Journey, not race, defines Giants GM


PHOENIX -- Black didn't make Jerry Reese different in his neighborhood as a child. Red did. The color of blood. The kind that spilled from a pig's throat as he slit it. The kind that gushed from its stomach when it was time to separate the serviceable parts. Shoot it, slice it, shave it, hang it, gut it, move to the next. Life was simple that way.

"I did it all at the slaughterhouse, just running around with that butcher's knife," Reese said this week. "Everything you can imagine."

He didn't dream big then. He didn't imagine great riches or making history as a young boy growing up along the Mississippi River, where small towns are cut from the pages of a Mark Twain novel, where you fall asleep praying the catfish will bite and the crops will remain healthy, where being poor is as much a part of life as breathing.

Funny how things turn out. Reese as a boy played in the fields of Tiptonville, Tenn., a deprived, rural northwest community of 2,500, where the average annual income today is not $20,000. He was happy just to hang around his great-grandfather's slaughterhouse all day, never really thinking beyond the next butchered animal to package or lawn to mow.

On Sunday, in a town called Glendale that also began for farmers, inside a multipurpose stadium not two years old, Reese will look down on a different type of field, one where others will play the most important game of their lives. It's an enormous moment for Reese and the team he helped build.

Color matters now like it did then, only in a different way. When promoted to the general manager's seat for the New York Giants in January 2007, Reese became just the third black in history to hold that position for an NFL club. He accepted the job on Martin Luther King Jr. day, and Reese's hiring was compared by some to Jackie Robinson breaking baseball's color barrier.

And he thought finding a way to beat Dallas meant pressure.

"Sure the (comparisons) were significant," Reese said. "I said back then, this is my time to carry the torch. The guys who suffered, they did the hard work. Right now, this is my time to try and be successful and show people African-Americans can do the job."

He has no choice. It's the world we live in, one that will watch him closer in this position because of his color, that will judge his decisions with a sharper eye, that will allow him a far shorter plank on which to balance his failures. Not that there have been many.

The Giants are here preparing to potentially deny New England a perfect season in Super Bowl XLII, the result of Reese's sharp management and foresight. He drafted well enough that all his selections from April are contributing. He signed free-agent linebacker Kawika Mitchell, whose production has paid his $1 million salary several times over.

Reese didn't crumble from the retirement of Tiki Barber and didn't budge on his approach to Michael Strahan's holdout. He has been fair, stern, consistent.

Journeys like this don't happen. You don't go from a safety at Tennessee-Martin to a graduate assistant at your alma mater to secondary coach to a scout for the New York Giants to director of player personnel to general manager at age 43. Reese wasn't a famous player, didn't have a famous name, owned no famous connections. He was known as Reese. Just Reese.

You don't do any of it without a mother who labored her entire life, first as a seamstress and still as a prison guard at age 66.

You don't do it without a work ethic that tells you that when you are 8 and your father dies, it's time to hold up your end, to go work the slaughterhouse and mow the lawns.

You don't go from nowhere to here without knowing how to put in a strong 15 hours each day.

You don't reach this point without remembering who you are and where you came from and what importance that holds to so many. The torch might shine brightly for Reese today, but he realizes how quickly the flame can vanish.

"This is a show-me business," he said. "You can't go out and win three games each year and expect the African-American community to stand behind you. You have to be successful.

"But you can't even make the stuff up that has happened to me. It's too far-fetched. No one would believe it. We are here at the Super Bowl in my first year as (GM). It could just be beginner's luck. It could be a lot of things."

None more than hard work.

It's one thing that knows no color.

Ed Graney can be reached at 383-4618 or egraney@reviewjournal.com.

 

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