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Reese builds winner while breaking barriers

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The measure of progress is sometimes merely the difference between a tiger and the Bear.

There's the picture of the tiger, a beautiful composition done by his 16-year-old daughter Jasmyne, hanging in New York Giants general manager Jerry Reese's office. It's one of many bits of kids artwork hanging in his office, along with pictures of his wife and two children. Otherwise, the rest of Reese's office is pretty plain.

By contrast, Ravens president Ozzie Newsome's office features an elegant framed drawing of legendary Alabama coach Paul "Bear" Bryant.

The picture of the late Bryant, who Newsome considers a mentor, is one of many artifacts from Newsome's storied career. Newsome, a Hall of Fame tight end with the Browns, became the first black executive to lead a team to a Super Bowl victory and his consistency in the NFL draft has made him one of the league's top talent evaluators.

But where Newsome broke a barrier, Reese cleared away the remaining debris when he became the second black man to help guide a team to a title.

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Reese after the Giants' upset of the Pats in Super Bowl XLII.
(Getty Images/Donald Miralle)

"The importance of what Jerry did last year was that it says to black men out there who want to work in this business, 'You don't have to have been a superstar player or even a player at all to be in management in the NFL,' " said Ernie Accorsi, Reese's predecessor with the Giants and the man who fought hard to get Reese the job.

There are 105 men on 31 NFL teams with various personnel titles ranging from team president to director of college scouting. Oakland was excluded because it doesn't give anyone in player personnel a title (although managing general partner Al Davis has the final say on personnel). Also excluded were the various accountants, lawyers and other executives who teams have to handle the salary cap and contract negotiations.

Of the 105, 22 are black, including top executives such as Newsome, Reese, Houston GM Rick Smith and Arizona GM Rod Graves. Of the 22, 12 had some type of NFL playing experience.

The remaining 83 are white. Of those, only eight played in the NFL.

While it's hard to know if an executive with playing experience is any more likely to be successful than an executive without playing experience, Reese's achievement breaks down barriers on both sides of the argument about race in the workforce. For blacks who believe that they've had to literally or figuratively "run faster and jump higher" than white counterparts to get a chance, Reese quells that contention. Reese, whose Super Bowl champion Giants open defense of their title against the Redskins tonight, is more an Everyman – a guy who has his good and bad qualities like anyone else and still succeeds.

For whites who believe unqualified blacks get an easy road to opportunity, Reese's success is a thumb in their nose. Reese took a pretty standard path to management, working himself up the ranks with diligence and hard work that would be standard for anyone, regardless of color.

He is simply just a man.

PIGS TO THE SLAUGHTER

Reese, 45, grew up as one of seven children of a single mother in a two-bedroom house in Tiptonville, Tenn. He had only a passing relationship with his father. The dominant male figure in his life was his grandfather, Daddy Swon, a former sharecropper who eventually ran a slaughterhouse where Reese worked as a teenager.

"We slaughtered everything, pigs, cows, chickens, whatever," said Reese, promoted to GM in January 2007. "That's just what we did. It wasn't fun work, but it was the job. … There was a lot to be done. A lot of work goes into doing it right."

As Reese describes the work, there's no hint in his voice or face that reflect how he felt about the experience. Not that Reese has a great poker face. He can fidget and look uncomfortable at times and be long-winded at other points. But the job was simply the job. There was no room for emotion either way.

Football is little different. Reese is diligent in getting all the information he needs, patient in going through the process and acts with little emotion or attachment.

"I intentionally try to keep it that way," he said. "You want things to be friendly and open with players, so they feel they can approach you. But there's a point where it has to stop. You can't let the personal side of it get in the way of your judgment, the things you have to do for the best interests of the team."

Ask Giants players to describe Reese and you generally get blank stares followed by answers that reach for even the tiniest details.

"I think he has a son who plays football," said Giants wide receiver Amani Toomer, one of 10 players who were asked about Reese. "That's about all I know … Jerry talks to you, but it's really about business and not much else."

Said linebacker/defensive lineman Mathias Kiwanuka: "It's a lot of straight-to-the-shot stuff. It's friendly, but this is a work environment and you can see it in his eyes, he's always trying to figure out what the next thing going on is. What are we going to do? What is he going to see? That's the nature of this business. You have to be on it 24 hours a day because of the way things shift and change in this league, as I'm finding out."

That type of relationship isn't always easy to maintain. This spring, Reese and former Giants tight end Jeremy Shockey reportedly had a loud argument during a minicamp in June. Both have refused to discuss the issue, but players who know about the incident said it was a clear test of Reese's authority.

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Shockey was traded to the Saints before the opening of training camp.
(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

"Jeremy wanted to be out of there right then, but (Reese) wouldn't budge," one player said, referring to Shockey's eventual trade to New Orleans. "(Reese) made it clear: It was going to be done the way the team wanted it done and Jeremy could just sit and wait."

The Giants recognized Reese's management acumen shortly after he was hired as a scout in 1994. Reese wasn't planning for any of this. At the time, he was pretty content to stay at his alma mater, University of Tennessee at Martin, as a coach, figuring he was on his way to being the head coach of the school.

"I had a good job," Reese said. "I wasn't looking for something in the NFL or with the Giants. It kind of just happened. I didn't even know if I wanted the job."

Reese was convinced by Jeremiah Davis, a Giants scout who had also coached with Reese at U-T Martin. Reese moved up the ranks from regional scout to the point that the Giants brought him to New York to groom him for upper management. The move from Tennessee "wasn't so much culture shock as sticker shock," as Reese put it.

