Book excerpt: Bill Parcells and the understated ways he's still guiding the 1986 Giants (2024)

Content warning: This story addresses suicide and other mental health issues and may be difficult to read and emotionally upsetting. If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide or is in emotional distress, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by dialing 988 or at988lifeline.org.

From the book​ Once a Giant: A Story of Victory, Tragedy and Life After Football. Copyright © 2023 by Gary Myers. Published by Hachette Book Group. All rights reserved.

Book excerpt: Bill Parcells and the understated ways he's still guiding the 1986 Giants (1)

(Hachette Book Group)

Bill Parcells has a paternal pride giving a tour of his office right off the garage of his winter home in Tequesta in Palm Beach County. It serves as a museum with artifacts of his coaching life: two Super Bowl championships with the New York Giants, a Super Bowl appearance with the New England Patriots, and playoff games with the New York Jets and Dallas Cowboys.

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The story of the brotherhood of the beloved and iconic 1986 Super Bowl champion New York Football Giants is dramatically told by the pictures on the walls. Parcells has a colorful story for each picture of his former players, his “guys.” You can sense his affection as he rattles off their names.

“The great Phil Simms” — the quarterback who pitched a nearly perfect game with his 22-of-25 performance in Super Bowl XXI on January 25, 1987.

“Lawrence Taylor. I love that guy” — the best, and most troubled, player he coached.

“Jim Burt. Now that’s a character” — the wiseass with whom he traded one-liners.

“Mark Bavaro. Great kid. Tough. Love him” — the tight end who returned in the same game against the Saints in 1986 after he broke his jaw.

“Banksie” — Carl Banks, a phenomenal linebacker on two Giants championship teams.

Parcells’s winter retirement home in Florida is immaculate, even more impressive since he’s in his early eighties, divorced, and lives alone. There’s a deck in the back separated from the Intercoastal by trees and shrubs, providing a nice view for unwinding after his early morning workout at the gym and frequent rounds of golf. His home is around the corner from Bagel Bistro, a nondescript eatery in a strip mall on US-1, which serves as his favorite meeting spot with Bill Belichick, the defensive coordinator on his Super Bowl teams with the Giants, who is coming to town in a few days.

“Bill loves that place. We’re getting together Saturday morning at 6:30,” Parcells said. “He usually has something he wants to discuss with me.”

Big Bill and Little Bill look like typical Florida retirees getting together for bagels and lox early in the morning, except that Belichick, in his early seventies, is still coaching the Patriots. An early bird football fan who walks in and hears these legends talking ball would do a double take. They long ago made their peace after a falling out when Belichick left the Jets in 2000 instead of succeeding Parcells as coach as his contract stipulated. Little Bill worked his way to New England, the reverse of what Big Bill had done, having walked away from the Patriots to take the Jets’ head coaching job in 1997. Parcells is now a valuable sounding board for Belichick just as he is for the long list of coaches who consult with him on issues ranging from handling unexpected problems on their team to career advice.

Parcells even recommended Belichick move into the Jupiter Yacht Club condo development, where Parcells had a winter home at the time. Belichick followed his advice, once inadvertently flooding his former boss’s apartment when a water pipe burst in Belichick’s sixth-floor unit two floors above Parcells. Belichick was not home, and maintenance came to the rescue.

Parcells’s hobby is owning thoroughbred racehorses, and the wall outside his office is lined with pictures of his ponies. He also has a home in Saratoga in upstate New York, not far from the famed Saratoga Race Course, where he can be found most summer afternoons watching the horses run. When possible, he tries to name his horses after his former players.

“I have a two-year-old named Golden Simms,” he said. “I called Simms and told him, ‘That horse better run faster than you!’”

When Parcells informed his quarterback he now had a namesake with four legs, Simms asked whether the thoroughbred’s name was Horse’s Ass.

Football was fun for the ’86 Giants. They were bonded for life by the Lombardi Trophy and their diamond championship rings.

They care about each other. They take care of each other. There is a built-in support system among the teammates. Text chains, card shows, reunions, they talk and see each other frequently. They take each other to doctor’s appointments. Wives who were not part of the team in 1986 are amazed, witnessing a side of their husbands they’ve never seen when they are around their teammates at reunions: hugging, joking, acting like kids. At the 25th reunion, Parcells said running back Lee Rouson’s wife, Lisa, came up to him.

