One of the first football player names I ever knew was that of Ralph Baker. His picture was on one of those stand-up fundraising cards you used to see at cash registers — you know, with slots where you could stick a quarter for charity. I don’t recall the cause with which Ralph Baker aligned himself, but there he was, on my barber’s counter when I was six years old, urging me to give what I could to fight whatever it was that needed quelling.
No, I don’t remember what disease Ralph Baker was against, but I do remember that he was identified as Ralph Baker of the Super Bowl Champion New York Jets. And I remember even more that once I was seven, and the Kansas City Chiefs had won the most recent Super Bowl, that Leo my barber didn’t replace the Ralph Baker fundraising card…and that for a long time it sat there on his counter, soliciting change via the visage of a Super Bowl Champion.
I don’t know much more about Ralph Baker than what I remember seeing of him at the barber’s, but I was intrigued that the thing sat on the counter at George’s Madison Avenue (even if there was no Madison Avenue in Long Beach) for years without amendment or correction. The Chiefs won Super Bowl IV, the Colts Super Bowl V, the Cowboys Super Bowl VI…but Ralph Baker was always a Super Bowl Champion New York Jet. The Jets, as we know, have yet to win another Super Bowl, but Ralph Baker and his teammates will always be the champions of Super Bowl III.
That’s how it works. They can’t take that away from you. Sunday night, before Geico SportsNite, SNY ran one of those quickie promo spots in which a prominent athlete reminds you what channel you’re watching. It was Justin Tuck, who introduced himself as being from “the Super Bowl Champion New York Giants”. Seconds later, SportsNite came on to analyze why Justin Tuck might want to do a second take.
But Tuck and his teammates, like the fabulous Baker boys of exactly forty years ago today, are still champions. I don’t mean the Giants played like champions in succumbing to the Eagles Sunday. They didn’t. They played horribly. They deserved to lose and now they are no longer defending Super Bowl champions. But Justin and the Giants, at least those attached to the organization as of February 3, 2008, will still get to call themselves Super Bowl Champions for the rest of their lives. Nobody’s going to amend or correct Tuck’s promo spot just as nobody made Ralph Baker do a second take after December 20, 1969, the bitter Shea day when the Jets lost their AFL divisional playoff game to the Chiefs and concluded their title defense the way most title defenses end: without continuation.
In watching SNY recap the Giants’ swampy Sunday, I was concerned about how bad Eli Manning looked. He looked as bad as he did prior to the 2007 playoffs. Wow, I thought, was last year’s postseason the aberration? Was today more indicative of what his career is going to be? Then I stopped myself in that thought. Even if Eli never matches his run through the Bucs, the Cowboys, the Packers and the Patriots, so what? He had that. He won a championship. SNY noted yesterday was the third time in four years that the Giants were knocked out in the first round of the playoffs. So what? I thought again. In the one year that didn’t happen, the Giants won the Super Bowl. (Never mind that making of playoffs four straight years is pretty good.)
That’s all it takes in a given career or era. You win it once and you’re set. From a practical standpoint, the player and the team can’t conduct themselves with that knowledge top of mind. Every year is a new year just like every game is a new game. The 2008 Giants are disappointed, perhaps devastated today, and that’s reasonable. That’s their job. Yet it should reveal itself a temporary condition. Down the road, Manning and Tuck and Pierce and Jacobs and Coughlin (who undoubtedly would fine such talk) will be Super Bowl Champion New York Giants first and foremost. The years when they didn’t win won’t completely go away, but the year they did win is what will be remembered ahead of everything else. They sucked yesterday, but they’re golden for eternity.
It had been many moons since I watched a team for which I root semi-dramatically lay down its crown and scepter, because none of the teams for which I root had held either for the longest time prior to February 3, 2008. It made me sad, initially, to realize my favorite football team was no longer the Super Bowl champion of record. It hadn’t been that big a deal to me when they were en route a year ago, but after it happened, something clicked. For months, no matter what else was going on, I’d think of the Giants gutting it out in Green Bay and Glendale, and it made me warm all over. I’d been easing off from professional football since probably the day after January 27, 1991, the previous time the Giants had become Super Bowl Champions. I must have decided nothing in that realm would ever feel as fulfilling again, so football began to matter less and less to me.
But then last January and February…and the Giants breathing smoke in that bitter cold…and hermetically sealed in the desert…and riding in cars on Lower Broadway…to realize that was all officially in the past as of yesterday afternoon saddened me for a little while yesterday. I liked being a fan of the defending champions. It didn’t make me watch their regular season any more closely than I’d watched the dozen preceding it, but it gave me that warmth. Not heat, not hubris, just warmth that a team that had been a part of my life, if not an overwhelming part of it for almost a generation, had reached the heights. They’ll sell anybody with cash championship merchandise. I bought mine with pride.
My Size XLII t-shirts still say they’re the Super Bowl Champion New York Giants. And they always will.