91 Minutes With David Tyree

Photo: Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos/New York Magazine

During a prayer session the night before Super Bowl XLII six years ago, a teammate’s mother, a pastor, told New York Giants wide receiver David Tyree: “David, the Lord’s gonna put spiritual glue on your hands. God’s gonna give you the big play.” The following night, Tyree made what seemed like a game-­saving reception—a go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. Right then, he believed the prophecy had come true.

Tyree recalls the game, serenely looking across the desk in an office at the National Football League’s midtown headquarters, where he now works off the field in the Player Engagement department. Around six feet tall, he has kind brown eyes and a tie knotted in a big full Windsor. The only unusual part of his body is his hands; each seems as big as an open hardcover book.

It is less than two weeks before this year’s Super Bowl, which will be played at the Giants’ and Jets’ MetLife Stadium, across the Hudson River. The list of people who have caught touchdown passes in a Super Bowl is a decidedly exclusive one. Yet on the subject of his dramatic score, Tyree sighs and remarks matter-of-factly, “No one cares about it.”

They care about what happened later that game. Like Chumbawamba and ­Nixon’s dog Checkers, Tyree is extremely famous because of exactly one thing. With a minute left in the game, ten minutes after his score, he made the “helmet catch,” pinning a pass from a manically scrambling Eli Manning to his helmet and securing the ball in both hands as he fell. It gave the Giants a crucial first down on a drive that culminated in the game-­winning touchdown against the 18-0 New England Patriots. The helmet now sits in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“The helmet was my salvation and my saving grace,” Tyree says in a calming baritone. But by “saving grace,” he doesn’t mean what you think he means: “I mean that the helmet covers up my face so everybody doesn’t know what I look like.” These days, when people ask him to pose with his right hand affixing an imaginary football to his head, he likes to say, “Man, I’ve done it already. It’s your turn.” As for the catch itself? “I never imagined the year-to-year relevance, to the point that people still enjoy hearing about it,” he muses. “At this point, I’m like: ‘Next year, don’t do no more stories!’ ” He looks at his guest, who is doing just such a story, and adds: “Nah, I’m kidding!”

The catch probably casts an especially long shadow because it was the last of his otherwise quiet career. He missed all of the following season with a knee injury, signed with the Baltimore Ravens as a special-teams player, and then he retired. “Those two years after the catch kinda prepared me for retirement,” he says.

That preparation helped him in his current job, which consists, in no small part, of reaching out to ex-players—“NFL Legends,” he calls them, lapsing into corporate jargon—many of whose falls came more suddenly and from greater heights. It’s helpful, also, that he got his Behind the Music stuff out of the way early—by his second season in the pros, he had been a functional alcoholic and a guest of the New Jersey correctional system following a marijuana bust, and then a changed man who got sober, “got rid of all my little side chicks,” and committed to his wife, Leilah, with whom he has seven children.

“We live a life of invincibility while we’re playing,” he explains. “ ’Cause when the contract is right and the money’s coming in, you don’t feel like you have need.” Then retirement hits, he adds, and “our world begins to unravel.” One of the ex-players he keeps in touch with is his former teammate Plaxico Burress, the star receiver—he caught Super Bowl XLII’s game-winner—who was jailed in 2009 after he shot himself in the leg with a concealed handgun in a nightclub. Burress is now past his prime but conceivably still interested in a roster spot. “He’s doing well” is all Tyree will say. “Talked to him the other day.”

Tyree’s life now is closer to an accountant’s than to Burress’s. Recovering from what may have been a cold, he is drinking both Tazo tea from a Starbucks cup and water with lemon slices. He has a small cubicle in a room full of many more, with a mousepad shaped like the NFL shield and a poof-ball Syracuse stocking hat sitting to the side. He is now the kind of NFL company man who acknowledges that some former players suffer symptoms related to concussions but defends the league—“What was known and what was unknown, who knows?”—and stands by the NFL’s controversial choice to stage the first outdoor cold-climate Super Bowl this year, insisting, “Football’s an all-weather sport.”

Really, the biggest difference between him and the spokeswoman who helped set up our interview, whose cubicle is a few feet away from his, is that the spokeswoman doesn’t have a life-size photograph of herself making one of the most famous catches in history affixed to the wall next to the elevator bank. In the picture, Tyree looks as though he is sitting on the thigh of Patriots safety Rodney Harrison, who is fighting to dislodge the ball. “Nice little seat there,” he laughs. Walking by the mural is “probably the weirdest part of each day.”

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91 Minutes With David Tyree