Ernie Accorsi has gotten to do what few do in life. He's gotten to live his dream.
The New York Giants senior vice president and general manager is entering the homestretch of a career spent in pursuit of his passion: sports. Although he won't deny that baseball remains his love, pro football has been his life ever since he left the Penn State sports information office in 1970 to become public relations director of what was his favorite team when he was growing up in Hershey, Pa., the Baltimore Colts.
It has been 48 years since a teen-aged Accorsi said the rosary as his Colts were slugging it out with the Giants in the 1958 NFL championship game that transformed pro football into a sport that would captivate the American sporting psyche. How incalculable are the odds that he would one day be general manager of both those teams?
``That really blows my mind," said Accorsi, who is about to begin his last season in pro football. ``It's a miracle. I remember my Dad said, `Are you praying?' I was embarrassed, so I told him no.
``Hershey was a unique town. The Eagles trained there. The first game I ever saw was a preseason game between the Detroit Lions and the New York Bulldogs. In 1952, the Rams trained in Hershey for a week in September. When they came in with those helmets, it was Hollywood. I still have my autograph book. There are seven Hall of Famers from the Rams. Tex Schramm was the general manager and Pete Rozelle was the PR director. If I grew up in Altoona, I don't have any of that."
There are a lot of things Accorsi might not have had, including the night of Aug. 11, 1956, when his loyalty to the Colts, which was born from watching them four years earlier beat the Eagles in the first exhibition game played between the two in Hershey, was sorely tested.
``I'd caddied in the morning to make the $2.50 for admission to the game," Accorsi recalled. ``I was 14. My friend and I went to see [Colts quarterback] George Shaw, who had been spectacular as a rookie the year before. He was an early-day Staubach, but they pulled him for a guy with rubber bands around his sleeves. I was pissed. Then the guy started throwing."
The guy was an unknown kid named Johnny Unitas, who would become one of the greatest quarterbacks in pro football history. That night, Accorsi sat with 17,575 others in a high school stadium and watched Unitas throw his first pass as a Colt. Sixteen years later, in a far different position, he'd see him throw his last as a Colt.
``That's really neat," recalled Accorsi, who was the Colts public relations director at the time. ``I like that sense of history."
Accorsi grew to know a thing or two about quarterbacks. He knew what a team's life was like with one and without one, which is why he drafted John Elway when he was Colts GM in 1983 even though Elway had threatened to play baseball if they did. When he learned that Colts owner Bob Irsay traded Elway's rights, Accorsi quit, joining the Browns a year later as head of football operations and staying until 1992. His Cleveland teams played in the AFC Championship game three times.
``I never dreamed this would happen," Accorsi said. ``Going to the Colts in 1970 was the luckiest thing that ever happened to me."
It's been fortunate, too, for the teams he's run. In his last 15 years as a GM, Accorsi's teams have been to the playoffs eight times. When he reached the Super Bowl with the Giants in 2000, 66 percent of the players on the roster were ones he acquired.
With such a talented young quarterback and a strong team around him, many men in Accorsi's position wouldn't make this season their last, but at 65 he has finally had enough of games. Not of sports, but of the gnawing feeling in his stomach on Sunday morning that doesn't go away until the final whistle blows. And even if victory is the result, the feeling returns the next week.
``I still enjoy the work, but I can't take the games anymore," Accorsi said. ``The stress of the winning and losing.
``As you get older, the games become so much more important. I guess because you know there are fewer of them left. Losing becomes unbearable and winning is just a temporary relief.
``This is a chance to leave on my own terms. I think we have a pretty good ball club through this decade. We may win it after I leave, but that's the way it goes. You can't keep saying, `I'll stay until these kids are finished,' because there are always new kids."
Once, Ernie Accorsi was one of those kids. He has had his ups and downs, but that's sports, and even when it was bad, how bad could it be to make a living from a game you fell in love with on summer afternoons, walking with the Eagles through the park on the way to a high school stadium?
Goodell has work ahead
When Bob Kraft and the 31 other NFL owners voted last week to make Roger Goodell the new commissioner, it was an affirmation of the long reign of Paul Tagliabue and a vote for the status quo.
``It's been a pretty good ride," Kraft said. ``The will of the group was to stay internal to continue what we have. I think Roger will develop his own organization and we'll see some changes, but I don't think there are any minefields out there for Roger. The condition of the league is pretty good."
Indeed it is, but Kraft understands, as Goodell surely does, that there are labor problems in the not-too-distant future. Many of the owners who elected Goodell believe the collective bargaining agreement they approved last March is not one they can live with for long.
``[Players Association executive director Gene ] Upshaw did a good job for his members, but he overreached," said Kraft. ``If it's not good for both sides, in the end it won't work. By November 2008, we have to decide."
Wayne Weaver, owner of the small-market Jacksonville Jaguars, has been an opponent of the CBA extension and remains concerned about the qualifiers for expanded revenue sharing. He, too, believes the CBA will face a hard road in 2008 and is unlikely to be extended past the 2009 season in its present form.
``Clearly, the No. 1 issue on everybody's mind is the CBA, the revenue-sharing component of that, and what the qualifiers are going to look like in this agreement on revenue sharing," Weaver said. ``We need to start thinking now about the opener when this agreement comes up. One of the things that happened is we were focused too much internally on our issue of revenue sharing and not enough on the collective bargaining agreement, and the union used that to negotiate a deal that gave them some leverage."
Beyond the question of labor peace, there are also the issues of where the league will go with digital information and expanding the game to places like China, India, Europe, and deeper into Central and South America. If Goodell has any hope of achieving the kind of financial growth that was the hallmark of Tagliabue's era, it will have to involve those areas. That, and getting a stable franchise in Los Angeles.
Idea of a 'comeback award' is unacceptable to Bruschi
Tedy Bruschi has a second chance at something he never wanted in the first place.
A year ago, Bruschi made one of the most remarkable comebacks in sports history when he rebounded from a stroke to return to the NFL eight months later. Now he's out again, this time with a broken wrist, the kind of injury that has sidelined top athletes in other sports for a year or more.
Obviously, there is no comparison between the injury he suffered last month and the stroke he battled a year ago, but one thing is sure: No matter how quickly or efficiently he comes back, he'll be no one's ``comeback award" winner if he can help it.
When the ESPY voters recently selected Bruschi for its Comeback of the Year award, he was absent from the ceremony. The fact was, Bruschi felt uncomfortable with the idea that someone would be given an award for overcoming . . . what exactly? A worse situation than someone else faced? Who comes up with such an idea?
Bruschi was uncomfortable with the idea that this was deemed a competition, and he asked to have his name removed from the balloting. But ESPN felt it was too late for that, and he ``won" the competition. Bruschi's attitude was thanks but no thanks.
Character is expressed in many ways and talked about quite often in sports. It's talked about a lot more often than it's in evidence, to tell you the truth. But Bruschi's decision was an example of what character really is. It has little to do with accomplishments on the field of play and everything to do with how you live your life.
And when Bruschi won the ESPY for Comeback of the Year anyway, it said a lot about him that he did. And even more about him that he passed on picking up the award.
Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.