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Wellington Mara, 89; N.Y. Giants Owner Was NFL's 'Heart and Soul'

October 26, 2005|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

Wellington Mara, the owner of the New York Giants whose decision to support revenue sharing helped pave the way for the success of the National Football League, died Tuesday. He was 89.

Mara, the oldest NFL owner and the patriarch of one of New York's most influential families, died of cancer at his home in Rye, N.Y., less than a week after returning from the hospital.

NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue called him the "heart and soul" of the league and "a man of deep conviction who stood as a beacon of integrity."

Mara made perhaps his most significant contribution to the league in the early 1960s, when he and his brother Jack, owners of the richest team in the biggest market, agreed to a revenue-sharing plan that allowed franchises from smaller markets such as Pittsburgh and Green Bay to compete on equal financial footing.

The plan was devised by the late Pete Rozelle, then league commissioner, and Art Modell, then owner of the Cleveland Browns and chairman of the league's broadcast committee, which negotiated all the big-money TV deals.

Revenue sharing would happen only if Rozelle and Modell could get approval from owners Dan Reeves of the Los Angeles Rams, George Halas of the Chicago Bears and the Mara brothers. Eventually, they agreed to the plan.

"Wellington was a visionary, but he was also aware that he had the largest market in the league," Modell said from his Baltimore home. "He knew if he'd come in, the others would follow."

Mara became a fixture with the Giants when his father, Tim, and a partner, Billy Gibson, paid $500 for a franchise in the fledgling NFL in 1925. Mara worked his way up through the ranks of the Giant organization, going from ball boy to scout to executive. He and his brother ran the team until Jack's death in 1965.

Tim Mara was a charter member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963, and Wellington joined him in 1997.

When Jack's son, also named Tim, took over his late father's share of the franchise, he and Wellington clashed over how to run the team. The feud grew so heated that the two sat in adjacent owners' suites, separated by Venetian blinds. When the Giants won Super Bowls in 1987 and 1991, the two threw separate victory parties.

Wellington Mara, who answered to "Well" and "Duke," -- as in the Duke of Wellington -- was a regular not only at the games but also at almost every practice. His nickname also found a lasting niche. For years, the NFL's official football was called "the Duke," after Mara.

He had final say on all the team's football decisions, although he was never viewed as a meddlesome owner or a micro-manager. He stayed involved in the operation of the team for almost 80 years.

Mara often related his recollections of Dec. 7, 1941, when the Giants were playing host to the Washington Redskins at the Polo Grounds in Manhattan.

"The Redskins were giving us a hard time, and I was wrapped up in the game," Mara said in a 1997 interview.

"The public address announcer kept telling General So-and-So or Commander So-and-So to report to Governor's Island or Washington immediately.

"I finally turned to our chaplain and asked, 'What the heck is going on here?'

"He said, 'Didn't you hear? They've bombed Pearl Harbor.'

"I said, 'Pearl Harbor? Who is Pearl Harbor?' "

Mara soon learned about World War II firsthand, serving in the Navy for three years, his only years out of football.

In 1991, the Giants became the sole NFL team with two equal ownership partners when Tim Mara, suffering from terminal cancer, sold half the franchise to Robert Tisch, who had built the Loews hotel empire. Tisch, 76, was diagnosed with a brain tumor last year and has handed over many of his responsibilities to his son, Steve, an Oscar-winning producer who lives in L.A.

The younger Tisch and John Mara, Wellington's oldest son, have spent the last year working in tandem, with Mara handling day-to-day operations and Tisch working on negotiations for a new stadium (the Giants play at the Meadowlands in New Jersey).

Always in the background, however, was Wellington Mara, easygoing and approachable.

"After games, you'd walk into the locker room, and he'd be standing right there to shake your hand, win or lose," running back Tiki Barber said. Coach Tom Coughlin informed his players of Mara's condition Sunday before the Giants played host to Denver. New York staged a dramatic comeback, winning when quarterback Eli Manning threw a touchdown pass to Amani Toomer with five seconds to play. In the locker room after the game, the players chanted, "Duke! Duke! Duke!" in honor of Mara.

Manning later said he had been told by one of Mara's grandsons that the owner awakened in time to see the winning play, then smiled and went back to sleep.

"Even though he was the owner, he was like a player," former Giant Harry Carson said. "After every game, he was the first one to come into the locker room. After a win, you'd see a big, broad smile on his face and [he would] congratulate every player. After a loss, he'd come around and tell the players to hold their heads up. He was one of us."

Mara, a native of New York City, is survived by his wife, Ann; 11 children; and 40 grandchildren. Three of his sons, John, Chris and Frank, are Giant executives.

An NFL owners' meeting scheduled for today and Thursday in Kansas City was postponed indefinitely.

The Giants announced that a public wake would be held today and Thursday at Campbell Funeral Home in Manhattan, with a funeral Mass on Friday at St. Patrick's Cathedral.

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