Jeff Hostetler remembers seeing Leon Seals coming and then not much of anything else.
It was the second quarter of Super Bowl XXV on Jan. 27, 1991, in Tampa. Seals, the Bills’ 270-pound defensive end, had delivered an epic flattening of Giants quarterback Hostetler, who was starting for only the seventh time in his seven-year career. Everything disappeared then, Hostetler said, and it didn’t come back until he was splayed on the sideline, smelling salts held against his nose.
"And then, all of a sudden, I look up and I see attack helicopters on different ends of the field, hovering," he said. "I could actually see the guns sticking out. And I’m thinking, ‘Wow, look at this.’ And then, boom, it was, ‘Hey, you’re back in,’ and that was it."
It was the culmination of an unlikely ascent for the backup quarterback and an unusual game, even by playoff standards. Hostetler was close to retiring earlier that season for lack of playing opportunities. He became the starting quarterback only when Phil Simms suffered a broken foot in Week 15.
Hostetler experienced three devastating hits during that game, all of which could have potentially ended his day.
And then there were the helicopters.
The United States, embroiled in the Gulf War, was sitting atop a geopolitical crisis. The game itself was played in conditions that might be common now but were nearly unheard of then: metal detectors, heightened security detail and those helicopters buzzing overhead.
Whitney Houston sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" and fans at Tampa Stadium waved tiny American flags. And after the Bills’ Scott Norwood missed a 47-yard field-goal attempt wide right, securing the Giants’ 20-19 victory, there was none of the usual celebration. The Giants went back to the hotel. The Canyon of Heroes in New York City remained silent. There would be no parade with war overseas.
But despite the lack of pomp, it quickly became clear that, for some, that particular big game was even bigger than usual, Leonard Marshall said.
"I replied to some 3,200 pieces of mail," the former Giants defensive lineman said. "I finally got a chance to get to them all in 1995. Sign this trading card. Sign this picture of me and my father. I want to bury my father with this picture. Sign this for me because I want my great-grandson to know who you were."
Many, he said, came from soldiers fighting in the war, and all of them reminded him that the 1990 season was singular in the annals of Giants history. That’s not erased by the fact that 30 years later, they still can’t celebrate.
This was the year the team was supposed to get back together and fete the victory properly. Then COVID-19 happened and all the celebrations were moved online, another minor casualty of a pandemic that already has stolen so much.
And the players, now in their 50s and 60s, were forced to do what they’ve been doing all along: reminiscing over group chats and finding joy in the memories that neither war nor disease can jeopardize.
"When you win a championship, it bonds you for life," former cornerback Mark Collins said. Not getting to celebrate now, "it is what it is. It’s out of your control. I still call the guys. I track them on social media . . . All of the guys, we’re still good. You want to get together as a team but sometimes you just can’t. I just hope at some point, as long as we’re still alive, we can get together as a team and play some golf and smoke cigars and talk like we did in the past."
Added fellow cornerback Everson Walls: "It actually did break my heart [not to celebrate back then]. It broke my heart. It did. But you know, I really never think about it much because I’m so proud of the guys that I played with. They took me in. It was immediate acceptance."
There were plenty of storylines following the Giants that season, even without the backdrop of the war. Walls, for one, was trying to prove himself to coach Bill Parcells after being waived by the Cowboys, reportedly for smiling with opposing players after a loss. Marshall’s relationship with Parcells was nearly antagonistic; Marshall sat out of training camp with a long contract holdout and his coach responded by not starting him for the first 10 games of the season. They had won the first 11 games that season and then lost three of four, ending with Simms’ injury.
"After the [losses], everybody jumped off the bandwagon and I was the weak link," Hostetler said. "We were never going to be able to do it. Then, six weeks later, we’re standing on the podium. I’m with my kids. We had just won it."
And, of course, there was the memory of a brutal 1989 campaign, losing the NFC divisional playoff game when Jim Everett’s 30-yard touchdown pass found Flipper Anderson a little over a minute into overtime.
"I was [ticked] off for the next five months and not wanting to watch the video and not wanting to talk to anyone and having to leave New Jersey, because I had shame," said Marshall, who was drafted by the Giants in 1983. "I had major shame because I was a guy who took major pride in this place. I mean, I came up here when I was 20 years old. Playing football for the Giants was my life’s work."
