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Wellington Mara, titan of NFL began as Giants ball boy; at 89

NEW YORK -- Wellington T. Mara of the New York Giants, one of the NFL's most influential owners for more than a half century and the last of the league's founding generation, died yesterday. He was 89.

Mr. Mara, who was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1997, died of cancer at his home in Rye, the team said.

Mr. Mara's influence went far beyond the Giants.

''He shaped nearly every rule and philosophy we have in our league today," said Ernie Accorsi, the Giants general manager. ''Most of all, he was the moral conscience of the National Football League. He now joins the pantheon of incredible men who made this league what it has become."

Said commissioner Paul Tagliabue: ''Wellington Mara represented the heart and soul of the National Football League. He was a man of deep conviction who stood as a beacon of integrity."

One of Mr. Mara's greatest contributions came in the early 1960s. He and brother Jack, owners of the biggest team in the biggest market, agreed to share television revenue on a leaguewide basis, dividing the huge amounts of money available in such cities as New York with smaller markets from Pittsburgh to Green Bay.

Part of that agreement meant that the Giants ceded the right to sell their own games to television for a leaguewide contract, in those days with CBS. That concept of revenue sharing allowed the NFL to thrive. It remains in place today.

''Wellington Mara was a true pioneer who understood what it took to make the National Football League great," said Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Association. ''History will show that his vision, integrity, and willingness to share with small market clubs paved the way for economic success."

He also served during the 1970s as chairman of the NFL's Management Council, which negotiated labor contracts, and as a member of the competition committee.

In 1989, he and group of older owners wanted Pete Rozelle's successor to be Jim Finks, then the New Orleans general manager, rather than Tagliabue, then a league lawyer. Mr. Mara thought the league should be run by a football man.

But Mr. Mara and several other old-guard owners finally agreed to break a stalemate of four months by throwing their votes to Tagliabue and he became one of the new commissioner's staunchest supporters, a man Tagliabue often leaned on for advice.

Tagliabue wasn't the only one who sought out Mr. Mara. His advice also was invaluable to other owners, league officials, media, and even fans.

''When Well Mara stood to speak at a league meeting, the room would become silent with anticipation because all of us knew we were going to hear profound insights born of eight decades of league experience," Tagliabue said.

Mr. Mara became a Giants ballboy at age 9 on Oct. 18, 1925, after his father, Timothy, bought the team. He stayed fully involved in its operation for almost 80 years, except for three years while in the Navy during World War II. Until he became ill last spring, he attended most practices and every game.

In 1930, at 14, his father made him co-owner with older brother Jack, and he ran the club until several years ago, when son John took over day-to-day operations.

But from 1979 on, while the team was run by general managers Accorsi and George Young, Mr. Mara had final say on football decisions. He was the one who decided to fire Jim Fassel after the 2003 season and replace him with Tom Coughlin.

''I've never had more respect for anybody in this business, or in any business, or in any walk of life, than Wellington Mara," said Coughlin, an assistant on earlier Giants teams. ''To say Wellington Mara is one of a kind, I would endorse that wholeheartedly."

Before last Sunday's game against Denver, Coughlin told his players of Mr. Mara's condition. The Giants won on a touchdown pass from Eli Manning to Amani Toomer with 5 seconds left. In the locker room after the game, the players chanted ''Duke, Duke, Duke" -- Mr. Mara's nickname.

Players, current and past, admired him.

''After games, you'd walk into the locker room and he'd be standing right there to shake your hand, win or lose," running back Tiki Barber said. ''That was one of the moving feelings about playing for the New York Giants, having your accountability given to you as soon as you walked into the locker room."

''Wellington Mara is the face of not only the New York Giants but the NFL," tight end Jeremy Shockey said. ''He's a pioneer and the guy that everybody looks up to."

When former players became ill, Mr. Mara would find them doctors, pay their medical expenses, and arrange help for their families. Many old-timers were on the payroll as scouts or advisers. Even in this era of sophisticated scouting, it wasn't unusual for Young or Accorsi to get a call from a former player recommending the Giants look at some prospect.

In most cases, the team was well aware of the prospect, but Mr. Mara never dropped any of those old ''scouts" from the payroll.

Mr. Mara always considered himself a football man first, running the on-field operations through the 1950s until 1979 while Jack and then Jack's son Tim ran the business end. The team was successful during the '50s and early '60s with such stars as Frank Gifford, Y.A. Tittle, Sam Huff, and Roosevelt Brown and a coaching staff that included Tom Landry and Vince Lombardi as assistants.

But after losing to Chicago in the 1963 NFL championship game, the Giants began a long slide, failing to make the playoffs again until 1981 as Mr. Mara and Tim, by then the co-owner, feuded.

In 1979, on the commissioner's recommendation, the Maras agreed to hire Young as general manager and the team again became a power.

It won Super Bowls in 1987 and 1991 with Bill Parcells coaching a team that starred Lawrence Taylor and Phil Simms. The 1991 team featured one of the best coaching staffs assembled: future head coaches Coughlin, Bill Belichick, Al Groh, Charlie Weis, Romeo Crennel, and Ray Handley.

Later that year, Tim Mara and his family sold their share of the team to Robert Tisch. Tisch and Mr. Mara were officially co-owners and Tisch ran much of the business affairs. But it was always clear this was Mr. Mara's team -- for many years they were known by New York headline writers as ''the Maramen."

Mr. Mara leaves his wife, Ann, 11 children, and 40 grandchildren.

A funeral Mass will be said Friday morning at St. Patrick Cathedral in New York.

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