Grandchildren follow in Pop-Pop's footsteps -- Giants a family business since 1925 By TARA SULLIVAN, STAFF WRITER Date: 08-04-2002, Sunday Section: SPORTS Edtion: All Editions.=.Sunday
ALBANY, N.Y. -- Giants ballboy Tim McDonnell is responsible for getting the football to the correct hash mark at the start of every series of this training camp practice. The job is vital to maintaining the pace of the afternoon, so when one ball squirts away, the 19-year-old college student is quick to retrieve.
This is part of a day's work for McDonnell, and clearly, with a ready smile peeking out under the baseball cap covering his blond hair, he savors every moment.
McDonnell and as many as six of his cousins are taking their turn in destiny's lineup, doing what their fathers once did, learning football the way their grandfather once did: from the inside out.
Really, what other job is there for one of Wellington Mara's 37 grandchildren? The Giants' co-owner has populated almost half of this summer's ballboy staff with Tim, his 21-year-old cousin Dan Mara (with whom he shares head ball-boy duties), and a handful of their fellow cousins.
Wellington, who turns 86 on Aug. 14, was 9 years old when his father Tim purchased the Giants franchise to establish a New York entry in the fledgling NFL in 1925. From that point on the unofficial rite of passage into adulthood for the Mara boys has included a few summers carting drinks, hauling helmets, and delivering laundry. No rich kids with a free pass here. Everyone puts in his time.
"It's something anybody would love to do. It's the coolest thing in the world," says McDonnell, the oldest son of Wellington's oldest daughter Mary.
In fact, the only part of the summer ritual that McDonnell dreads is when he has to leave, which comes two weeks earlier than his camp compadres. A wide receiver on the Holy Cross football team, the sophomore-to-be has to return to his own summer practice regimen. For the second straight year, McDonnell will suffer Giants withdrawal, a condition so severe it had him hailing a cab to a nearby sports restaurant last season to catch a game that was blacked out on local television.
"People didn't know why I was cheering so much, but they left me alone," he says.
Such quiet moments are rare in camp, where players often turn to ball boys for errands nobody else can do. They buy CDs, pick up laundry, and in Tim's case, wear an extra baseball cap above his own that belongs to backup quarterback Jason Garrett while Garrett is wearing his helmet.
"The tradition started with me and my brothers, going to camp in Fairfield, C.W. Post, Monmouth, Pace, and then to FDU-Madison," says John Mara, Giants executive vice president and the oldest of Wellington's eight children (the four sons are John, Chris, Stephen, and Frank). "It was definitely a combination of work and fun. Some years we had so many kids there wasn't a lot of work going on. I think we spent more time finding ways to get into trouble."
John is smiling now, the carefree memories of youth creasing across his grown-up face. Adult hindsight is a powerful force, one that puts definition into those simple days of fun.
"You get to have a special relationship with the players, ones we can't have now," says Frank, the Giants' director of promotions. "You're in awe of them and I can see that through the kids now."
Back at Fairfield, when air conditioning hadn't yet caught up to the dorms, John slept in a room with the waiver wire machine, nodding off to the typewriter sounds, but staying ahead of the news. Frank became such close friends with linebacker Brad Van Pelt that as a teenager, he flew across the country for Van Pelt's wedding. Frank played racquetball with quarterback Phil Simms, and now Tim plays video games with Ike Hilliard and Shaun Williams.
According to Frank, Chris was "a little more adventurous." So while the current general manager of the Arena League's Gladiators encourages the baton passing between fathers and sons and uncles and nephews, he doesn't recommend the following: "I guess my best story is about Spider Lockhart [a Giants' defensive back from 1965-75], who was a terrific guy," he says. "He and Willie Williams [a defensive back in 1965 and again from 1967-73] were roommates when camp was at Monmouth. Spider liked to go out at night, but there was a curfew, so I would go down to his car late in the day and get his golf clubs and bring them up to the room. Willie would put them into the bed and pull the covers over them and at bed check, just say Spider was asleep."
The scheme was never uncovered -- it even earned an enterprising Chris a little extra dough on the side. But don't expect Chris' son Dan to follow suit.
"I wouldn't try that," Dan says, shaking his head and grinning. "My dad never told me that story."
Dan, heading into his junior year studying history at Boston College, loves to evaluate players as much as hang around with them.
Like Tim, he is training his brain for a future in football, trying to learn how to predict success and analyze talent. But as these two senior ball boys inch closer to maturity, they know the real magic of summers in training camp.
"My grandfather is awesome," says Tim, who was Wellington's sole roommate until Dan returned from a few years' hiatus. Now, Pop-Pop stays with the younger boys while Tim and Dan share a separate room.
"You hear him tell stories and every day he has a new one about Frank Gifford, or some coach from the 1930s," marvels Tim, who is working his 12th straight training camp. "He remembers every name. And he's just a regular person. Yesterday I was walking around and you know how the players drink Gatorade and drop the bottles? My grandfather was picking them up so no one would sprain an ankle."
Tim has no trouble following the family way. He cleans up the empty bottles; he walks side-by-side with his grandfather, making sure there is a suitable spot for Wellington's portable chair.
This is football for the Mara family, a lineage that starts with Pop-Pop and right now, has no end in sight.
Illustrations/Photos: COLOR PHOTO - THOMAS E. FRANKLIN/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER - Giants co-owner Wellington Mara has six of his grandchildren working at the team's training camp in Albany, N.Y., learning the family business. From left, Jack Mara, age 11; Steve Mara, 15; Tim McDonnell, 19; Wellington Mara, 86; Danny Mara, 21; Conor Mara, 14; and Sean Mara, 13. Keywords: PROFESSIONAL, FOOTBALL, FAMILY