And so, 1990 came with a renewed sense of purpose. Yes, not all the players liked Parcells all that much, but his hard-nosed style was respected. The team itself bonded easily, Marshall said, with players often meeting for dinner and drinks. And then there was defensive coordinator Bill Belichick, whom Walls, Marshall and Collins all credit with solidifying a defense that ultimately would win them the Super Bowl.
"You know what was great about that team," Parcells said. "If we had a seven- or 10-point lead, we weren’t losing. They could play close games better than any team I ever had. They could just play. They would not crack. They just had that thing, both sides of the ball. I mean, offensively, when Phil got hurt, we were patient. We were being careful all the time, and yet they understood how we had to play."
The defense that season allowed a league-low 13.1 points per game. They were masters of ball control, boasted three Pro Bowlers and managed to turn aside eventual Hall of Fame quarterbacks Joe Montana, Steve Young and Jim Kelly in their final two postseason games. Marshall’s hit on Montana in the NFC Championship Game cracked a rib, broke his hand and led to Montana not playing another game for nearly two years.
So when Simms went down, no one thought it was the end.
"That week we lost Phil, each one of us — I know I did, Carl Banks, Leonard, Everson, all of those guys — in a subtle way, Jeff, we’ve got you," Collins said. "We’ve got confidence in you. Don’t worry about it. Do your thing . . . You guys just score us 20 points. Just give us 20 points and we’ll do the rest."
Hostetler turned out to be far from a downgrade. He believed he could be what the Giants needed, and the first-string defense, which had spent the season playing against him in practice, agreed.
"Phil was a great quarterback," Marshall said. "He was a foxhole type of guy — tough, gritty. And what he did, he did well. But Jeff was a different dimension. Jeff could move on the run. He could boogie a little bit."
He’d also been waiting a long, long time for his chance. After being drafted in 1984, Hostetler was on the brink of retirement at 29. Simms was the franchise quarterback and, without free agency, it looked as if Hostetler’s career was done. The situation soured his relationship with Parcells, though Parcells said that’s now long been repaired.
"He’d been there a long time. It wasn’t like he was a rookie," Parcells said. "I remember walking into the meeting room when we were starting the playoffs. We had gotten in the playoffs and no team had ever won with their backup quarterback. So I’m going to put the 'quietus' on this. I'm going to shut that [expletive] down. I said to them, ‘I just want you guys to know something. We got Chicago [in the divisional round of the playoffs]. We’re not going to not win the championship because of Jeff Hostetler. It'll be because of some of you other [expletives].’ I was expressing confidence about Hostetler, which, generally, I had."
The quarterback repaid the favor. Hostetler’s ability to keep plays alive was all the offense needed to thrive. Parcells put ball control at a premium, and the Giants — and their quarterback — needed to be especially adept in that department, especially against the Bills. This was a team whose lightning, no-huddle offense had steamrolled them into the playoffs. The Giants responded by setting a record for time of possession in that Super Bowl — 40:33.
Every player has a different memory of that game. Marshall remembers the moments before Norwood lined up the kick that would determine the Super Bowl winner. His parents and ex-wife were sitting behind him and he went up to his father and promised him a trip to Disney and a new car if Norwood missed the kick. It turned out to be an expensive promise.
Hostetler kept his own company, making peace with whatever would happen next.
"I was by myself at the end of our side of the field and I just knelt down," he said. "I thanked the Lord for the opportunity to play. I gave everything I could. I was just going to kneel there and watch whatever happened. I can still hear the thump of the football."
"I can still see that thing sailing to the right. I just stayed there and watched."
"That was an immediate relief for me," he said. "I mean, I cried. To realize that you made all the right moves and you can look back and see that quickly, look back and say this was meant for me, no one can take it. I earned it.
"When you see that it’s done, all that comes over you is the relief and release. When you’re playing during the season, especially for that team, we knew how special it was and I realized how special it was."
All three players interviewed say the same thing: It probably was the most fun they’d ever had.
"It’s not something that happens every year — not just with my story," Walls said. "I think if you look at that entire team. I don’t care how much success Parcells or Belichick or [linebackers coach] Al Groh have had since then, I believe that was the best fun, the most fun that they ever had. I think that did more for our ego, all of us, than probably any moment in all our careers."
Added Collins: "We had so much fun. We had a great time . . . There’s nothing like being a champion."
With Bob Glauber