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McConkey rose to occasion in Super Bowl XXI

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Mike Beacom

msbeacom@yahoo.com
Contributing writer

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Posted Jan. 29, 2012 @ 3:45 p.m. ET
By Mike Beacom

Certain things define a "Bill Parcells guy." He has to be tough and disciplined; maybe a little crazy. Often it's someone with facial hair and an out-of-place nose. A guy who could win with the odds stacked against him.

"His kind of guy wanted to know where and when," former Giants WR Phil McConkey says. "If you told his guys the game was being played on the Brooklyn Bridge at midnight against the Jersey City Destroyers, they'd all show up, ready to go."

McConkey was a Parcells guy. When he entered the league in 1984, he hadn't played a down of football in five years because of his Navy service. "Twenty-seven years old, 160 pounds ... I had no chance. I had no right to even be invited to training camp."

Who else could love such a prospect but Parcells?

Twenty-five years since New York's win in Super Bowl XXI, it's guys like McConkey who stand out from that team. It was a roster peppered with unwanted types, says McConkey. "A lot of those guys played with a chip on their shoulder, even L.T. (Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor)."

New York stormed through the postseason like perhaps no other club has — a 49-3 win over one of the era's most dominant offenses (San Francisco), and a shutout in the NFC championship game over a Joe Gibbs-coached Redskins team that had scored 40 or more points three times that season.

And yet somehow, on a team as good as the 1986 Giants, a guy like McConkey mattered. He wasn't Phil Simms' top target in the passing game (McConkey caught just two touchdowns during his six-year career), nor was he the game's most dazzling return man. Just solid. Reliable.

"The thing about Parcells ... the last guy on the roster is made to feel as important as the top three or four guys on the team. A lot of people don't get that, but I think that's why we became champions."

In Pasadena, the Giants dismantled Denver in the second half of a 39-20 stomping. McConkey walked away as a hero — he returned a punt 25 yards to set up a third-quarter field goal, caught a 44-yard flea-flicker pass on New York's next possession to set up the game's pivotal score, and was the recipient of a Mark Bavaro-tipped pass in the endzone.

Thing is, McConkey almost missed the greatest thrill ride of his life.

After having spent two seasons with the team, he was a casualty of New York's final training-camp cuts. Green Bay picked him up, and on the drive in, McConkey couldn't help but notice the statue of a nondescript No. 88 outside the team's Hall of Fame. Later, the Packers issued the one-time undrafted free agent the only receiver number they had left — No. 88. The Packers' beat writers all gathered around the new guy's locker after practice. "Man, this place is unbelievable!" he told them. "Can you imagine getting cut by one team and picked up off waivers from another and by the time you get here, they've got a statue of you in front of the museum?"

A wise guy, too — no wonder Parcells struck a deal to get McConkey back after the fourth game of that season. The Giants had been having ball-security issues in the return game and were becoming thin at receiver. Packers head coach Forrest Gregg delivered the news. A minute later, the phone in Gregg's office rang; it was Parcells. "McConkey, those Packers drive a hard bargain. I had to throw in a couple clipboards and a blocking dummy to get you back."

New York won its last nine games to close out a 14-2 regular season. In a Monday-night win against San Francisco — the game in which Bavaro carried several 49ers defenders on his back — McConkey broke his thumb. Season-ending surgery wasn't an option. "I'm catching punts the rest of the week in practice with a full cast on my arm and I dropped a punt one day," he says. "Parcells screamed at me as if I had just fumbled away the Super Bowl. The guy was unrelenting."

Parcells was also encouraging. McConkey regularly waved his white towel in front of the home crowd — a rallying cry for the team. Heading into the title game, Parcells showed McConkey a diagram of where New York's fans would be sitting in the Rose Bowl. "Get that little white towel going and make it feel like Giants Stadium," the coach told him.

Trailing 10-9 at halftime, Parcells was "as calm as any time I've ever seen him," McConkey says. Then the Giants walked back onto the field and scored 17 points in the third quarter to put the game away. McConkey's memorable touchdown catch came early in the fourth. "Growing up in Buffalo, I saw a lot of snowflakes and caught a lot of them in my mouth as a little boy," he says. "I remember the ball was tumbling end over end to the ground, like a snowflake falling from the sky." Just in time, he rescued it from the Rose Bowl turf.

Moments later, several players stood alongside McConkey on the bench, waving their white towels. Giants for life, all of them.

"The way that team was formed and the leadership we had in the locker room forged a lifelong bond," McConkey says. "I never had a brother in life, but I feel like I have dozens of brothers because I was a member of that team."

 

Mike Beacom is a football writer whose work has appeared in numerous print and online sources. He is also the author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Football" (Alpha, 2010).

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