It was the week before Christmas and all through the team, not a playoff hope was stirring, not a sane one at least.
The New York Giants were just a handful of days from the Week 16 game against the New York Jets, with the Giants stuck at 7-7 and their season fast slipping away. Losers of four of their previous five games, it seemed as if the Giants were destined to finish second or even third in the NFC East. But then Gian Paul Gonzalez took the stand at the team's weekly chapel service and, before roughly two dozen players and coaches, began to challenge the players on and off the field where their motivation laid.
Gonzalez, a teacher in Union City, N.J., has spoken to the team several other times, but on this occasion he challenged the players spiritually and hit them with their responsibilities as husbands and fathers. But what surprisingly stuck was his challenge to them not just off the field but on it as well. When Gonzalez asked those gathered if they were "all in," his two words resonated in a way he didn't see coming.
A spiritual challenge would ignite a Super Bowl run and make believers of this Giants team in the rest of the NFL.
"I really had no idea; I was just glad I could hopefully encourage them on that night in December. It's a testament to the Giants and how hard they have worked and their determination and drive," Gonzalez told Yahoo! Sports. "It really exemplifies that when individuals join together and totally commit themselves to a common goal amazing results are possible and people will take notice - which I think is exactly what they are doing against all the odds. They are looking 'All In.'"
Giants chaplain George McGovern said that chapel attendance usually hovers in the mid-20s and that there has been no rush of new converts to fill the pews since Gonzalez's service and the team's improbable playoff push. But the challenge from the proverbial pulpit clearly spurred something in the way the Giants played.
Before the Jets game in his pregame speech, Giants defensive end Justin Tuck co-signed what Gonzalez said to the team, using the "All In" phrase in his speech. The Giants beat the Jets on Christmas Eve and the "All In" tag was used publicly by Tuck in his postgame remarks. The next week, 80,000 white towels filled MetLife Stadium with Gonzalez's words emblazoned on each one. The Giants won again with the crowd waving the "All In" towels as the players left the field, having clinched the division.
Talk about divine intervention.
Three playoff wins — two on the road — followed and now the Giants have taken their rather plebian 9-7 record into the Super Bowl. The phrase "All In" now sells T-shirts and caps and made a cameo on a Super Bowl commercial.
"The phrase can be applied in many ways and some players carried it over to their professional lives and determined to be 'All In' when it comes to competing on the field. They also made the application to the team concept [of] that being all players giving their all," McGovern said. "The phrase has taken on a more immediate meaning and is now centered on the players' efforts on the field and among each other. But for those men who were at chapel that night, the echo still reminds them of the initial application."
McGovern has been chaplain for the team for 16 years now -- and while he remembers many memorable moments from the hundreds of services, usually held on Saturday night, none has ever spurred a Super Bowl run. There was a trickledown effect from the chapel service to the practice field, an effect that now has the Giants a game away from their second Super Bowl win under head coach Tom Coughlin.
"Some key players were allowing attitudes to restrict their intensity at practice and in games [and] have replaced those attitudes with a concerted effort to give 100 percent in practice and on game day," McGovern said. "This focus then spread to other members of the team. The team chemistry was enhanced and confidence and teamwork grew. Winning games fed this healthy team chemistry."
It was a winning bet by Gonzalez, who said he felt "led by God" to deliver this particular chapel message to the team. Towards the end of the 20-minute service, he handed those in attendance a poker chip to tie together the "All In" mantra firmly.
"I gave them a poker chip, and silver sharpies, which they each took one. I then asked them to initial one side, and think about what God is calling them to be 'All In' about. Maybe it is being 'All In' as a man of God, father, or brother, or teammate, or all of those," Gonzalez said. "I let them keep the chip and challenged them to put it in a place they could remember it, to remind themselves that they are 'All In.'"
And if prayers are answered for those in Giants blue, some of those players will keep that chip next to a Super Bowl XLVI ring.
Follow Kristian R. Dyer on Twitter @KristianRDyer