John Mendenhall, a defensive tackle for the Giants for eight seasons in the 1970s, died on Friday after a long illness in his hometown of Cullen, Louisiana, his family announced on Monday. He was 72.
Though he played during an era that saw little success for the Giants – after the team went 8-6 his rookie year of 1972 he never again played on a winning team and won just 29 games in his next seven seasons – Mendenhall was part of a strong defensive front that included George Martin, Troy Archer and Jack Gregory as well as linebackers Harry Carson, Brad Van Pelt and Brian Kelly.
"If you talk to people who know the era well, we always had an outstanding defense," Martin recalled. "Our overall lack of performance wasn't due to the defense. As a matter of fact, we'd shut teams out sometimes and tell the offense as they were going on the field, 'Hey, you guys go out and hold them,' because they were three-and-out most of the time… (Players such as Mendenhall) are an indication as to how well that defense played and how it kept us in games."
A 6-1, 255-pounder, Mendenhall was a third-round draft choice out of Grambling. He was selected to the All-NFL Rookie Team in 1972. He played in 101 games with 99 starts for the Giants. He left the Giants following the 1979 season and played a final year for the Lions.
"He had that tough exterior and attitude and he played with great determination," Martin said. "He didn't mind telling you if you didn't play up to his standards – not the coach's standards, not the general manager's standards. He'd get in your face in a heartbeat. When we switched over to a 4-3 defense, he and I tag teamed that left side together. It was a lot of fun, because John knew how to play defense and he played it with tenacity."
Mendenhall is survived by his wife, Stephanie, and daughters Zandra and Kendra. The family will host a memorial service at the Memorial Funeral Home in Cullen on Friday, March 5.