Back in March, at the NFL Owners Meetings in Arizona, I did a group interview with Tony Dungy, Lovie Smith, Mike Tomlin and Jerry Reese. We talked about what a watershed few months it had been for African-Americans in pro football with Dungy and Smith coaching against each other in the Super Bowl, Tomlin being hired as head coach in Pittsburgh and Reese assuming the role of general manager with the New York Giants.
At one point, Reese looked around the room which we had decorated with photos of the game's African-American pioneers such as Fritz Pollard, Marion Motley and Jim Brown. He glanced around the table at the three head coaches, then turned to me with a slight smile on his face.
"I can't help wondering 'What am I doing here?'" he said.
We both laughed, but I understood what he was saying. He was not as well known as the three coaches. He had been in the general manager's chair for just two months. He spent the previous 12 years working behind the scenes as a scout and he still was still adjusting to life under the bright lights. But given the results of the 2007 season, I'd say Reese is coping quite well.
While the media has duly noted the coaching of Tom Coughlin and the maturation of quarterback Eli Manning, the steady hand and sound judgments of Reese cannot be overlooked as a factor in the team's success. When you watch the Giants upset Dallas in this playoff edition of "Game of the Week," take note of all the young players who are on the field and making major contributions.
The Giants were hit with a number of injuries this season, but they were able to survive thanks to a talented crop of rookies. There were eight players in Reese's first draft class. All eight made the team. First-round pick Aaron Ross stepped in as a starting cornerback. Second-round selection Steve Smith has given the offense a big lift with his play in the postseason. Fifth-round pick Kevin Boss, a 6-6, 250-pound tight end from Western Oregon, is filling in quite capably for Jeremy Shockey.
The turning point of Sunday's divisional playoff was the touchdown drive just before halftime. The Giants went 71 yards in the final minute to tie the score 14-14, deflating the Cowboys and their home crowd. The big plays were receptions by Smith (22 and 11 yards) and Boss (19 yards) which set up Manning's touchdown pass to Amani Toomer. The fact the Giants had the confidence to go to the rookies on three consecutive plays speaks volumes.
The biggest surprise is Ahmad Bradshaw. Reese took the 5-9, 198-pound running back from Marshall with his final draft pick, the 250th selection overall, and Bradshaw stepped in when Brandon Jacobs was injured. In the playoff win against Tampa Bay, Bradshaw carried the ball 17 times for 66 yards, most of it in the fourth quarter as the Giants secured a 24-14 victory.
When we did the interview last year, Reese talked about what it meant to be the NFL's third African-American general manager, joining Ozzie Newsome in Baltimore and Rick Smith in Houston. He was actually introduced in New York on Martin Luther King Day.
"I got a phone call from Spike Lee," Reese said. "He offered his congratulations and he said, 'I've always been a basketball guy, a Knicks fan. But now I'll be rooting for the Giants.'"
Jerry Reese has given him a team worth rooting for.