He had just delivered the football more than 80 times to Eli Manning from a squatting position in subzero temperatures. The last thing New York Giants center Shaun O'Hara wanted to do Sunday night was bend down yet again.
But as O'Hara stood in the nearly emptied visitors' locker room at Lambeau Field and talked about his team's 23-20 overtime victory over the Green Bay Packers in the NFC championship game, he stopped in mid-sentence and leaned forward to clasp hands with a man in a wheelchair whom he and his teammates consider one of their own.
"Thank you for being here," O'Hara said to Lt. Col. Greg Gadson. "I really appreciate it. We really appreciate it."
"Likewise," Gadson said. "I really appreciate being a part of it. You guys adopted me. You gave me a team."
Gadson, a former linebacker at West Point, didn't make a single tackle for the Giants in this remarkable season. He lost both his legs after being hit by a roadside bomb while serving in Iraq last May, and he still faces medical struggles which include the presence of 25 staples in his right arm and several sutures near his right thigh.
But if you ask locker room leaders like O'Hara, star wideout Plaxico Burress, middle linebacker Antonio Pierce or defensive end Michael Strahan, they'll tell you Gadson, 41, played a central role in the team's unlikely journey to Super Bowl XLII. The mental strength the Giants summoned in overcoming an 0-2 start, winning 10 consecutive road games and stunning Brett Favre and the Packers in their hallowed stadium amid a treacherous chill – all of that, these players believe, can be traced back to their exposure to a man who exudes courage and commitment.
Gadson came into the Giants' lives when they were at their most vulnerable, New York having been brutalized by the Cowboys and Packers in its first two regular-season games. Facing another tough matchup with the 2-0 Washington Redskins, the Giants hit the road and filed into their Saturday night team meeting at a D.C.-area hotel expecting some motivational words from coach Tom Coughlin.
Instead they were introduced to Gadson, a former Army teammate of New York receivers coach Mike Sullivan. He spoke to the players for 15 minutes, telling them to appreciate their opportunities as athletes and relating how much football meant to many of the troops stationed abroad. He talked about playing together and the bonds that form among teammates after enduring shared struggles. He reminded them that nothing in life is promised.
"Take nothing for granted," Gadson told the Giants, who gave him a standing ovation when he finished.
The next day, New York trailed 17-3 at halftime and the season seemed to be slipping away. But the Giants rallied for a 24-17 victory, with Burress handing a football to Gadson on the sideline after scoring a touchdown.
That spawned a six-game winning streak, but the Giants survived several potential crises in the second half of the season before qualifying for the playoffs as the NFC's No. 5 seed. When they opened at Tampa Bay in the wild-card round, Gadson was there to witness their 24-14 victory over the Bucs.
Shortly thereafter he was back at Walter Reed Army Hospital outside Washington, D.C. for surgeries on his right arm and what's left of his right leg. He watched the Giants' 21-17 upset of the Cowboys on a TV in his room, screaming them through a gripping defensive stand in the final minutes.
"Personally, I was kind of struggling a little bit, and I thought about them and it helped cheer me up," Gadson recalled Sunday. "I wanted to come to Green Bay, but I didn't know if I'd be out in time. Finally, on Thursday, I was discharged."
Gadson made it to Lambeau – as one of the team's honorary captains. His 13-year-old son, Jaelen, wheeled him out to midfield for the pregame coin toss, and he and his boy spent the second-coldest game in Green Bay history on the sideline with a group of gritty players who think of Gadson as the team's biggest star.
"One of the things that's been inspiring for us is that guy right there," O'Hara said, gesturing toward Gadson in the locker room. "Despite all the things he's had to go through, despite all that he has sacrificed, he remains upbeat and continues to fight. One thing he told us that sticks in my mind: If he could somehow be out there leading his men into battle, that's where he'd want to be right now. How can you not be moved by that?"
It sounds corny, but football is a sport in which athletes continually search for ways to justify performing physically irrational acts – to trick their minds into doing what instinct screams at them to avoid. For some Giants, the sight of a legless war hero sitting tall in the bitter cold may have roused them to dip that shoulder a little lower or expose that ribcage a bit longer in the pursuit of a common quest.
Their collective accomplishment made a war hero proud.
"It's been an amazing ride," Gadson said. "It's just almost fairytale-like. They say I bring them luck, and that I bring them inspiration. But you know what? It's their hard work that made this happen. They did this.
"These guys are fighters, and so I'm honored that they allowed me to be a part of it, and I'm proud of them. They're playing as a team, and it's incredible to see. I'm proud of what they've done and I'm grateful for the whole organization for letting me be a part of it. They just believe in each other. They came up to vaunted Green Bay and played the third-coldest (championship) game in NFL history and came through."
Gadson stopped as a tall, smiling man approached and bent down to slap his hand.
"My brethren," Burress said to Gadson, who beamed knowingly at the physical receiver who had just pulled down 11 passes for 151 yards.
"Didn't I tell you that you were gonna have a big game?" Gadson asked. "I just knew it was time. And you came through, man."
Burress shook his head and placed one of his large hands on Gadson's shoulder. "So did you, brother," the player told the soldier. "So did you."
AND THEN THERE WERE TWO
The Giants have been last in my rankings since the start of the playoffs, and even after their stirring victory over the Packers, the rampant disrespect continues.
That's right – the Jersey dudes with the New York name are staring up at a team that is 18-0, including a 38-35 victory over the Giants in late December. But they shouldn't feel bad. Here are some other entities I currently rank behind the Patriots: Microsoft, the Harry Potter franchise, Michael Phelps, the 1970 Brazilian soccer team and the Oprah Winfrey empire. (OK, not Oprah. But you get my point.)
With all of that said, if you ask me which team is playing better in January, I'm taking the Giants. As we head into the cesspool of hype leading up to Feb. 3, a special time in which everything from Tom Brady's boot to Eli Manning's suit will be scrutinized, here are a couple more things to ponder:
2. New York Giants: In honor of their 10th consecutive victory away from home, how many "road sodas" did they smuggle onto the flight back from Green Bay?