This past football season was the first in which my father, hobbled by rheumatoid arthritis and assorted other ailments, did not feel up to accompanying me to Giants Stadium to watch our team. I’d long been reluctant to bring my son, now eight years old, to Giants games, worrying that he was too young to endure the five-hours-plus ritual (counting the commute) and the sight of middle-aged men screaming themselves raw, which I myself had found terrifying at age ten, sitting by my dad’s side at the stadium in 1976, the year it opened. (It didn’t help that the Giants went 3-11 that year.)
But I had the tickets, and so, it was decided that Father and Son Mark II would try out a 2007 home game: the October 21 matchup with the San Francisco 49ers. In anticipation, I went to a sporting-goods store to pick out a size-small Giants jersey for my boy. In the racks, it looked like this: SHOCKEY, SHOCKEY, MANNING, SHOCKEY, STRAHAN, TOOMER, SHOCKEY, BURRESS, MANNING, UMENYIORA, SHOCKEY, SHOCKEY, SHOCKEY.
I chose the lone BURRESS jersey. Part of the reason was that Plaxico Burress, the team’s big-threat wide receiver, is my favorite Giant to watch when he’s on the field and healthy: those long, spidery limbs, those suction-cup grabs he makes, his ferocious downfield blocking, the fearless stiff-arms he delivers when running after the catch.
I also find endearing what lots of other people have cited as evidence of Burress’s (now fading) reputation as a head case: his refusal to participate in May minicamps if they overlap with Mother’s Day. Burress lost his mother, Vicki, a diabetic, in 2002, when she was only 49 years old. His May no-shows aren’t a con; they’re an unabashed display of tenderness that you don’t see every day in the NFL.
But the other reason I chose Plax’s jersey is because it has long nagged at me that the jersey most commonly worn by fans at Giants games is tight end Jeremy Shockey’s. This isn’t a knock on Shockey, who’s also lots of fun to watch when he’s healthy. What bugs me is that Shockey’s name is disproportionately represented on the backs of Giants fans because he’s… white. Let’s face it, the majority of the fans in the stadium are white, and they more readily identify with the volatile, charismatic white guy with the American flag and bald eagle tattooed on his bicep.
It’s not a new phenomenon. Before Shockey, in the late 1990s, it was Jason Sehorn, the Giants’ model-handsome white cornerback, who most captured the fancy of in-stadium jersey-wearers; this, with defensive end Michael Strahan and linebacker Jessie Armstead in their primes. But why can’t a white kid identify with, or at least proudly wear the number of, a black player?
You can call me out as politically correct for getting my son the BURRESS jersey. But I see it more as socially corrective. My dad, a gregarious car salesman born in 1930, the son of an immigrant from a shtetl, had friends and devoted customers of all races. He wasn’t remotely a hippie-ish dude or a committed social activist, but he instilled in me the idea that you respect everyone equally—and, wherever possible, you schmooze your fellow man until you find common ground with him.
The Giants beat the 49ers in a walkover in that game last October, winning 33-15. It was at that point that the pathology that has afflicted my family for three generations—Giants fandom—infected a fourth generation, and that my son became as obsessed as my father, brother, and me.
My dad died on Saturday evening. My son cried from the very soles of his feet when he heard the news—as had I, along with my mother, sister, and brother, as we’d surrounded my father as he breathed his last.
Sunday night, with the funeral pending the following morning, I simply wasn’t in a football mood. But, needing something to distract us, my son and I turned on the game. When Burress, of all people, caught the winning touchdown pass with 35 seconds remaining, my son let out an exultant scream that was as unfilteredly emotional as the despairing sobs I’d heard from him almost exactly 24 hours earlier. It was by no means curative, but hey–it helped.
Five days earlier, my father, ever the comforter, must have sensed how stricken I was when I walked into his hospital room and saw how bad he looked, how labored his breathing was. Right away, he pulled off his oxygen mask and, in a voice hoarsened by the pneumonia that would kill him, said “The Giants are gonna win!”
Now, personally, I think it’s wrong, bordering on sacrilegious, to think that God has any bearing on the outcome of football games. But I was nevertheless amused and gratified to receive an e-mail from a friend late Sunday night that read, “Your dad must have some incredible pull.”
NOTE: Since some people have asked... donations in memory of my father, the great Seymour Kamp, may be made to the Poile Zedek Cemetery Restoration Fund; the Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Foundation; and the Cancer Institute of New Jersey.