A Crushing Loss Ignites a Fan Protest… And a Team Revival
By Walker Joyce
Let’s begin the new year with a bit of state Sports Lore.
Though they’re still called the New York Giants, they’ve been a New Jersey team since they built their home field here in 1976. And even when they played across the Hudson, an enormous block of their fans lived in the Garden State.
After fording the river 42 years ago, the Jints (as many long-time rooters like me call ‘em) have appeared in five Super Bowls, winning four. Hence, they’ve enjoyed the peak of their success here, despite their corporate name remaining an Empire State entity.
Today, in the wake of the worst season in the team’s 92-year history, let’s anticipate the 40th anniversary of the worst—and simultaneously best—moment in the Giants’ legacy.
Local partisans refer to it as The Fumble. Others, especially fans of the Philadelphia Eagles, call it The Miracle of the Meadowlands.
Whatever the label, the events of November 19th, 1978 were seismic.
And I was an eyewitness.
It was another grey, blustery day at Giants Stadium, in the midst of another lousy season. At 5-7, on the heels of a 3-game losing streak, the Giants’ playoff chances were almost gone. Meanwhile, the ascendant Eagles held the mirror image mark of 7-5, with their post-season prospects still very much alive.
And yet, the Jints put on one of their more impressive efforts that afternoon, and led 17-6 heading into the 4th Quarter. The Eagles, whom many had expected to romp, had played a sloppy game, missing an extra point and botching the snap on another. The score was 17-12 late in the last period, and the Giants seemed poised for an improbable win.
When rookie defensive back Odis McKinney notched his first career interception after the two-minute warning, many fans headed for the exits, certain of victory.
But then, as narrator William Conrad used to intone on the TV series, The Fugitive, “Fate moved its huge hand.”
The Giants were running out the clock, which the Eagles—out of time-outs—couldn’t stop. On the presumptive last drive, quarterback “Off Broadway” Joe Pisarcik played possum on the initial play. Then star fullback Larry Csonka plowed up the middle for 11 yards.
The call came in to repeat the play, which fomented a mutiny in the huddle. Several, including Csonka, told Pisarcik to disobey orders and fall on the ball again.
But the QB went ahead with “65 Power Up.” Only this time, the hand-off was muffed. The ball bounced off of Csonka’s hip, and squirted to the ground.
The desperate Eagles had called an all-out blitz, which had all 11 defenders charging into the Giants backfield. This enabled cornerback (and future Jets Head Coach) Herman Edwards to scoop up the football, and score perhaps the most improbable touchdown, and win, in NFL history.
For a brief spell after Edwards crossed the goal line, the stadium sat in a stupor, not really sure what had happened. Then the lull ended, like the delayed pain of a groin kick.
A primal scream let out, plus boos louder than thunder. I recall someone hurling his helmet half-way across the field from the Giant sideline; I’ve always thought it was Harry Carson, the future Hall of Famer.
What my memory is sure of is I stalked out as mad as I’d ever been after a loss—and I’d been through plenty. Indeed, livid fans were now legion.
The next day, the bonehead coach who called the play was fired, but the mob wasn’t appeased. A fellow season subscriber ran an ad in the Star Ledger inviting others to a ticket-burning in the stadium parking lot. It was covered by the national press.
Soon a committee of fans was formed to plan additional protests. A plane towed a banner (and cued a chant) saying “We’ve Had Enough!” Another guy printed thousands of handbills urging a boycott of concessions. And a lawyer threatened a civil suit challenging the team’s pricing and payment policies.
The grass roots movement kept growing—and it produced results.
The Head Coach was also fired, along with several club executives. The league’s commissioner brokered a truce between the bickering owners, coaxing the Maras to accept George Young as General Manager, and that’s when the Giants renaissance took root.
Young hired Ray Perkins to coach, and together they picked Phil Simms to play quarterback. Perkins hired Jersey native Bill Parcells to teach linebackers, soon to include Lawrence Taylor, the greatest defender of all time. Parcells succeeded Perkins, and in 1986 the Jints won their first championship since the days of black and white TV.
NONE of this would have happened without the Fumble, which set all the dominos tumbling. Which is why one of the darkest days in team history became its saving grace.
Today, the club is in similar straights. Will history repeat itself? Perhaps it already has. Fan unrest axed the coach and GM in mid-season. We’ll soon know if the latest rebellion kickstarts a fresh Golden Age.