Understudies become stars in Giants' off-Broadway hit

It would hardly be a stretch of the imagination to state that many New York Giants season ticket holders also attend Broadway shows along Manhattan's Great White Way.

And, it's also likely that many of those same theatre patrons have been disappointed a time or two to hear the announcement just before the overture that the production's ailing star performer won't be appearing and will be replaced by an understudy.

Although that play or musical soldiers on well enough, it just isn't quite the same without the marquee performer in front of the footlights.

Last Sunday, the "road company" of the Defending World Champions was thrust into similar circumstances, but no Giants fan watching the game beamed in from Arizona would have dreamed of asking for a box office refund. Big Blue's backups embraced the spotlight and put on what showbiz trade newspapers would describe as "boffo performances."

Their efforts truly made a difference. Before the game even began, everybody knew that jumbo running back and leading rusher Brandon Jacobs would be in street clothes. Just minutes into the first quarter, he was joined by ailing receiver Plaxico Burress. Facing a vastly improved, fired-up Arizona Cardinals team and an energetic crowd, it would have been understandable if the Giants had flubbed their lines and forgotten their cues.

But New York's reserves did not let that happen. They not only filled in, but excelled far beyond anyone's expectations. Substituting for Jacobs, Derrick Ward scored a touchdown and made several key runs late in the game to sustain Giants scoring drives. The Giants' starting fullback also took on some of Jacobs' responsibilities in the passing game. Madison Hedgecock's name sounds like the admissions committee chairman of a blueblood country club, but the 6-3, 266-pound dynamo more resembles the bouncer at a roadhouse blues joint. Last Sunday, he was neither, playing instead the unlikely role of go-to receiver.

Hedgecock scored the first touchdown of his four-year NFL career with a nifty move into the end zone early in the second half, a score that widened a precarious lead. After crossing the goal line, the big guy embellished his performance by pantomiming a man in a rowboat. Minutes later he explained to his teammates his "motivation" for that act.

"I'm rowing a boat to Hawaii," Hedgecock disclosed, a not-so-subtle hint to eligible voters that he wouldn't mind being the NFC's starting fullback in next February's Pro Bowl. His performance against the Cardinals certainly won't hurt his chances.

But last week's best performance was clearly turned in by Domenik Hixon. After Burress limped to the sidelines, Hixon took his spot at wide receiver and caught a team-high six receptions. But Hixon's heroics didn't end there. Continuing his "day job" as kick returner extraordinaire, Hixon ran consecutive kickoffs back for 83 and 68 yards and finished the game with 201 total return yards. He even made a nice open-field tackle covering another kick on special teams. Small wonder Giants announcer Bob Papa declared Hixon the game MVP at the end of his radio broadcast.

Eventually, the Giants should be back at full strength as they continue their playoff run. But it must be comforting for coach Tom Coughlin to know that his supporting cast can craft such winning and bravura performances. It's the kind of versatility an NFL contender needs to get to the biggest stage of all -- Super Bowl Sunday.

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