By Phil Stacey
More than 17 years removed from his last National Football League game, Mark Bavaro hasn't lost his passion for the position he helped to revolutionize.
"I'd have loved to play tight end in their system," Bavaro laughed, speaking about the record-setting duo of tight ends employed by the New England Patriots, who will take on his former team, the New York Giants, Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis in Super Bowl XLVI.
"I'm biased, but I love what they're doing with their tight ends. Gronk (Rob Gronkowski) and (Aaron) Hernandez, I have to say, are two of the best tight ends in the entire league. To have both of them on the same team ... it's awesome to watch."
The 48-year-old Bavaro, one of the game's best-ever tight ends, has strong ties to both championship game participants. He's a former All-Pro tight end for the Giants and led them to Super Bowl crowns in 1986 and 1990; he's also very close with Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, who coached him with both the Giants and the Browns.
The former Danvers High and Notre Dame superstar has no plans on attending Sunday's game; if it's up to him, he'll be watching the game on his couch in Boxford. But like millions of other Americans, he's interested to see exactly what will unfold when the two clubs battle for football's ultimate prize for the second time in five seasons.
Particularly when it comes to watching the tight ends.
Bavaro said he enjoys watching Hernandez ply his trade, but sees him more as a receiver-type; there's more of a connection for him with Gronkowski, who is currently battling through a reported high ankle sprain but is fully expected to play, and contribute offensively, against New York.
"The hits he takes, the way his body contorts, I really respect him," he said of Gronkowski. "And catching 17 touchdown passes ... that's hard to even conceive. In 1986 I had four TD passes (with 66 catches and 1,001 yards receiving, the most ever for a Giants tight end), and I thought I was so productive. The most I ever had in one season was eight.
"In this system the tight ends are still blockers, physical guys who take punishment and catch passes. Both guys are a tribute to the position, and Belichick has always been a tight end guy, so you can't be surprised by what he's doing. He's never been afraid to buck trends or go against the grain.
"I think I would've loved to play in that system."
Praise for Big Blue
Bavaro, who was one of five players inducted into the Giants' "Ring of Honor" at halftime of a home game against Green Bay on Dec. 4, was contacted by the Giants a few days before their NFC Championship Game in San Francisco. They inquired if he'd like to fly out and be one of three honorary game captains (along with former Giants Michael Strahan and Rich Seubert).
Following the Giants' win, Bavaro was asked if he'd like to present the George Halas Trophy to the newly-crowned NFC Champions in the postgame locker room, which he accepted.
"They were all confident, relaxed and loose. They didn't view beating San Francisco as an upset," said Bavaro, whose son Lucas is a star outside linebacker and receiver at St. John's Prep and is drawing plenty of college attention.
While it was the first complete game he had watched them play in person this season, Bavaro has been well aware of the Giants' success. For instance, he has been to various functions commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Giants' 1986 Super Bowl champions.
"They're very physical and well-coached — Tom Coughlin is one of the best coaches in the NFL," he said. "And his staff is great, too; their preparation is impeccable. Their defensive line is great, and their wide receivers have been very effective."
A huge reason why the Giants will be playing for their fourth Super Bowl crown on Sunday, he said, has been the emergence of Eli Manning and his ascension into elite status.
"He's playing as well as anyone in the league, including Tom Brady. He's at that level," said Bavaro. "He's obviously capable of playing like that, but the knack on Eli was always his consistency. But now in tight, big games, he's playing great. I think he's a great QB."
'I root for people'
Unlike past years, Bavaro hasn't been to any Patriots practices or games this season. He has seen Belichick a few times through the 1986 team's anniversary get-togethers, though, and got an unexpected congratulatory message from his former assistant coach upon being chosen for the Giants' Ring of Honor.
"He's a great coach and a great friend," Bavaro said of Belichick.
Bavaro claims he's not rooting for one team or another Sunday; he's hoping instead that everyone stays healthy and that it turns out to be a great, close contest.
"I have a vested interest in both teams, same as in 2007 when they played," he said. "So I root for people. I root for the Mara family (owners of the Giants), Coach Coughlin, Mike Pope (the Giants' tight ends coach who coached him), Coach Belichick, Gronk, Hernandez, Brady, Eli, (Giants TE) Jake Ballard ... I want to see them all do well."