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Football Thursday: David Tyree can't escape his famous Super Bowl catch, even at his job

Les Carpenter
Special to Yahoo Sports

NEW YORK – The photograph is static; a moment new to history but already distant in time. Splashed across the wall, deep down a corridor inside the NFL's offices, David Tyree is trapped in jumbo color, with Rodney Harrison forever on his shoulder, a football on his helmet held there with his gloved hand and a determination to never let it go.

The man on the wall stands before himself in real life. It's been five years now and there are probably ways Tyree would rather walk to his work cubicle than past an 8-foot picture of the instant he became famous. He never thought his life was about this thing everyone calls "The Greatest Catch in Super Bowl History." He didn't even know he had pinned the ball to his head until he was asked in the postgame media conference.

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David Tyree gets photo requests to re-enact his famous Super Bowl catch pose. (AP)

People are always asking him to pose with a football on his head. And so there are shots of him standing in empty stadiums or on the top of the Empire State Building with a bashful smile on his face and a ball pressed against his skull. But in posing this way he is imitating the picture on the wall. He never felt the ball on his helmet when he was making The Greatest Catch in Super Bowl History. He pretends and pantomimes the play – greatness he will never fully grasp – because he knows that's what the person with the camera wants him to do.

For a long time he smiled at the questions about the catch while thinking to himself, "OK, let's get through this." His wife, Leilah, used to look at the pictures and the highlights of the catch and see not a ball on a helmet but the man with whom she has seven children.

"I hope they will see him in the entirety of him," she says.

His world now is with the men who were like him, those retiring from football or who have already left. He tells them about benefits most of them don't know they have and the opportunities to get degrees and places to find jobs. He travels to team facilities, stepping into locker rooms, shaking players' hands. They know who he is, of course, because who doesn't know about the man on the wall? And so David Tyree has come to think of the catch as a very good thing. A moment trapped for eternity is always a better introduction than a business card.

 

 


 

Five years ago, when Tyree wrote a book about his life, he titled it "More Than Just the Catch."

"I don't want to be put in a box," he says.

His story is well-told by now. He was raised by his mother, Thelma, in some of Northern New Jersey's rougher suburbs before moving to the more peaceful bedroom community of Montclair when he was about 10. He went to Syracuse, where he was a talented wide receiver and an excellent special teams player. The New York Giants picked him late in the 2003 NFL draft and he quickly became a dependable special teams player.

But even as he presented the front of being a great local story of a hometown kid who went away to college, got good grades, graduated in four years, became team captain and then came back to play for the nearby NFL team, Tyree's life was filled with turmoil. He drank too much, he smoked pot, he slept around. Back in Syracuse, Leilah was raising his first child, but their relationship was broken.

 

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In March of 2004, Tyree was arrested in Ft. Lee, N.J. for possession of marijuana. The police threw him in a jail cell where he sat despondent. In his mind he heard the jingle of the sports television highlight show and the voice of the announcer telling the world about his arrest. He imagined the news scrolling across the bottom of the screen on an endless loop. Never before a religious man, he prayed.

"God, I need you and if you let me keep my job I'd appreciate that too," he said to himself.

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David Tyree made a name for himself at Syracuse. (Getty Images)

"About as honest a prayer as you can have from a man in my circumstance," he says now with a laugh.

The next day, when he got his cell phone back, he switched it on and found a text from Leilah. "I'm with child," it said.

This was her way of saying she was pregnant with his second child. He went to Syracuse where she delivered an ultimatum that he commit to her or be out of her life. For a reason he couldn't explain he committed. A week later, he took up an aunt's invitation to go with her to church. He found himself transfixed by one of the women who was signing in the choir. She seemed filled with so much joy. What made her feel that way? He walked to the back of the church, dropped in a pew and began to sob. Right then, he says, his life changed.

He and Leilah married. They started a foundation to mentor underprivileged kids in New Jersey. His career stabilized. He became the Giants' special teams star. He went to the Pro Bowl as a special teams player. He even caught 19 passes in 2006. He wasn't a huge name but he was somebody and it seemed a good existence until the night of Feb. 3, 2008 in Glendale, Ariz.

