TAMPA, Fla. When the NFL was just getting going in the ‘20s, teams would do almost anything to call attention to themselves. One year, for instance, the New York Giants had a game coming up against the Los Angeles Buccaneers, whose passer, Brick Muller, was renowned for his long throws. His best effort had been measured at 72 yards no small feat with the fat ball they were using back then.
To promote the contest, the Giants decided, tongue in cheek, to break Muller’s “record.” So they had Lynn Bomar, a big, strong end, stand on top of a building, 324 feet above the ground, and throw a pass to back Hinkey Haines, waiting in a park below. On Bomar’s first attempt, the ball “hit the sidewalk and burst,” the New York Times reported. Another heave arrived with such force that it knocked Haines over. Finally, on the fifth try, Hinkey latched onto the pigskin and clutched it to his bosom. Lynn Bomar had completed the longest pass in football history and the Giants had gotten the publicity they were seeking.
Wellington Mara was only 10 when Lynn Bomar and Hinkey Haines made news. His father, Tim, had bought the Giants a year earlier for take your pick $500 or $2,500. Tim Mara had never seen a pro football game before; he was a curly-haired Irishman with a brogue who had made most of his money as a legal bookie. “The Giants were founded on brute strength and ignorance,” Tim liked to say. “The players supplied the strength, and I supplied the ignorance.”
That first season, the club was bleeding red ink. New York didn’t seem too enthusiastic about the pro game. But then the Chicago Bears signed Red Grange, the most famous player of the day, and Tim arranged for them to play at the Polo Grounds in early December. To his astonishment, more than 70,000 fans showed up to see the Redhead in the flesh.
“I looked out the window an hour before game time and saw ladders being put up against the lower section of the bleachers on Eighth Avenue,” Tim once said. “Then kids began pouring over the wall like ants. For every one the ushers caught, a dozen more made it into the crowd.”
The proceeds from the game enabled the Giants to make a profit that season. And while there were some tough times after that rival leagues, the Depression, World War II the Grange Game convinced Tim that pro football was here to stay. Soon enough, his sons Jack and Wellington became involved in club affairs. Jack, a Fordham Law School grad, took over the business side of things, and Wellington made himself useful in all kinds of ways.
He was still in his teens, an undergrad at Fordham, when he approached his father in the fall of 1935 and said he had to make a trip to Washington, D.C. “There’s a running back down there we could really use,” he explained. “His name is Tuffy Leemans, and he plays for George Washington University.” So he went down and talked to Leemans players had to be sold on the idea of playing pro ball in those days and the Giants later drafted him. The rest, as they say, is history. Tuffy led the league in rushing as a rookie and went on to a Hall of Fame career.
Wellington loved the game every aspect of it. One season he shot the Giants’ game films on a movie camera his parents had given him for Christmas. During the famous sudden-death title game against the Colts in ‘58, he was up in the press box taking pictures of the action with a Polaroid and tossing the photos down to the bench in a weighted sock. (One of them revealed a weakness in the Colts’ pass coverage that the Giants were able to exploit for a touchdown.)
Often, he would take calisthenics with the team, maybe even catch a few passes from Harry Newman, Ed Danowski or Leemans. What interested him more than anything, though, was the scouting, the personnel work turning over rocks and finding football players. By the time he was 23, he was putting together the league’s master draft list and doing a bang-up job for the most part. Of course, there was that time he left the name of an Arizona fullback, a real sleeper, off the list. The Giants planned to pick him in the first round, you see, and Wellington didn’t want to tip off the other clubs about him.
Anyway, here we are, all these years later, and Wellington Mara’s Giants are in the Super Bowl. Actually, the team isn’t entirely his; he owns half, and Robert Tisch (who bought the shares that used to belong to Wellington’s late brother John) owns the other half. But the Mara influence is readily apparent. The Giants’ philosophy is still one of “brute strength,” of running the football and playing defense and hitting the other guy in the mouth.
It was partly because of Mara that Mike Pope left the Redskins’ coaching staff and joined the Giants this season. “I knew Wellington Mara would give us every opportunity to win,” he says. “Dan Snyder has given Washington every chance financially, but Wellington has been in this thing long enough to know that you hire people and let them do their jobs.”
Wellington is 84 now, but “he comes to the office every day,” general manager Ernie Accorsi says. “He sits in on our draft meetings in the spring when we go over every senior. He takes out his pencil and takes notes. It’s a joy to watch.
“I try not to badger him about the old days, but I can’t help it. I’ll see something on ‘This Day in Sports’ [on ESPN Classic], and I’ll just have to ask him about it. Well has total recall.”
He can tell you about Nello Falaschi going cleats-first into the wedge on a kickoff and Glenn Campbell wearing boxing headgear instead of a helmet and Shipwreck Kelly catching a punt and punting the ball right back. He can tell you about the Grange Game and the Sneakers Game (1934) and the attempt to fix the ‘46 title game. He can tell you about the Staten Island Stapletons and the Providence Steam Roller and the Brooklyn Football Dodgers.
“He is the National Football League,” says Art Modell, his close friend his close friend, that is, except for about three hours Sunday, when Modell’s Baltimore Ravens do battle with the Giants. “He voted to divide the TV revenue [equally among the teams, when it meant taking money out of his own pocket]. He always voted for the good of the league. That’s his legacy.”
A lot of people wanted to interview Mara this week, but he respectfully declined. “He doesn’t like to do that sort of thing,” a club spokesman said. “He prefers the focus to be on the players, not him.”
It’s comforting to know that some things in the NFL don’t change. For Wellington Mara, it has always been about the players, it has always been about the game.