Phil Simms was getting ready to practice with a few teammates during an offseason workout at Giants Stadium when coach Dan Reeves walked up to the quarterback and asked if Simms would come to his office.
"Sure," Simms told him.
The 38-year-old quarterback was looking forward to getting back out on the field to resume his comeback from offseason shoulder surgery after the Giants' 11-5 season in 1993, when Simms had one of his best seasons and was voted to the Pro Bowl. He was anxious to build on that playoff season and entertained thoughts of getting to the Super Bowl. His arm felt fine, even after surgery to repair a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder.
"I was throwing good," Simms recalled. "I remember I was throwing big, high, long passes down the field, and I remember saying, 'This feels good.' I was throwing 57 yards and not even airing it out. I remember George Henshaw coming out and he's saying, 'Hey, man, you're throwing good.' "
So Simms didn't really think anything of Reeves' request to come to his office.
"I thought he was going to ask me to autograph some footballs for charity," Simms said.
But when Simms walked into the coach's office, Reeves asked him to sit down. Simms immediately knew that something was wrong, and Reeves soon delivered the stunning news.
" 'Phil, I hate to tell you this, but we're going to release you today,' " Simms recalled Reeves telling him.
Simms sat there with his mouth open.
"I remember going, 'What?' " Simms said. "I had no clue. I was 1,000-percent blindsided. Hell, I knew everything that was going on with the Giants, and I had no clue. I kind of laughed and I said to Dan, 'You're serious?' He said, 'Yes. I'm really sorry. I hate doing this. You played great last year, but I have to release you.' I said, 'Well, I guess that's it. I enjoyed playing for you, Dan. It was a lot of fun.' "
It will be 20 years ago Sunday that Simms heard the news that would send shock waves through the organization and end the career of the first Giants quarterback to win a Super Bowl. It was an unforgettable day in Giants history, one that stunned not only Simms but every Giants fan who had seen him battle his way through injuries and inconsistent play early in his career to win the Super Bowl after a transcendent 1986 season.
Simms was the most valuable player in the Giants' 39-20 win over the Broncos in Super Bowl XXI at the Rose Bowl. He started the first 14 games in 1990 and was 11-3, but he missed the Super Bowl at the end of the season because of a broken foot. Then he languished behind Jeff Hostetler during the Ray Handley years in 1991-92 before enjoying a renaissance in 1993 in Reeves' first season.
The Giants went to the playoffs -- they would have had home-field advantage if not for a season-ending 16-13 loss to the Cowboys at Giants Stadium -- and beat the Vikings in the wild-card round before losing to the 49ers the following week. Simms played all 16 games and was voted to the Pro Bowl in one of his best seasons.
He thought the Giants had a legitimate shot at winning it all the next season.
"I remember talking to Dan Reeves during the offseason, saying, 'Gosh, Dan, we are so close, it's unbelievable,' " Simms said. "We get one or two guys, we might be the best team."
Simms would never get the chance to find out. General manager George Young, leery of going with Simms because the NFL had instituted the salary cap for the first time in 1994, decided to cast his lot with Dave Brown, a first-round pick out of Duke in the 1992 supplemental draft who turned out to be a major disappointment.
"The risk was too great for the uncertainty," Young said at a news conference announcing Simms' release.
Team president and co-owner Wellington Mara was moved to tears when he bade farewell to Simms. He strongly disagreed with Young about the move, imploring him to change his mind. But Young, who had final say over the roster, refused.
"That almost caused an irreparable rift between George and my father," current Giants president John Mara said. "I don't know if my father ever got over that. Standing there at that press conference and driving home with him, that was a difficult period of time. George wanted to see Dave Brown and Kent Graham play, and we had given up a No. 1 pick for Dave Brown. It wasn't an easy time."
Simms still wanted to play and said he had offers from three teams, although he declined to name them.
"It was tempting," Simms said. "I would say things to my wife [Diana] and she'd say, 'We'll visit you on weekends.' I said, man, I'm not doing that living-in-the-hotel thing and have my family come visit me on home game weekends. I've seen too many players who did that, and it never worked out for your family and it never worked out footballwise."
Simms eventually got an offer to work for ESPN, and worked the '94 season as an NFL analyst. He nearly returned a year later when the Browns expressed interest. He visited Cleveland, coached by former Giants defensive coordinator Bill Belichick, but declined to sign, in part because the Browns were having financial problems and could not structure a contract Simms felt comfortable with.
"They wanted to offer me the [veteran] minimum [salary] and I went 'Whoa.' I was almost sick to my stomach. I'm not going through all that. I just said, 'I'm going home.' "
Simms remained in television, where he now is one of the country's pre-eminent NFL commentators. The Browns wound up moving to Baltimore the following season.
Belichick, who since has gone on to win three Super Bowl titles as the Patriots' coach, met with Simms not long after the quarterback decided to stay retired after turning down the Browns' offer.
Regarding that chaotic situation, "Bill said, 'Phil, thank God it didn't work out when you came to Cleveland,' " Simms said.
Twenty years later, it all worked out just fine.