 


 

Much like her husband, Leilah didn't understand the importance of the catch when it happened. Convinced the Giants – who were trailing New England, 14-10, with barely more than a minute left in Super Bowl XLII – would somehow win, she and her mother, Iris Rivera, headed down from their seats toward the field entrance. As Eli Manning scrambled on the third-and-5, trying desperately to elude the pass rush, Leilah and Iris walked past a concession stand.

"I think David caught the ball," Iris said, glancing at a TV screen above the concession stand.

Leilah didn't stop. The clock was ticking. They had to get down to the field.

 

And so she never saw her husband leap in the air, pin the ball to his helmet, pull away from Harrison and tumble to the ground. She never saw the fans jump out of their seats or noticed the roar of the crowd. 

As for David, he got up, looked at the clock, knew the Giants were deep in New England territory and saw a tight end coming onto the field – the sign he was out of the next play. He jogged to the sideline, slapped the hand of a teammate and watched Plaxico Burress score the game-winning touchdown.

It was only later at the team hotel that the Tyrees understood that David had done something big. His catch kept playing again and again on giant-screen TVs that dangled above the victory party. The next day, Leilah went home, turned on the television and saw a picture of that week's Sports Illustrated cover. There was her husband, with the ball planted against his helmet.

"Oh wow," she said to herself. "We're about to get into a circus."

"And it was!" she now shouts and then laughs.

"The Jimmy Kimmel Show" called. So did "Ellen." There were dinners, banquets and awards. Everyone, it seemed, wanted something to do with the man no one had heard of who caught the ball on the top of his head.

In a way, Tyree still didn't understand why people were so excited. He had premonitions that the Giants would win the Super Bowl for months. Several pastors had predicted he would do something big in the game and that thing would be a display for his new-found faith. But Tyree had caught a touchdown early in that game. He thought the touchdown was his moment, except nobody wanted to talk about the touchdown. All the questions were about the catch he never felt, the one where he pinned the ball to his helmet.

Little did he know it would be the last catch he'd ever make in the NFL.

 


 

Later that year in training camp he hurt his knee. He had surgery and was placed on injured reserve. The next year, as he tried to come back, he pulled a hamstring and injured his groin. Tyree played only two preseason games in 2009 and on the first week of September the Giants released him. The Baltimore Ravens picked him up but he couldn't stay healthy. Eventually they too cut him.

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David Tyree's TD wasn't the biggest catch he had in Super Bowl XLII. (Getty Images)

Less than two years after being the story of the offseason he was done with football.

"Later on I found out it was about maturity," Tyree says of those two years. "It was about fanning the flames of suffering and perseverance. It was really challenging for me to go through those two years. But at the same time I was kind of being stripped of my identity. I come home because I'm on IR and the next thing you know I'm at home all the time and I'm a dad. I was trying to figure out that dynamic.

"I was out of the locker room so I was stripped of athletic relationships. Who the heck am I? So I had a two-year adjustment before I officially retired. It was pretty interesting. It helped me a lot."

He tried to be a businessman. He joined a corporate board. A friend who is an entrepreneur, asked him to help start an employer services company. Together they built the business – the friend working on the infrastructure, Tyree talking to the investors. He was always about social relationships, anyway. They launched in Sept. 2012 but Tyree realized the work didn't suit him. He didn't feel like a businessman.

He and Leilah sold their house in Wayne, N.J. and rented one in Piscataway. He was getting farther and farther away from the catch. He was intrigued with sports broadcasting but had no background. He lamented to Leilah that he had gone to one of the best sports broadcasting schools in the country and yet never understood that he probably should have been taking classes there. He wondered what existed for players like him – men who had played for years in the NFL and were suddenly unsure what they wanted to do once football was over. He dabbled in a few of the programs the league put together for players adjusting to retirement.

Then Troy Vincent called. The onetime Dolphins and Eagles star was in charge of the NFL's player engagement program. Vincent needed former players to talk to current and ex-players and help get them into the league's programs. Did Tyree want to help?

He went to the league office for an interview, was led down a hallway and straight into the giant picture of himself.

"I took that as a sign," he says.

