The last time I saw Wellington Mara (1916-2005) dancing was at my birthday party. He and Ann, married more than 50 years, allowed that we had been good friends for more than 20 years because I held professional football in contempt and never asked them for tickets.
His father, Tim, a legal bookmaker who had never seen a football game, bought the rights to a football team in New York for $500, according to one story. In their first home game, the Giants lost to the Frankford Yellow Jackets. Wellington was 14 when his father gave the team to him and his brother Jack. From the early days at the Polo Grounds, to which my father would take me as to a shrine because it was home to the baseball Giants, the football Giants went on to Yankee Stadium and eventually to the New Jersey Meadowlands, now regularly filling the 76,000-seat Giants Stadium. Wellington became the chief architect of the National Football League. His men were not little men: Gifford, Rote, Robustelli, Brown, and Grier, with Landry and Lombardi among assistant coaches, and even the most raucous revered the dignity of “Duke.” Among his countless philanthropies nothing surpassed his ardor for right-to-life causes. His “Life Athletes” use their star power to instruct young boys at summer camps in chastity and respect for life. Wellington knew me well enough not to wince when on a boat ride I asked one of these, tight end Mark Bavaro, who he was.
If he danced at my party, he mourned at my mother’s funeral, and he must have broken the record for attending baptisms and first communions, as the father of eleven children and grandfather of more than 40. He and Ann attended daily Mass all their lives and raised their children in the Faith. When Christmas approached, his note on the refrigerator, where teenagers are wont to gather, read: “No Confession—No Santa.” The rosary he was buried holding was not decoration: He prayed it constantly each day. At his death the expected bromides poured forth: Wellington was in heaven looking down from God’s skybox, and other formulaic pastiches of solid religion. But the long lines at his wake over two days—and the overflowing cathedral, and stopped traffic in midtown Manhattan—were tributes to a grand man.
Rarely was his serenity ruffled. At the training camp soon after a dismal loss during the 1999 season, half of his players were gone. He did not conceal his contempt for Mario Cuomo’s dissembling on abortion: “The Church has never changed its teaching on the sanctity of human life—it didn’t make up a rule for the convenience of a particular time like a rule at a country club, as the Governor would have us believe.” When the team was doing poorly, a local sportswriter sneered in print: “What can you expect from an Irishman named Wellington, whose father was a bookmaker?” He replied at the next kickoff luncheon: “I’ll tell you what you can expect. You can expect anything he says or writes may be repeated aloud in your own home in front of your own children. You can believe that he was taught to love and respect all mankind, but to fear no man. And you can believe that his abiding ambitions were to pass on to his family the true richness of the inheritance he received from his father, the bookmaker: the knowledge and love and fear of God, and second, to give you a Super Bowl winner.”
I visited him in the hospital as he was dying from cancerous lymph nodes. He was not dancing, but he was smiling and trying to walk. He told his eldest son: “I’ll be there when you get there.” Taken home, a television was wheeled in so he might watch his team for a final time. Playing against Denver, the Giants won on a touchdown pass with five seconds left. The players shouted, “Duke! Duke! Duke!”