“Mr. Parcells, can I ask you a question?” she said.

“Sure,” he said.

They were standing off to the side in a private room at halftime on reunion weekend.

“What is this?” she said, looking at her husband and teammates acting like they were 25 years old again.

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“You know, that’s a very good question,” he said. He paused for a moment. “This is a group of people who are bonded together, that have accomplished something together, and that’s their guys. And they’re going to always be their guys. And it’s a lifelong thing. And it’s never going to change and that’s really the way it is. It’s not going to change,” Parcells said.

Nobody in the room would disagree.

“It’s wonderful to have extended family like that,” defensive end George Martin said.

“You can’t buy into this fraternity,” Burt said.

Book excerpt: Bill Parcells and the understated ways he's still guiding the 1986 Giants (2)

It’s difficult to match the quality of the relationship Parcells had and still has with Taylor (left) and Banks (right). (Focus On Sport / Getty Images)

Football has given them so much. Football has taken so much away.

Life after football has been cruel to far too many of them. The transition and adjustment to the next phase of life can be overwhelming.

Achieving the ultimate victory of winning a Super Bowl and being among a group of guys who truly love each other is hard to replicate, and it creates an emptiness almost no matter what comes next. Emotionally, intellectually, physically, and financially it can be the highlight of their lives. Bavaro admits he’s never found anything else that he’s good at after he retired. It creates a difficult transition filled with all the dangerous ramifications of a career in a violent sport. Suicidal thoughts. Death. Bodies breaking down. Mental health disorders. Money problems.

This is not a problem unique to the 1986 Giants. It threatens and scares football players of yesterday, today, and tomorrow. What does life look like in their fifties and sixties and seventies? Will they be able to walk? Will they be afflicted with early dementia? Will they be haunted by suicidal thoughts? Will they have any money?

That’s the stage of life for the ’86 Giants as it now approaches four decades since they partied in Pasadena. They are growing old together.

There was no handbook when they retired with directions on how to find their way to the next phase of their life. Their NFL health insurance covered most of them for only one year after retirement. The first question at reunions used to be checking up on each other’s kids. Then as the years passed, it moved to grandchildren. Now they ask about doctor’s appointments and referrals and scheduled surgeries.

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“Amazing how it’s changed,” center Bart Oates said.

For every player whose bones make weird noises as he crawls out of bed in the morning, there are teammates worrying about CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease that can’t be officially diagnosed until after death. CTE has been linked to traumatic brain injury caused by concussions, resulting in depression and desperation that led to suicide for former players Junior Seau, Dave Duerson, Andre Waters and Greg Clark, among others.

Bobby Johnson, a wide receiver who is a recovering crack addict, was asked which of his Giants teammates are worried about the brain disorder. “All of us,” he said. “It’s ain’t just from the NFL. It’s from college and high school all the way down to Pee Wee.”

“The game is what it is,” Hall of Fame linebacker Harry Carson said. “It is a collision sport. When you have bodies flying around at high rates of speed, bad things are going to happen.”

Nobody, of course, forced these men to play football at any level and subject themselves to the dangers of the game. Only the fortunate few are skilled enough to make it to the NFL. They signed up to play in the league in the ’70s and ’80s knowing the risk of tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in their knees or needing multiple back surgeries or ripping up their shoulders. Injuring their brain was not part of the conversation. Teams weren’t avoiding educating their players about the long-term danger of head trauma as much as they were just as ill-informed as the players. Five players from the ’86 Giants admitted they’ve had suicidal thoughts in their post-football life tracing primarily to the impact of football injuries to their bodies and brain.

“We boys think it’s a game. We men know it’s a game played for money,” defensive end Leonard Marshall said. “Cognitive impairment, traumatic brain injury, CTE, Alzheimer’s, early-stage Parkinson’s, any of that stuff, those words were never uttered in association with the game.”

It’s impossible to walk away from the game mentally or physically unscathed. If the ’86 Giants had foresight, they saved money, but with salaries just a fraction of what they are today, they needed to find a job after football, preferably one that provided health insurance. Ask Marshall which body part hurts, and the conversation is lengthy. “sh*t bothers me,” he said. “What am I going to do about it? Complain and cry in my beer?”

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Parcells’s players wouldn’t recognize him these days. The first thing he does three or four mornings a week is drive to his health club to get in a workout, which he credits for still being alive after having four heart procedures, including bypass surgery, in his early fifties.

