-Published in the Bennington Banner on August 2, 2008-
LIKE THE REST OF HIS TEAM, TYREE STILL FIGHTS FOR RESPECT
ALBANY, N.Y. — No player epitomizes the New York Giants’ current predicament more perfectly than David Tyree.
At this point in a career like his, the fear and doubt surrounding status in training camp should have dissipated, his accomplishments allowed to stand alone. But even after a Super Bowl performance for the ages, the one-time Pro Bowler can’t seem to shake the “hustler” and “gamer” tags that were hung around his neck when he entered the league as a sixth-round draft pick out of Syracuse in 2003. As a team, the Giants find themselves in similar territory; the reigning Super Bowl champs are widely regarded as a team that simply got hot at the right time, and aren’t even favored to win the NFC East, much less repeat.
Whether any of that’s really true is immaterial, according to Tyree.
“I think it’s a great thing,” Tyree said Wednesday after practice at SUNY Albany. “I think it’s a great predicament to be in. You’ve got a lot of teams that feel like they got robbed last year. But the main thing when you line up against a team, you (try to) win the football game, and that’s all we’re about. It doesn’t matter how many games you won during the regular season. We want to put ourselves in a position to win the championship.”
It’s unlikely the Giants would have become NFL champions without him, and yet all signs point to the fact that Tyree – who in April underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee – will enter his sixth season with no starting job, left to make his mark as he has every year – in the stuntman trenches of special teams.
He realizes that every season for the rest of his career may be marked by deep uncertainty in late summer, and the plain truth remains that even if Tyree were completely healthy, his previous contributions wouldn’t have given him any kind of advantage heading into camp. While he has become an overnight celebrity, twice grabbing the cover of Sports Illustrated this year – both times for his now-legendary “helmet catch” – he is once again starting from scratch within the only organization he’s ever played for.
He has just one request as you consider all the details: Don’t dare feel sorry for David Tyree.
“God has done mighty things in my life, and I’d be a fool to overlook it,” he said.
Tyree is as eager to talk theology as he is about the minutiae of evading blocks on the kickoff unit to get downfield for a tackle. Down time in his dorm room at Albany is usually spent reading the Bible. The instant recognition he now enjoys for his three-catch, one-touchdown performance in the Giants’ 17-14 upset of the Patriots has him smiling even wider these days, only not for the reasons you might expect.
“It’s given me a great opportunity to share my faith, ministry, and the things I do off the field,” Tyree said. “Those are the things that have more impact and more prestige in my eyes than anything.”
A devout Christian, Tyree founded a ministry project called Next in Line in 2006 with his wife, Leilah. Next in Line organizes field trips for New Jersey teenagers, helping to provide the direction Tyree himself lacked as a youth. He battled drugs and alcohol throughout his life and said his wakeup call came in a jail cell in 2004 when he was busted for possessing a half-pound of marijuana.
Tyree’s message isn’t bombastic, but seeks a way to make Jesus somewhat cooler for the younger generation. At a Christian rally called the Greater New York Battle Cry, held shortly after the Super Bowl, Tyree was greeted with thunderous applause when he walked on stage wearing a baseball cap that said “Jesus” and a custom hockey jersey bearing the same name scrawled across the front.
When talking about the Super Bowl, Tyree told the crowd, “It wasn’t about me. I deflect every moment. … Only by the grace of God. I didn’t do anything to deserve it.”
Patriot fans might agree. Tyree caught only four passes during the regular season, and wasn’t known for much besides his ability to down punts inside the five-yard line. A late-season injury to wide receiver Sinorice Moss gave Tyree some extra reps, and a chance to show his mettle on the grandest stage of all.
Tyree now hopes to be physically ready for the team’s first regular-season contest on Sept. 4, and possibly the final preseason game. But until he can get on the field to prove to coaches that he hasn’t lost a step, his job remains up in the air. Giants head coach Tom Coughlin seemed careful to show gratitude for all that Tyree has done, but didn’t dispute that with the exception of Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer, there’s uncertainty surrounding the wide receiver position.
“Every time we’ve asked him to play and perform, he’s done the job,” Coughlin said of Tyree on Wednesday. “The sooner he gets back on the field, the sooner he gets evaluated and everything. His role has always been there to be taken.”
This, of course, wasn’t news to Tyree.
“Unfortunately, I would love to say that (the Super Bowl) made even more of a statement,” he said. “Most of the coaches know that I can go out there and compete. I think more of the issue is they have interest in other players and want to see other players there.”
Perhaps part of Tyree’s deferential attitude when talking about his own situation comes from the fact that even in college, he was willing to do whatever was necessary to get on the field. As a two-year starter for the Orangemen, Tyree finished with 1,214 receiving yards and six touchdowns, marks easily overshadowed by his uncanny ability as a special teams player. In two years, the six-foot, 206-pound native of Montclair, N.J. racked up 50 special teams tackles, including 36 solo, with a forced fumble, a punt return for a touchdown and five blocked kicks.
That proficiency carried over to the NFL, and in 2005 he was named to the Pro Bowl as the NFC’s special teams player with 21 tackles. The Super Bowl aside, his main value to the team hasn’t been as a wide receiver, a fact he seems perfectly comfortable with.
“My aim when I came into the league wasn’t to say I was the greatest receiver of all time,” Tyree said. “I just want to be a great football player.”
Proving he’s still a great football player will have to wait at least another two weeks, until team doctors give him the go-ahead. When he returns, competition will be fierce as receivers including Moss, Steve Smith and third-round pick Mario Manningham will have had close to a month of evaluation under their belts. In the meantime, Tyree stands aside, observes practice and chats with Burress, who has remained sidelined throughout camp with a sore ankle that has bothered him since 2007.
Burress will undoubtedly reclaim his mantle as the Giants’ go-to offensive weapon. Tyree will try to get on the field in any capacity that he can manage.
“I’m not really a wide receiver,” Tyree said. “I’m a football player, and that just happens to be the position I play. I felt like if you give me a little bit of time and tell me to go play safety … I’d get that down, too.”
For the Giants as a whole, Tyree says the lessons of 2007 – in which an inconsistent team gelled just in time to overcome a seemingly unstoppable Goliath – provide all the guidance they need to overcome any doubts about 2008.
“That’s the beauty of the game of football,” he said. “It’s about selflessness and it’s about team to the point where if you can lay aside your agenda just that much for the good of this team, then you’ll find more beauty in it.”
Appeared in the Bennington Banner, Saturday, August 2, 2008