I learned on Tuesday morning, June 8th, that Jim Fassel had passed away, a victim of a heart attack in a Las Vegas hospital at age 71. Fassel was head coach of the New York Football Giants from 1997 to 2004 and took the team to Super Bowl XXXV in 2001. He was a good man.
The Giants entered the 2000 season as an also ran in the NFC’s Eastern Division. Despite these negative predictions, Big Blue got off to a great start that continued into the middle of the season. The team achieved a record of 6-2 in their first eight games that included two victories against the Philadelphia Eagles, the team the experts picked to win their division.
But our team hit a crossroad when the Maramen were outclassed by the high-powered Rams, 38 to 24. Okay, the Giants got their butts kicked but, at least the kicking came at the hands of a nationally recognized power-house team already labeled, “The greatest team on turf.”
On November 19, the following Sunday, we had a 1 PM home game against the Detroit Lions on a beautiful autumn afternoon with sunny skies and temperatures in the low 50s. We enjoyed another excellent tailgate before making our way to Section 107 of Giants Stadium with the highest expectations of enjoying a Giants victory.
Instead, after a scoreless first quarter, the Lions rattled off 21 points during the second quarter and added seven more at the beginning of the second half giving themselves a 28-point lead. While the Giants did manage to score 21 points of their own, the Lions added three more making the final total: Giants 21- Detroit Lions 31.
Expectations for Big Blue to make the playoffs diminished as our team’s record bottomed out at 7-4 and this debacle led to all sorts of abuse; booing, cursing and the worst of all, the team’s hometown crowd deserting them and leaving the stadium early. The joint was almost empty with ten-minutes remaining on the game clock. Radio, television and the Monday morning newspapers all cried doom as they stirred the pot. Radicals demanded Coach Fassel be sacked.
Bill Pennington, then The New York Times beat reporter remembered what happened next. “It was the day before Thanksgiving and Giants Coach Jim Fassel who looked like a librarian and generally behaved like the winsome air-conditioning salesman he once was, had a wild, restless look in his eye.
“His Giants, two weeks earlier a shoo-in for the NFL playoffs, had been booed off the field after two consecutive ugly home losses. Their postseason prospects were now dim, a mutiny was brewing in the locker room and management was agitated.
“Fassel stepped to the rostrum for what was usually a pro forma news conference and barked:”
YOU GOT THE LASER; YOU CAN PUT IT RIGHT HERE, ON MY CHEST. I’LL TAKE THE RESPONSIBILITY. GET OFF MY COACHES. GET OFF THE PLAYERS’ BACKS. I’M RAISING THE STAKES RIGHT NOW. THIS IS A POKER GAME I’M SHOVING MY CHIPS TO THE MIDDLE OF THE TABLE. I’M RAISING THE ANTE, ANYBODY WANTS IN, GET IN, ANYBODY WANTS OUT, GET OUT.
THIS TEAM IS GOING TO THE PLAYOFFS, OK?
Pennington recalled what he wrote the next day: “Jim Fassel, the Mister Rogers of football coaches, tore off his cardigan today, tied it around his head and joined the Hells’ Angels.”
This scribe further reported: “Two days later, standing with Fassel in the bowels of old Giants Stadium, I wondered what had gotten into the guy nicknamed Gentleman Jim. ‘If this doesn’t work out, you’re going to get fired.’ I said.”
“I was going to get fired before I did this,”’ he answered, “Now we’ll see what happens.”
Hokey, you bet; nonsensical, yeah, a bit; chock-a-block full of cliques, absolutely…but professional athletes are simple folk who just happen to make an inordinate amount of money for playing little boy’s games. Like little boys, those men in blue we called Maramen, played their last five games of the season with a vengeance winning victories over all to clinch the NFC East. The final game against the Jacksonville Jaguars was played at Giant Stadium on a Saturday afternoon on December 13, 2000.
The following day’s NYT’s Sports Sunday front page included a photo of yours truly holding up an oaktag sign that demanded: BELIEVE IT, as I celebrated their 30 to 10, victory over the Redskins.
Fassel’s run continued through the playoffs. The Giants beat the Eagles for the third time to advance to the NFC Championship Game where they annihilated the favored Minnesota Vikings 41-0.
Our luck ran out two weeks later as my son and I watched our Giants lose Super Bowl XXXV to the Baltimore Ravens, in Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium, 34 to 7… and so it goes.
Please permit me to allow Bill Pennington to conclude this piece.
“Almost ten years ago, I had breakfast with Fassel and asked him if he saved his notes from his now famous Thanksgiving eve speech from 2000. You know, the stuff about the poker chips, raising the stakes and having no fear?”
“I never wrote anything down,” he said, laughing. “I just knew I had to put myself in the crosshairs – and nobody else. I had to cause a kind of distraction, so I just winged it.”
Well played, Coach Jim Fassel and RIP