SABATTUS — The NFC championship game was a stressful grind for any serious New York Giants fan.
Nothing was more agonizing for Dick Leavitt, however, than the overtime field goal that won it.
“We’d just watched (Billy) Cundiff miss a chip shot for Baltimore against New England,” Leavitt said. “The key to this one was the holder getting it down. The snap was awful. It was to the inside of the holder’s right knee.”
Steve Weatherford cradled Zak DeOssie‘s offering and settled it on the wet, chewed-up Candlestick Park turf. And Lawrence Tynes split the uprights from 31 yards, his heroics beating the San Francisco 49ers and sending the Giants into the Super Bowl for the second time in five seasons.
Fans of Big Blue whooped and hollered from far and wide, and Leavitt, 58, was no exception. But his feelings about the fateful field goal were keener than most.
Leavitt, better known these days for his success as a football coach at three local high schools, was an offensive lineman and long snapper for the Giants from 1976 to ’78.
“I still have my old helmet that my granddaughter tries to put on. It’s kind of a keepsake, but mostly it just takes up space so my wife can complain about it. And I have an old game jersey, but it’s funny how those things shrink over the years.”
Two things that haven’t diminished over parts of five decades are Leavitt’s understanding of the game and his passion for the team that will face the New England Patriots on Sunday night.
Like any coach taking his team into a championship game, Leavitt likes the way the Giants performed throughout the playoffs and is confident that they will win.
“I think they got healthy. The defense had been kind of beaten up. You look at them now in what I think are the key matchups, and their defensive front seven is very impressive,” Leavitt said. “People talk about Baltimore, and let’s face it, they’re good. But the Giants don’t play second fiddle to anybody. Once they got all their players back, the defense started playing really well. It has been a lot of fun to watch.”
Leavitt sees the battle of the Patriots’ injury-plagued offensive line against the Giants’ pass rush as a deciding factor.
Constant pressure on Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was crucial to the Giants’ success in a 17-14 Super Bowl victory over the Patriots in February 2008 and a 24-20 triumph in Week 9 this season.
Wearing his coach’s hat, Leavitt sees Jason Pierre-Paul, Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck and friends able to keep Brady’s comfort zone razor-thin once again.
“To me, the key is can the New England offensive line handle all the pressure the Giants generate and block those defensive ends that go like hell,” Leavitt said. “What scared me in the last game with (49ers running back Frank) Gore was with our guys coming off the edge, could they run that trap play and get up inside? But I really don’t fear New England’s running game.”
The Giants’ one-two backfield punch of bruising Brandon Jacobs and elusive Ahmad Bradshaw struggled for much of the season.
They saved some of their best work for early-round playoff wins over Atlanta and Green Bay, giving Leavitt reason to believe they can get outside against a Patriots defense that has trouble tackling, at times.
As for the marquee matchup — Brady versus Eli Manning — count Leavitt among the observers who believe the gap between the two has closed dramatically.
“Brady is close to being in a class by himself, but Eli is knocking on that door and starting to kick it down,” Leavitt said. “I think he’s moved past (older brother) Peyton. It’s kind of sickening to say that, because I know what spinal injuries are like.”
While Peyton Manning recovered from neck surgery, missed the season and remains in professional limbo, Eli turned 30 and celebrated a career year.
The younger Manning’s persistence in the face of the 49ers’ brutal pass rush left Leavitt optimistic about his chances of leading the team to a second title.
“I continue to be more and more impressed with Eli as the seasons go by. Anybody who ever questioned his toughness, I don’t see how you could ever do it after the way he kept coming back in that last game,” Leavitt said. “It was incredible every time how he stepped up, did that slide step the way Brady and the great ones do it, and threw the ball right on the button.”
True to a coach’s pre-game form, Leavitt expresses only respect for the opponent.
“People say ‘you’re a diehard Giants fan’ and I guess I am, but I’m not anti-New England,” he said. “My favorite player in the league right now is (Patriots tackle) Logan Mankins. I just think he plays offensive line the way it’s supposed to be played.”
Leavitt continues to school the younger generation in those finer points, even as he battles the aftereffects of his abbreviated playing career.
His mobility is limited by chronic back and knee injuries. Leavitt recently spent a week in the hospital due to complications from a leg infection.
Still, he proudly points out his recent 40-year anniversary of either playing the game in college or the pros or coaching it at the high school level. Leavitt and his son, Robie, are assistants to Bill County at Lewiston.
Leavitt also was head coach at Brunswick, inheriting a winless program and eventually building a regional champion. He later spent a season helping Oak Hill.
“For me being disabled, it’s therapeutic for me to be around the kids,” Leavitt said.
A win would be good midwinter elixir for any Giants fan.
Leavitt stops shy of predicting a final score or guaranteeing a win.
“I think it’ll be a reasonably high scoring game. Not because of bad defense, but just because the two offenses are so good,” he said.
“We’ll be enjoying it here either way.”