Concerns about his heart led him to quit the Giants four months after winning his second Super Bowl in 1991. He gave no explanation at the time, leaving many baffled as to why he would pass up an opportunity to repeat as champions. Long ago he stopped smoking cigarettes. He’s down to just under two hundred pounds, more than fifty below his coaching weight. But even more than the slender look, Parcells’s greatest transformation is his demeanor: from feared intimidator to compassionate patriarch. He hands out life advice to many of his hundreds of former players and writes life-changing checks out of the millions he has designated as his care fund for players experiencing financial distress.

He enjoys the luxury of having more money than he can spend in the golden years of his life and takes great pleasure in helping friends, among whom he numbers his former players. “I’m really happy to see that because, oh my gosh, he was so stingy before,” Burt laughed.

Parcells took care of his money during his prime earning years and implored his players to take care of theirs, but he has not turned his back on those who didn’t listen. He revealed he’s “loaned” money to about twenty of his former players, totaling $4 million. That seems to be a conservative estimate based on the amount he mentioned he’s given to some players. He said he loaned one very prominent player $2.5 million. To save the players embarrassment, he elected not to reveal names publicly. He writes the checks without the expectation of reimbursem*nt.

Two of the Giants aware of which player received $2.5 million had differing reactions.

“It’s a f—ing crying shame,” wide receiver and successful businessman Phil McConkey said with disgust that the player blew his money and was so deep in the red.

“I’m surprised it’s not more,” Martin, a team captain, said sadly.

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Parcells feels indebted to his former players for buying into his demanding program and risking their health and bodies for him and the team, ultimately making him a Hall of Fame coach and a very rich man. He feels responsible for their well-being and wants to assist if they need money.

“They sacrificed so much for me,” he said.

“A lot of guys have trouble with career transitions, and a lot of them placed calls to Bill to help out,” Martin said. “Bill has the means to do some things. He doesn’t get the credit for it and doesn’t want it. The $4 million is just the tip of the iceberg. There are so many others who need money.”

Some of the ’86 Giants made it big in their post-football lives. Some continue to struggle. Either way, they consider each other family. Parcells knows the inherent brutality of the NFL surely has led to the health issues, many serious, that his players have endured. If the best way to assist them is with an open checkbook policy to pay for doctors or lawyers or child support or to reduce overwhelming debt and provide peace of mind, he asks a few questions and sends the money.

It’s his form of philanthropy, but he first makes sure his former player really needs his money. He has embraced this role.

“Why wouldn’t you feel that way?” he said. “Some of these guys spent 10 to 12 years with me. Some of them didn’t have fathers. I feel an obligation to help them.”

Parcells had an impact on all of their lives — football and off the field — and many applied the lessons he taught them in their second careers. “Bill really was a hard-ass. He knew he had to be that way to win championships,” Simms said. “This is just his way of paying back the players one more time. I say one more time because he paid everybody while he was coaching by changing all of our lives. When it’s all over and he sits back, he wants to reconnect with the players in a different way. He has a soft side to him, and he shows it with his generosity to a lot of his ex-players.”

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The ’86 team turned Parcells into a cult figure in New York and provided the momentum to set him up for the rest of his life. That was the team of his life, the team of their lives. He gets fifteen calls a year on Father’s Day from players telling him they love him. They call him on his birthday. He calls often to check up on them and frequently ends by telling his former players he loves them.

Parcells knows that when some of the same players who call him on Father’s Day call him for money, “they are desperate and only calling as the last resort,” he said.

This is no longer a coach-player relationship.

“I feel like a friend,” Parcells said.

But there were certainly pockets of players who didn’t like him or appreciate his approach as a coach. “I’m sure every man on that team at some point in their interactions with Bill wanted to smack him,” Oates said. One former Giant said Parcells could be a “real dick.”

But they left it all on the field for him.

“All this money? I never had tons of money,” Parcells said. “But I have a pretty good amount now. I give it away. That’s what you do with it. When you get to my age, all I try to do is help people. You give it to your kids. You give it to your ex-wife. I give it to whoever needs it. I just try to keep enough so I can make it the rest of the way.”

He was 82 years old on August 22, and unlike his horses, his players hope he’s not anywhere near the finish line.

(Top photo: Andy Hayt / Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

Book excerpt: Bill Parcells and the understated ways he's still guiding the 1986 Giants (2024)
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