More important, what didn't faze him was the established hierarchy that the Giants have had in their personnel department. Since the days of general manager George Young, the Giants have put a premium on scouts and their opinions. They are considered the lifeblood of the organization. The team has at least six people in the scouting department with at least 20 years experience and two with at least 30. Four of the six have been with the Giants for at least 20 years.

"We have a lot of older, established scouts and it can be an intimidating environment to come into, especially if you're someone relatively young and not as experienced," Giants co-owner John Mara said. "But from the first day he sat in the room, Jerry never let that get to him. He listened to people, gave them their chance to speak, but didn't let them run over him. It's a very careful balancing act, but he always handled it."

Said Davis: "Jerry has always had an attention to detail. There's a process that has to be followed with everything and he makes sure it's done that way."

Executives from other teams have noticed, both at times when Reese is on the road scouting (he's diligent about seeing prospects personally) with them or from a distance in handling difficult circumstances.

"Jerry is just a really confident person who handles himself with a lot of class and a lot of dignity," Cleveland GM Phil Savage said. "He has a good demeanor whether at a small school or major university, with just the two of us or with 20 scouts. Most impressive, as he has moved up the ladder, he has ended up with a coach in Tom Coughlin, who is a really good guy behind the scenes, and they've been able to work together and get there last year.

"As somebody just stepping into that role for the first time with a head coach who has maybe done it for 10 years, you can see how it might be tilted a certain way. You get into that situation coming in as a first-year GM and the coach might say, 'Don't tell me how to coach the team.' I've been there. I know. Jerry has balanced that out. From what you read and hear it's a good relationship.

The situation with Coughlin was even more precarious. Reese took over after the disappointing 2006 season, when the media and many fans were calling for Coughlin's firing. Instead, Reese and ownership took a more conservative path, but one that required Reese letting Coughlin know about the expectations.

"I went in right after the season and talked to Tom about how we were going to handle certain things," Reese said. "Some things had to change. Tom heard that and I listened to what he had to say."

Among the things that changed were some of Coughlin's odd rules, such as how players were considered late if they were five minutes early to a meeting.

"All that nonsense had to change and Jerry had to be the one who told Tom," said John Wooten, the chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which works to help promote minority coaching and management candidates in the NFL and colleges. "Jerry had to go right in and tell Tom who the boss was so that it was understood. You can't do it any other way."

Coughlin said he took the meeting in that spirit.

"Jerry laid out how the working relationship was going to go and that his door was open for me," Coughlin said. "Jerry is very business-like, but it's not about it being his way. He wants to listen, he wants to help you do whatever is needed to succeed."

YOU HAVE TO SUCCEED

As much as Reese, who met with the Dolphins about their GM opening in 2004, was groomed for the job – Accorsi asked Wooten not to have Reese interview for jobs in two other instances because he said Reese was going to be his successor – there were some last-minute hoops to jump through. Two sources close to the situation said that former Giants coach Bill Parcells not only tried to get the job for himself at one point, but then tried to use his influence to get his son-in-law, New England vice president Scott Pioli, the job.

Wooten and the Fritz Pollard Alliance then put pressure on the Giants to follow through on their promise.

And once they did, things didn't get easier for Reese. He had to deal with internal politics, Coughlin, the criticism of quarterback Eli Manning, the media (Reese is much more private than Accorsi has ever been) and the racial factor. There were instances in which messages were left on Reese's phone at night after he'd leave. They'd rip him for not being more aggressive in free agency during the 2007 offseason, finishing with some racial slur.

Yet, the big pressure on Reese wasn't amped by hatred as much as by the expectation of other blacks. Reese went on Washington, D.C. radio before the 2007 season with host John Thompson, the former Georgetown basketball coach.

"Other people depend on his ability to have success," Thompson said. "He doesn't have the luxury of not worrying about having success. He had to have success. His blackness is significant in being a professional in such a public position because so few people have been afforded the chance to do what he has done because they were never given an exception or never pushed. He had to have success because it erases the barriers and show the rest of us. That affords opportunity for others.

"I did say it. I said, 'I know people are telling you not to be concerned about the fact that you're a black man and that there isn't any additional pressure on you, but let me say, I'm putting the pressure on you. You have to succeed. You can't fail. I expect you to do well. I want you to win. You gotta win.' "

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Reese with his family after being introduced as GM.
(AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Today, of course, the entire situation comes out like a fairytale. Reese, who has run the draft since 2004, has been lauded for picks such as guard Chris Snee, defensive lineman Justin Tuck and running back Brandon Jacobs, a fourth-rounder. Nearly his entire 2007 draft class played some type of role in helping the team win the Super Bowl last season, from top picks Aaron Ross and Steve Smith to fifth rounder Kevin Boss and seventh rounder Ahmad Bradshaw.

But the difference between success and failure in the NFL is a line so thin that most men toggle between despair and joy. In the third week of the season, the Giants were 0-2 after lopsided losses to Dallas and Green Bay and were down 17-3 at Washington at halftime.

"I'm thinking to myself, the season is coming apart already, the media is going to be all over us," Mara said. "All those things that go through your mind when you're struggling. I see Jerry, he looks at me and, 'It's OK, don't worry, we're better than this.' He wasn't just saying it. He really, truly had confidence that we a better team than what we were showing and, obviously, the rest is history."

And maybe in some smaller sense of the big picture, other differences get closer to being history. Over the past two years, Thompson has happily watched as Tony Dungy led Indianapolis to a Super Bowl victory and Reese helped guide the Giants the following season.

Now, a black man could be president in a little more than two months. To Thompson, who turned 67 on Tuesday, it's a huge change he never imagined.

"No, no, no way in hell. I … hell no," Thompson said. "I didn't imagine it and I think it's amazing to see young people and how they view the world. Both young white people and young black people don't see the world the same way I did and that's a good thing. It makes me happy."