EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - The big man in the middle of a mini-tempest - an honorary Nigerian tribal chief whose day job involves hunting NFL quarterbacks - said yesterday the Patriots would be downright loco to turn his criticism of Matt Light into bulletin-board fodder.
Osi Umenyiora, the only member of the Super Bowl-bound Giants selected for the Pro Bowl, has said some crazy things in his career, as he did prior to this season when he distributed a written statement to the media.
"I, Chief Osi Umenyiora, have officially declared myself to be the best defensive end in the NFL," the statement read. "To prove that fact, I will have one of the best seasons ever for a defensive end or I will jump off the George Washington Bridge."
Umenyiora (pronounced YOU-men-yur-uh) had sense enough to spare himself from a plunge into the Hudson River. And he thinks the Patriots would be nuts to make too much of him accusing Light of breaking a couple of rules when they last faced each other Dec. 29.
"If they put on their bulletin board that I called Matt Light a dirty player, if they need that for motivation, then they're in the wrong game," Umenyiora told reporters in the locker room at Giants Stadium.
Umenyiora first told HBO's "Inside the NFL" Monday that Light, a Pro Bowl tackle, flouted the rules in part by hitting him after the whistle.
Light, speaking yesterday on 890 ESPN Radio in Boston, said he has never trash-talked to a player on the field in his career. After viewing the HBO segment, Light said, "I think the bottom line from that conversation was that we had a very physical game, we both got after it and went to the whistle and then some, and that's the kind of game it was. Other than that, I think it was a typical conversation to have with the guy."
Umenyiora, in his first extensive public comments since the HBO segment aired Wednesday night, stood by the spirit of his remarks, though he downplayed their significance.
"He's a very, very good football player, very talented, very athletic," Umenyiora said of Light. "He did a couple of things that maybe he shouldn't have done. Basically, in the heat of the moment, anybody can react like that. He may not have seen that as being dirty. He might have just seen that as playing to the whistle. There's no telling what he's thinking, but I perceived it as being a little unnecessary."
Umenyiora said he hopes his remarks about Light work in his favor.
"Maybe now the referees are going to be able to look and see a lot closer what's going on out there," Umenyiora said. "We're trying to make a living out there. There's no need for all that."
So, how dirty did Umenyiora believe Light played?
"It wasn't that big of a deal," he said. "He's not that bad. It wasn't like he was trying to end my career or anything stupid like that, but he knows what I'm talking about."
Michael Strahan, a veteran defensive end for the Giants who has mentored Umenyiora, said the incident has been overblown.
"Osi really didn't say anything," Strahan said. "Everybody is so worried about who is dirty. I will be honest with you, if you [make me mad], I will stomp on your neck, too. Everybody does it. We are punching, we are clawing, we are under the pile grabbing each other God knows where. That is just the game of football. I love it when I read, 'Oh, he is a dirty player.' To be honest with you, we are all dirty."
Umenyiora rated Light among the top three left tackles he faced this season, along with Pro Bowl selections Flozell Adams of the Cowboys and Jason Peters of the Bills. Umenyiora said "entirely too much has been made of [his comments about Light], but I don't care."
And don't get him started about the remarks giving Light and the Patriots extra motivation.
"It's the Super Bowl, man," Umenyiora said. "He could go out there and say he's going to slap my mother and it's not going to make me play any harder. I'm going to give it my all."
Asked whom he imagined slapping his mother, Umenyiora said, "Anybody, Tom Brady, it doesn't matter."
For Umenyiora, the episode has unfolded at the apex of his career, an improbable journey that began in London, where he was born and lived for seven years before his family settled in Nigeria. At 14, he moved to Alabama, where he lived with his sister and was recruited to play football at Auburn High School.
It was a "Coming to America" experience.
"Everything was totally new to him, from getting dressed in a football uniform to understanding the game," said Clay McCall, who was an assistant coach to his late father, Bill McCall, at the time.
With natural athleticism and hard work, Umenyiora improved dramatically in two seasons of high school football but went unrecruited as a senior. He got his first break when an assistant high school coach asked a recruiter at Troy University to take a look at him.
The recruiter offered Umenyiora a scholarship, looking past the fact that Umenyiora was serving an in-school suspension for tardiness at the time and would be only 16 when he graduated.
"He turned out to be a diamond in the rough," said Troy coach Larry Blakeney.
Then came a couple more breaks. The Giants saw enough in Umenyiora, even though the NFL decided against inviting him to its annual combine, that they drafted him in the second round in 2003. And when starting defensive end Keith Washington went down with an injury in 2004, the reign of Umenyiora began at the Meadowlands.
"It's crazy, man, the way I got here and the path I've taken," he said. "That's how I know for sure there is a God. There are just entirely too many coincidences."
And one big game to play. On the night of Feb. 2, Umenyiora will resume his regular pregame routine. He will add two spoonfuls of cherries to two scoops of vanilla ice cream and enjoy a dessert fit for a chief. Then he will rest up for a rematch with Matt Light.
Bob Hohler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.