Longtime Giants exec/GM Ernie Accorsi, who brought Eli Manning to the Big Apple and built the foundation for the Super Bowl XLII champions, discusses how the coronavirus outbreak compares with 9/11, how the team and nation healed after that attack, and what it was like to be without sports for that short period of time.
Q: As the GM of the New York Football Giants on 9/11, how would you compare the fear around the city then to the fear now over the coronavirus?
A: I think the fear now is greater because it’s the fear of the unknown. It was always a chance there was gonna be another attack, but nobody knows how far this is gonna go. You had some fear, but you felt that the country was so fortified after that, so vigilant after that … sure there could have been another attack, but we had some defense for it. Right now, we don’t have any defense. Nobody knows what’s gonna happen.
Q: How do you expect New Yorkers to deal with this?
A: I’ve been there 26 years now, and I live in the city. They’re resilient, they’re tough. I have no doubt that they’ll lead the nation as far as strength through this. New Yorkers are tough people.
Q: Sports was our diversion, a salvation of sorts after 9/11. What do we do now?
A: There’s no game plan, because we haven’t been through anything like this. I was thinking [recently], the famous letter that Judge Landis wrote to Franklin Delano Roosevelt: “Mr. President, do you want me to stop playing baseball?” And Roosevelt wrote him back and said, “No the public needs baseball. I want you to continue to play baseball.” The NFL wasn’t that big in the ’40s. At that time, baseball was the staple of sports in this country. But this is the first time we don’t have that. There’s nothing to watch. And it’s not that sports are that important, but there’s nothing to take your mind off of it.
Q: You’ll miss baseball more than anything, right?
A: March Madness I’ll miss a lot, I love that. … You always had baseball, every day you get up … it’s like a companion.
Q: You’re at your Hershey [Pa.] home with your son Michael. How scared are you?
A: If you’re over 75, it’s a serious matter. Well I’m 78.
Q: What happened after the Giants flew back to Newark Airport from the Sept. 10, 2001 Monday night opener in Denver?
The Maras and Bob Papa and some other people went right to their cars for home — the team went on the bus back to the Stadium — and they walked right by the gate where the terrorists were boarding the next flight. And that was the flight I’m pretty sure that crashed into Pennsylvania.
Q: Giants PR director Pat Hanlon alerted you back at the office to the first plane hitting the tower?
A: Dave Gettleman [then the Giants’ pro personnel director] and I walked down to the parking lot to get a closer look at this with our binoculars, and I saw the United Airlines flight bank around, and I said to Dave, “The plane’s awful close to this thing.” I didn’t see it hit. We walked back in and then Hanlon said, “The second plane hit.” So that night, Hanlon and I and the guy they called “The Commish,” who was there since World War II who was like a clubhouse guy and was retired, the three of us couldn’t get home, because Hanlon and I lived in Manhattan, he lived in Staten Island. I think I slept on my couch, and Hanlon and The Commish slept downstairs. The next night, Hanlon and I were able to get home. It took us forever.
Q: You were supposed to play the Packers at home in Week 2?
A: We didn’t know whether we were gonna play or not. We then heard a rumor, no official word, that they were gonna send us to Green Bay. Jason Sehorn was the player rep. He said, “We are not playing.”
Q: And the Week 2 games were canceled.
A: I remember the Sunday after 9/11, which was the day there was no football. It was also an incredibly beautiful autumn day, and Joel Bussert [former NFL senior vice president of player personnel/football operations] and [sportscaster] Dick Stockton and I met for breakfast and took a long walk. We walked all around town. It was an eerie feeling. First of all, it’s an eerie feeling to have a fall Sunday and you’re not playing football. It was quiet, there weren’t a lot of people around.
Q: The next day you took a bus to Ground Zero.
A: We had a group of players, and Mr. [Wellington] Mara and I, Pat Hanlon — no coaches, ’cause they were preparing at that point. Smoke was still fuming, and the Chief of Police of the Southern District of Manhattan, Mike Esposito, met us and we were walking through the rubble. And [backup quarterback] Jason Garrett was there. And it was amazing the reaction of the workers, the first responders, when they saw those guys. Mr. Mara was the main attraction, and they were all yelling at him, good wishes and, “Go Giants.” They were cheering us on, like, “You gotta win this week,” and, “Go beat the Chiefs.” The things the fans say. It was so helpful to them. Mike Esposito took us all the way through all that rubble. We went to about five or six fire stations all through Manhattan. Everybody was in shock. There was a lot of emotion. … The fact that it was so close — from our practice field you could still see the smoke. When you saw these poor men and what they were going through … it was just very emotional. You lived through it, you know the impact of that whole day. None of us has ever gotten over it, really.
Q: Describe resuming play in Week 3.