The new job was exactly what Tyree wanted to do. Building a business was exciting but helping people was where he always imagined himself. Every bit of attention from the catch he wanted to be about taking the moment and helping others grow. The player engagement program adopted a high school near Baltimore with the goal of teaching players there that there were more paths to success than just sports.

"I think he loves to pour himself into the other players," Leilah says.

 

 


 

 

Standing now before the giant picture of himself in the hallway of the NFL's offices, Tyree smiles. There is little in his life that reminds him of the catch. He doesn't even have the ball. That, he says, is in the possession of Burress, who grabbed what became the game-winning catch and never gave the ball back after scoring the winning touchdown.

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David Tyree shows off the Lombardi Trophy in September during a promotional tour. . (Getty Images)

But Tyree doesn't need the ball anymore than he needs an 8-foot mural in the hallway outside his office. No matter how much he says he's not about the catch, people still want to make it about the catch and he's come to appreciate that. With every hello and request for an autograph comes a story about that night and the stories are fun. One man even said he was so excited he jumped on a table and tore his Achilles.

"I think that's the great thing about the game we play, how you can impact lives," Tyree says. "Hopefully there will be a better way to impact lives than a torn Achilles but they got a kick out of it, so I did too."

The other night he wore his Super Bowl ring. He doesn't do this much at all, but it was a function for Mariano Rivera, the Yankees star who recently retired. He was invited as David Tyree Super Bowl hero as opposed to David Tyree, the father of seven or the recently-ordained pastor or guy on the phone in the player engagement office. So he put on his ring and he went to the function.

And there came the same smiles of these last five years. The handshakes. The stories. He and Leilah – who was with him – smiled back. They said thank you. They felt the happiness that came from the people who wanted to talk about a night five years lost in Glendale, Ariz. It radiated through the room.

He stands in the hall now before the picture of himself and shakes his head.

No, his life will never be defined by the catch.

But after five years, the catch is still a very good thing.

 

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  Arizona Cardinals – Carson Palmer had 241 passing yards and two TDs.

  Atlanta Falcons – The mysterious Paul Worrilow with 19 total tackles.

  Baltimore Ravens – Safety James Ihedigbo with two key picks.

  Buffalo Bills – On a dull day, Fred Jackson stood out … just a little.

  Carolina Panthers – Bye.

  Chicago Bears – Brandon Marshall did all he could for a unit that struggled to understand the Lions.

  Cincinnati Bengals – A.J. Green was almost all of the Bengals offense.

  Cleveland Browns – Bye.

  Dallas Cowboys – Bruce Carter with 12 total tackles.

  Denver Broncos – Once again the day belonged to Peyton Manning.

  Detroit Lions – Matthew Stafford wasn't overwhelming but he had three TDs.

  Green Bay Packers – Jarrett Boykin is a great target for whomever the team plays at QB.

  Houston Texans – Why did the Texans wait so long to play Case Keenum?.

  Indianapolis Colts – T.Y. Hilton with a strong performance in a losing cause.

  Jacksonville Jaguars – Geno Hayes had nine solo tackles.

  Kansas City Chiefs – Bye.

  Miami Dolphins – Rishard Matthews was a huge part of Miami's offense.

  Minnesota Vikings – Christian Ponder was playing a nice game before he got hurt.

  New England Patriots – Bye.

  New Orleans Saints – Who else but Drew Brees?

  New York Giants – Andre Brown with another big rushing performance.

  New York Jets – Bye.

  Oakland Raiders – Sio Moore with a forced fumble and a sack.

  Philadelphia Eagles – It wasn't record-setting but Nick Foles had another fine game.

  Pittsburgh Steelers – William Gay tore up the Bills offense.

  St. Louis Rams – Tavon Austin had the kind of game the Rams have waited for.

  San Diego Chargers – Ryan Mathews had a workmanlike day.

  San Francisco 49ers – Ahmad Brooks had three sacks in a close loss.

  Seattle Seahawks – Golden Tate had 106 receiving yards and one fantastic TD.

  Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Brian Leonard kept Bucs' offense going.

  Tennessee Titans – Kendall Wright lost his QB but still had seven catches.

  Washington Redskins – RG3 had a lot of nice numbers on a night some things didn't go right.

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