November 21, 2013 – In the midst of the many celebrations for Mariano Rivera this summer in Major League Baseball stadiums, I had a conversation with my closest friend, which resulted in another great honor for the Yankees great closer.
On a chilly afternoon in my backyard last spring, Matthew Shauger — who is the New York Giants assistant director of pro personnel and who has been my friend since we were both in third grade — and I began to discuss the possibility of the Giants honoring Rivera. In that conversation, our minds quickly raced toward the idea of Rivera serving as an honorary captain for Big Blue.
A few days later, Shauger asked the appropriate people in the Giants front office about the possibility of that happening. Don Sperling, who is a VP and executive producer of game entertainment with the Giants immediately embraced the idea and extended a formal invitation to the closer. With great appreciation, Rivera accepted.
On October 21, I had the privilege of traveling to MetLife Stadium with Rivera and his family for the Giants Monday Night Football game against the Minnesota Vikings.
Upon our arrival, Rivera was greeted in the owners’ suite by Giants president and chief operating officer John Mara.
“We wanted someone to give us some positive energy,” said Mara, whose family has been part of the team’s ownership group since its inception in 1925. “Mariano is such a New York sports icon, such a revered figure, and one of the greatest Yankees of all time. He is the type of player you dream about having on your team, because he is a quality individual off the field as well a great clutch performer on it. For all those reasons, we thought it would be great to honor him.”
After that visit, we headed to the field to watch pre-game warm-ups, and Rivera spent time with several gridiron greats including Giants head coach Tom Coughlin, former defensive end Michael Strahan and Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young.
One exchange that stood out above the others took place when all-time great wide receiver Jerry Rice approached Rivera (see photo below).
“I’ve won four Super Bowls,” Rice said as he greeted Rivera. “But getting to meet you is one of the greatest moments in my life.”
For me, those words really put Rivera’s greatness in perspective. Like Rivera, it’s fair to say that Rice is one of the few athletes who is unanimously regarded as the best to ever play his position. Therefore, the fact that Rice’s brief meeting with Rivera meant that much to the former San Francisco 49er’s star illustrates that Rivera is truly one of the most legendary sportsman in history.
“Mariano had a tremendous work ethic and an even greater love of the game,” Rice said to me after sharing a few moments with the closer. “Playing baseball wasn’t just a job for Mariano. He wanted to go to the ballpark everyday, and he wanted to improve every time he took the mound. He did so much for the game, and I really admire him for that.”
As the teams exited the field following their pregame warm-ups, we were escorted to the tunnel outside the Giants locker room. From there, we watched as Big Blue took the field (see photo below).
“Being so close to those guys as they got ready to play a game was something I will always remember,” Rivera said. “The atmosphere around an NFL team before a game is a lot different than it is in baseball. It’s pretty intense.”
A few minutes after the teams assembled on their respective sidelines, the Giants played a video tribute to Rivera. Then, the voice of the late Bob Sheppard — who in addition to serving as the Yankees public address announcer for 56 years, also held the position with the Giants for five decades — came over the sound system.
“Coming in to pitch for the Yankees, No. 42, Mariano Rivera, No. 42,” Sheppard announced in a recording while Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” played.
As Rivera was introduced, the sellout crowd at MetLife Stadium gave the closer a standing ovation, and he began to walk out of the tunnel toward midfield (see photo below). But within seconds, Rivera’s slow pace turned to a jog.
“Because of the energy and excitement at that moment, I couldn’t help but to start jogging,” Rivera said. “There was too much adrenaline rushing through my body to walk out there so calmly.”
When he got to the 50-yard line, Rivera — who was donning a jersey featuring Giants quarterback Eli Manning’s name and number — was met by the team’s captains.
Rivera stood between Manning and Vikings captain Adrian Peterson as the referee tossed a commemorative coin in the air (see photo below). The Vikings won the coin toss, and they elected to receive the football at the start of the game.
“I’m very grateful to the New York Giants organization for this tribute,” Rivera said. “To have my family here with me made the experience even more special.”
Whether Rivera’s honorary captaincy played a role in the game’s outcome is anyone’s guess, but with the great closer on hand, the 0-6 Giants captured their first victory of the season.
“Mariano certainly charged up the crowd,” said Mara, who watched the game with Rivera. “And, our players and coaches just kept it going. It was a great night and a big win for us.”
The entire story of Rivera’s night at MetLife Stadium will be published in the 2013 New Era Pinstripe Bowl Official Game Program and in the 2014 New York Yankees Official Yearbook.
–Alfred Santasiere III