in general, right?
CD: They have been an intensely private family from the word go. This is a family that has been incredibly influential in the city of New York and in professional sports for almost a century. It's one of those families that has had this immense power and reach, and yet remains so far outside the New York media circus. And that was something that Wellington did pick up from his father and especially his brother. He's not one of those people who bought a football team to get his face on the back of a New York newspaper.
And that's been a Mara trait all along.

GM: Has there been continuity of style between Wellington and the current owners, since his death?
CD: Oh, absolutely. From everything I've been able to read and talk to folks about, John Mara is a slightly more modern version of his father. He is very much the product of Wellington Mara and Jack Mara, who was Wellington's older brother. John very much fits into the mold of the Mara brothers.
And the family that the Maras sold half the team to in 1991, the Tisches, are very much in that same mold. They are all people who are incredibly wealthy and incredibly powerful, and yet are not out there to make headlines because they bought a football team. They are in it because it is something they love to do and want to be involved in, rather than using it as a publicity tool.

Wellington Mara
Courtesy New York Giants
Eli Manning, left, and John Mara after the Giants routed the Redskins in the first game after Wellington Mara's death in 2005.
GM: Have you heard from the Maras, or other people with the Giants, about your book?

CD: I know people I talked to have talked to the Maras, and I know they're not against the book. I don't think they've found anything that was objectionable. I think I wrote a very honest biography of Mr. Mara. I put in the good and the bad.

GM: Did Wellington ever play football?
CD: Wellington never played, but he grew up with football on the brain. He was the ballboy for the New York Giants at the age of nine. His brother was the guy who has the fourth-down marker. Before each game, the two of them were setting up chairs and getting the Polo Grounds ready for games. Wellington grew up completely obsessed with football.
Jack Mara had gone to Fordham Law School and passed the New York bar. He had assumed the presidency of the team for many years. It was always the plan that Wellington would also go to law school. He was a very smart, efficient student. But after he got out of college, he said he would work for the team for a couple of years and then go to law school. After 12 years, his father said, I guess it's safe to say you're not going to law school.
Even in college, he was already recruiting professional players. He was going to sign "Tuffy" Leemans. Wellington had sent Tuffy a telegram to say he was coming down to sign a contract, but he signed the telegram with his father's name. Wellington showed up, and he was 18 years old. Tuffy, who was 22, said, Who the hell are you?
Wellington in his early years was a cutting-edge guy. At a very early age, he was subscribing to newspapers up and down the country, following college-football teams, and actually scouting players. What he was doing at that time was way ahead of what other people were doing. He was the first guy to film games for coaching purposes. He was the first taking Polaroids for use during the game. When the NFL merged with the AFL, his brother convinced him that they should share revenue with the rest of the league. He's also the guy who says, we're going to band together all of these licenses—we're going to hire somebody. And he and Pete Rozelle go out and hire a genius marketing guy and form NFL Properties. [Wellington] was a visionary, and incredibly important to the league. In the late '60s and early '70s, when the Giants were slumping, one of the big problems was that Wellington was spending most of his time at the league office, making sure the league would survive.

GM: What would he have said to the owners today who are failing to come to an agreement about a new deal to split revenue?
CD: He had that issue with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. At a league meeting, which I cover in the book, Jerry Jones says the whole licensing thing is ridiculous—we should have the ability to do our own licensing. Wellington said, That's great, but if we do that, we should do everything like that. [Jets owner] Leon Hess and I will take back the New York market for television, and you can see what kind of TV contract you can get for the 16th largest media market in the country. All the other owners applauded. It was common sense, that the NFL is what it is because the owners have shared that money.
When the Maras shared their media deals in 1961 and 1962, the Maras were making $150,000 per year from radio and television, which doesn't sound like much. But the Bears and the Los Angeles Rams' radio and TV revenue together didn't equal $150,000. And if you pooled the rest of the league together, their radio and TV money didn't equal $150,000. That sacrifice helped ensure the NFL survived as an enterprise and as a league. It's an incredible advantage the NFL has had for years.

GM: Did Wellington's willingness to split the broadcast revenue hurt the Giants' value? I was surprised to see them ranked only 15th in the league in franchise value, according to Forbes.
CD: I'm never going to tell you Wellington was the best business manager of the Giants. There are a lot of people who felt the Maras should be thankful the Tisches came on board to try to maximize the value of the team. But one thing to remember is that the Giants don't own Giants Stadium; New Jersey does. With the Giants, it's truly what the team's worth, with no stadium value included. And the stadium is from the 1970s, without as many luxury boxes and other modern amenities. That's why the new stadium [expected by 2010 (NFL.com)] will boost how much the team is valued. The current stadium is one of the oldest stadiums in football at this point.

GM: How was the adjustment for you, from being a publisher to being a writer?
CD: At one point you're the publisher and you're directing everything. And the next minute you're a writer and you have to take direction from somebody else. You can offer opinions, but you have to realize that you're not the coach on this one. Someone else is. I get a little bit more leeway because I am a publishing executive, and I have had a certain amount of success. But in the end I'm just another writer, and I have to do what they tell me to.

Related on the web

•Wellington Mara's obituary on the Giants' official site.

Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.







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Article by Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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