A: Listen, I don’t play and I don’t coach, but I never felt so much pressure about a game that we had to win. We had to win that game, and our players knew that. We had to give the city, the fans, something. It was a lot like [Mike] Piazza’s homer, he had to give ’em something to cheer for. That’s probably the worst thing that those of us lived through and ever went through. It’s amazing the value, and what a relief that sports becomes at a time like that. And I was thinking about that [this week] — we don’t have sports to fall back on. … I remember the day of my dad’s funeral, I remember Mike Schmidt had four home runs. I was in my mother’s house, and that time got me through the day. You always had sports. That’s why I felt that “We have to win this game.” New York teams aren’t necessarily loved in other cities. When we came out on the field, we got a standing ovation, from the Kansas City fans. And then when we won the game, when we left the field we got a standing ovation again.
Q: How do you think the NFL will handle free agency?
A: That player that tested positive [the Utah Jazz’s Rudy Gobert] changed everything. In an instant. So you don’t know what’s gonna happen. I’m sure they’re on alert to do what they have to do. It’s so fluid that I have no idea what’s gonna happen.
Q: You had lots of good free-agent signings.
A: Dave Gettleman was a big factor. He was a tremendous evaluator of talent. I always said about Dave, “He could find players.” If I really liked a player, I always ran it by Dave.
Q: Describe offensive tackle Lomas Brown.
A: We didn’t have a left tackle. He was a veteran, he had been around, we were only gonna get a year or two out of him, but he got us through that year .
Q: Offensive lineman Glenn Parker?
A: He was a tough street fighter.
Q: Linebacker Micheal Barrow?
A: During that era, nobody put out more winning football players than the University of Miami. He was a classic tough, smart, University of Miami player.
Q: Linebacker Antonio Pierce?
A: Marty Schottenheimer got fired by the Redskins. We were thinking about Pierce, Dave and I, and [Schottenheimer] told me, “Sign Antonio Pierce but put him in the middle. I played him out of position. He can be a great middle linebacker. He’ll run your defense.” He and Plaxico [Burgess] were our two best signings.
Q: Center Shaun O’Hara?
A: He’s one of those guys you could trust him, you could depend on him. That was an under-the-radar signing.
Q: Offensive tackle Kareem McKenzie?
A: A couple of people took shots at us that we overpaid for him, we did not as it turned out. He was not an overachiever, he was a good athlete. He was a good player.
Q: Defensive tackle Fred Robbins?
A: He was a great supportive player. He was a guy that could come off the bench.
Q: Punter Jeff Feagles?
A: He kept wanting to go back to Arizona and retire. I had to beg him to stay. When you have an outstanding punter like that, it’s one of those positions where you sleep better.
A: I felt we needed a big-time receiver — a big big-time receiver. We needed a big wide receiver who could get Eli out of trouble. He could be covered, he’s still gonna make the play. I had a great relationship with the Steelers and [GM] Kevin Colbert. I said, “Are you gonna re-sign Plaxico?” If he would have said, “Yes, we want to re-sign him,” then I would have said, “OK, this conversation’s over.” But he said, “We can’t re-sign him, because we have to sign Hines Ward.” I said, “OK, tell me about him.” And he really vouched for him: “He’s a great guy, he’s a great teammate, studies the job,” so that’s who we went after. His agent [Michael Harrison] was overpricing him. I’ve only done this once in my career — I knew he wanted to come with us, I had Tiki [Barber] talk to him, but the agent was gonna take him to Minnesota — and I announced, I gambled and announced, “We’re out of it.” What I wanted to do was get Plaxico’s attention so he would put pressure on the agent. So Plaxico goes to Minnesota, I get a call from [agent] Drew Rosenhaus. He said, “Well how are you doing with Burress?” I said, “I think I just lost him.” He said, “Sit tight. I’ll have him within 48 hours.” And he did. He stole him.
Q: Kerry Collins?
A: I felt we really had to upgrade the quarterback. Now I liked Danny Kanell, he took over for [Dave] Brown. Because I knew the people who coached [Collins at Penn State] and trusted them, I thought we could take that chance.
Q: When you sat down with Collins, did he talk about his alcohol battles?
A: I confronted him. I met him at Newark Airport. He was transparent, he was direct, he explained himself. We had a common ground. His former head coach was the guy who broke me in in the business, we both were raised by [Joe] Paterno in the business. Not only that, he grew up 15 miles from where I grew up.
Q: Did you enjoy the free-agent process?
A: No. because it was a lot like college recruiting, and a lot of the coaches will tell you one of the reasons a lot of coaches want to go to the pros is because they don’t like the recruiting. I enjoyed the draft a lot more than free agency. That’s your lifeblood.
Q: You think the Giants are in good hands with Gettleman?
A: I really do, yeah. I really do.