John Mara plans to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his father’s birth with a visit Sunday to Wellington Mara’s grave at the Gates of Heaven Cemetery in Elmsford, New York. It will be a private moment for the Giants’ president and co-owner to honor his father, whose spirit and impact remain a central part of the team. Particularly for the man who presides over the franchise his father passed down.
“It’s going to be 11 years that he’s gone this October, and that’s hard for me to believe,” John Mara told Newsday during an interview this past week. “You realize how quickly time goes by. It’s always emotional when I stop by the cemetery, which I do from time to time, particularly with my mother there with him. It’s hard not to be emotional about that. But I’m always thankful I had two parents like that. Everything I have in this world, I owe to them.”
Wellington Mara was born in Rochester on Aug. 14, 1916, the son of Elizabeth and Tim Mara, who founded the Giants in 1925 and built them into one of the NFL’s flagship franchises. Wellington was a ball boy that first year and never left the team, eventually taking over when his father died in 1958 and presiding over the team until his death on Oct. 25, 2005.
Wellington saw the league blossom from a fledgling conglomeration of teams into a multibillion-dollar industry that is far and away the most popular sport in the country. His work in scouting and the draft, as well as the use of game film to carefully study opponents, were ahead of their time, and the Giants enjoyed some of their most successful days during the early years of Mara’s tenure.
One of Mara’s greatest contributions to the NFL’s eventual success was his insistence to fellow owners in the early 1960s that all teams share revenue equally, thereby ensuring that a small-market franchise such as Green Bay could thrive as much as teams in New York, Chicago and other big-city markets.
FROM FATHER TO SON
Wellington imparted many of the lessons he learned from his own father to the oldest of his 11 children, John, who spent most of his young life preparing to run the franchise along with his father and then take over the top leadership role after Wellington’s passing.
“I think probably the No. 1 lesson I learned from him is how you try to treat other people,” Mara said. “You try to treat people the way you’d want to be treated. Treat everybody with dignity and respect. I’m not sure I’ve always succeeded, particularly with some members of the media, but that would have to be No. 1.”
As it turned out, John learned as much from his father’s dealings with failure as he did from the Giants’ halcyon days of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
“The most important thing I learned from him was trying to hire the right people and then giving them all the resources to do the job. Never be afraid to question them and [make them] defend their position,” John said. “One of his big things was the belief in a very strong general manager who had the final say always. The GM takes the long-term view, and the head coach thinks about the next game, and there’s a lot of truth to that. He made mistakes, too, as I have, and I try to learn from some of those things.”
TWO THAT GOT AWAY
John saw firsthand how major decisions, especially ones that didn’t turn out well, could have a profound effect on the franchise. Mara recalls the departures of Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry, who would go on to Hall of Fame careers in Green Bay and Dallas, respectively, as particularly difficult.
“I told my father that if he had just kept one of those two — either one — I’d have had a much happier childhood,” said John, who was born in 1954. “I told him that jokingly several times over the years. It was mostly jokingly, but not 100 percent. For me, from the age of 10 through the age of 27, it was a dark, dark period, particularly in the 1970s, when we were at the bottom of the league and had lost all respect as a franchise. That was a tough period to go through.”
It was excruciating for Giants fans, who lived through some of the worst football performances of any era, capped by the play that symbolized the frustration. Near the end of a game against the Eagles at Giants Stadium on Nov. 19, 1978, rather than take a knee, Joe Pisarcik botched a handoff to Larry Csonka, and the loose ball was scooped up by Eagles defensive back Herman Edwards, who ran 26 yards for the winning touchdown.
With the franchise in disarray and Wellington not on speaking terms with his nephew, Tim, the team’s other co-owner, the two eventually agreed to hire George Young as general manager, signaling a turnaround that eventually resulted in the Giants’ first Super Bowl victory after the 1986 season.
As Wellington accepted the Super Bowl trophy from commissioner Pete Rozelle in the Giants’ locker room, John stood nearby with tears in his eyes.
“It was really a great moment,” he said. “I just thought about all those miserable years in the ’70s and late ’60s, and it was nice to see him in that situation and then see him get into the Hall of Fame [in 1997].”
There was a painful lesson to be learned from that era of failure, and it was not lost on John.
“He sometimes let sentiment get in the way of making rational, cold-hearted business decisions,” he said.
It was one of the factors John weighed in his decision to part ways with two-time Super Bowl-winning coach Tom Coughlin after last year’s 6-10 season.
The decision was not easy, particularly because Coughlin was Wellington’s final coaching hire in 2004 and led the Giants to Super Bowl championships after the 2007 and 2011 seasons. The Giants had failed to make the playoffs in Coughlin’s final four seasons.
“Although it’s painful sometimes, you have to make informed, cold-hearted decisions for the franchise’s long-term best interests,” he said.
Wellington is never far from his son’s thoughts.
“I think about him multiple times every day,” John said. “He was the biggest influence on my life, and I think about how he would have handled situations, if what I’m doing is right and something he would approve of. Am I doing what he asked me to do, what he expected me to do?”
On the 100th anniversary of his birth — and after two Super Bowl championships since his passing — Wellington no doubt would approve of his son’s performance.
Happy birthday to the Giants’ patriarch, whose legacy lives on and whose life lessons continue to guide the franchise to which he devoted his life.