John McVay still has nightmares about what happened on Nov. 17, 1978.
It soon will be 40 years since that infamous day at Giants Stadium, yet time has dulled neither the memory nor the anguish for the former Giants head coach whose life was forever changed on that awful day.
The Giants would never be the same, either.
McVay was on the Giants’ sideline, looking on as his team tried to close out a 17-12 win over the Eagles and break a three-game losing streak. He allowed himself to think that perhaps there would be playoff possibilities down the road.
“We started off that season 5-3, and I said, ‘Thank God we turned the corner,’ ” McVay, now 86, told Newsday from his home in the Sacramento suburb of Granite Bay, California. “And then we had that godawful fumble.”
McVay looked on in horror as the events unfolded in what felt like slow motion. With less than 30 seconds to play and the Eagles out of timeouts, all the Giants needed was to have quarterback Joe Pisarcik kneel down after taking the snap, and the game would be over.
Inexplicably, center Jim Clack snapped the ball to avoid a delay-of-game penalty that would have stopped the clock. Pisarcik seemed surprised when the snap was made, and it nicked a fingernail on his right hand. He held on and turned to hand off to Larry Csonka, but the ball caromed off Csonka’s hip and fell to the turf. Eagles cornerback Herman Edwards scooped it up and ran it back 26 yards for the touchdown, stunning the crowd and giving the Eagles a 19-17 win.
McVay stood on the sideline, numbed by what had just happened. His offensive coordinator, Bob Gibson, was fired the next day. Before the Giants’ next home game, some fans burned their tickets in the parking lot. Late in the game, a plane flew over the stadium with a banner that read, “15 Years of Lousy Football. We’ve Had Enough.”
After the season was over, McVay and longtime general manager Andy Robustelli, the Giants’ Hall of Fame defensive end, were fired.
“Sometimes it’s just a flash that will wake me up,” McVay said. “You’ve got the game won and, Lord have mercy, the quarterback handed the ball back to the other team on a fumble, and that was it. Bingo.”
To this day, McVay has never ascribed blame to anyone for what happened. Gibson has since died, and McVay will not forswear his former assistant.
“After it happened,” he said, “as a group of coaches and players, we all decided to put it behind us and not talk about it. I’m trying to do that as we speak.”
McVay eventually went on to the next chapter of his career, producing a remarkable run as a front-office executive with the 49ers and working alongside coach Bill Walsh to build one of the NFL’s great dynasties. McVay was Walsh’s chief front-office lieutenant in guiding the 49ers to a run of five Super Bowl championships from 1981-94.
And now, nearly 40 years after that calamitous afternoon, McVay hopes to experience a sense of closure as he watches his grandson, Rams head coach Sean McVay, stand on the sideline for a game against the Giants.
There is no more Giants Stadium. The physical structure was destroyed and replaced by MetLife Stadium, just a few hundred yards away. But the psychological scars are still there for the elder McVay, and perhaps watching his grandson continue his remarkable first-year performance might assuage some of his own anguish.
“It used to be that Sean was proud of me because I was in the NFL, and now we’ve switched everything around,” John McVay said. “Now it’s me being proud of him. He’s a great young man, and as most grandpas feel about their grandkids, that’s not unusual. But he’s just always been a super young man. He was a student, not only of the game, but a student of the pillars of the game. He was a pupil of Bill Walsh, read his books. I used to feed him the books.”
Like his grandfather before him, Sean McVay played football at Miami of Ohio. John was a center and Sean a receiver. Coaching was in the young man’s blood from the start, and he quickly rose through the ranks, working as an assistant with the Buccaneers and then working his way up the Redskins’ coaching chain as tight ends coach and offensive coordinator before getting the Rams’ job. McVay, 31, became the youngest head coach in modern NFL history when he was hired at 30.
He already has done remarkable work in turning around a habitually underperforming team; at 5-2, the Rams are tied for first place in the NFC West. McVay’s coaching has been instrumental as second-year quarterback Jared Goff has become one of the league’s most improved players this season.
“When he first got the job, in my infinite wisdom, I told him, ‘You know, this is going to take three years to get this thing back on its feet,’ ” John McVay said. “He made his grandpa a liar.”
Even though Sean McVay wasn’t yet born when his grandfather coached the Giants, the wounds of the day in 1978 still resonate. Sean was asked earlier this year if he’d ever met Edwards, and he said he hadn’t. What would he say if he ever does meet the former Eagles defensive back, who eventually became head coach of the Jets and Chiefs and now works as an NFL analyst for ESPN?
“When I do come across coach Edwards, I’m going to say, ‘You know, you’ve caused my family a lot of stress,’ ” McVay said. He smiled when he said it, but there is plenty of truth to that statement.
It’s something Edwards can certainly appreciate.
“I know the pain of something like that happening in the fact that you lose the Super Bowl,” Edwards, who was with the Eagles when they lost Super Bowl XV to the Raiders after the 1980 season, told Newsday. “To this day, I don’t like confetti. When those games are over, the losing teams walk through it, too. I always promised myself after that game that I would never go to another Super Bowl as a player or a coach unless I was in it.”
Edwards had no earthly idea that his fumble return would become such a watershed moment in NFL history, particularly for the Giants. Out of the ashes of that experience, the team eventually was resurrected with the hiring of general manager George Young and later coach Bill Parcells, but “The Fumble” arguably was the lowest point in franchise history.
“We thought the game was over, because they were going to take a knee,” Edwards said. “I was standing across from [running back] Doug Kotar. He was in the wing position. I said, ‘Good game’ and shook his hand. All of a sudden, I see Joe [Pisarcik], and something was weird. He kept looking back at Csonka. There was confusion and lo and behold, the ball’s getting snapped and I see it’s being bobbled. Once it hit Csonka’s hip, I made a beeline for the ball. We’re trained to fall on a fumble, but I said, ‘No way. I’m picking this thing up.’ ”
Edwards ran into McVay several years later when he was in the 49ers’ locker room as a guest of Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott. McVay saw Edwards and said, “Get him out of here.” McVay then smiled and spoke with Edwards.
The significance of the play was never lost on Edwards, who found out from Pisarcik a year after “The Fumble” that the Giants argued in the huddle about running the play and that Pisarcik was warned not to change the call sent in by Gibson.
“When I became a head coach, the last play that we would run on Saturday [the day before the game] was the victory formation,” Edwards said of the quarterback kneel-down that Pisarcik never pulled off. “I used to tell the rookies, ‘You see this formation here? Why do people do this? Google it, because I want to know the answer.’ They come back and say, ‘Coach, that was you? You picked up that ball?’ I said, ‘Yeah, that was me.’ ”
Sean McVay looks forward to the day he meets Edwards and they can talk about an experience so deeply personal to both, even though McVay wasn’t alive to see it.
“I have a lot of respect for Coach Edwards, obviously when he was a player and what he’s done as a coach, and does a great job as a commentator now,” the Rams’ coach said. “But it’s funny how things work out. You just never know and I don’t know if my grandpa would ever admit it, but it worked out as a real blessing to lead him to go to San Francisco and have some success. But I think we’re all products of our experiences and the atmospheres we’re placed in, and I know he has a lot of good memories with his time from the Giants.”
Well, not all good.
All these years later, though, McVay now can watch from his home with pride as Sean lives out his own coaching dreams at the place where Grandpa once worked. Even if his own dreams died on that awful afternoon.
“It’s hard to start reflecting back that long ago, but I do have a soft spot in my heart for the Giants, because they were good to me,” McVay said. “But in this one, I’m pulling for my grandson.”