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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Fifteen years old, with Burkitt's Lymphoma churning in his stomach, there was Adam Merchant, stepping out after Friday's practice in front of the New York Giants, his favorite team and Make-a-Wish first choice. Coach Tom Coughlin had charged him with the task of offering a few final words after a week of preparation and the kid didn't hold back, coming strong before concluding with a most simple message.
"Play like the world champions you are," Adam told his heroes.
Around that practice field the words hit hard and hit true, rocking all these big strong football players. The kid was getting emotional, the Giants players said, understandably overwhelmed by the moment. "It can be kind of nerve-racking to come talk to your favorite team," Eli Manning said. But the message was pointed and powerful.
The teenager from Barre, Vt. is a fighter, NFL-tough. That much they could all see and respect. His disease is already in a hopeful remission, although the battle has hardly grown easy. You go through all of that and suddenly you aren't too scared to speak the truth to your team, to hammer home the advice they keep hearing over and over, from Coughlin to every fan they run into around town.
Enough of the uninspired play and November swoons, it's long past time for the Giants to play like the best team in the NFL, which they most certainly can be.
"Certain people can say that," defensive lineman Justin Tuck said later, "but when you see this innocent kid say you've got to play like a champion … I told him he needs to get into motivational speaking because he inspired us."
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New York 38, Green Bay 10 – the Giants powered by five touchdowns, five sacks and one Adam Merchant channeling of Vince Lombardi.
"It just came out," Merchant explained after the game in the Giants' locker room, clad in a Jason Pierre-Paul jersey, a Giants ski cap and seated next to his new buddy Tuck.
The Giants (7-4) had lost two consecutive games and were facing a critical moment against the dangerous Packers. New York has won two Super Bowls in the last five years but also earned a reputation for sporadic play, varying effort and maddening slumps. Just a year ago they were 7-7, almost kicking away what would be a championship season. When they play, they really play. When they don't, they don't.
Merchant knew the stakes, knew the history, knew the situation when he and his father, Adam Sr., mother Heather, brother Cody, 13, and sister Taylor, 7, drove down from Vermont on Thursday. The kid is a relentless Giants fan, even living in New England. He never misses a game, is glued to all the highlight shows and devours every last bit of team news across the Internet.
When Make-a-Wish approached him over the summer with a virtually open-ended offer – "they said he couldn't ask for a new car," Adam Sr. said with a laugh – no one had any doubt what the final selection would be.
"I knew instantly," his dad said.
"I told them I wanted to come see the Giants," Adam said.
Come and see the Giants sounded great. This turned out even better. Coughlin, among others, doesn't just honor the Make-a-Wish Foundation, he overwhelms it. Adam wasn't just coming to a game. He was coming for an entire weekend: practice, locker room, sideline, whatever. And when things wrapped on Friday, Coughlin figured there was no one better to push out in front of the team for the final word.
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So Merchant, admittedly terrified, spoke. And these were no nervous mumbles. He sounded like a coach. The Giants players stood in awed silence. "It's just bad what he's going through," Ahmad Bradshaw said. What may have begun as an obligation quickly turned into an appreciation; if they were supposed to lift him, why was he lifting them?
Only Adam's family saw the big talk coming – "with his football knowledge, I wasn't surprised," Dad said with a laugh and a shake of his head.
When Adam was done, the players mobbed him.
"They freaked out," Merchant said, beaming at the memory. "They were hooting and hollering."
Everyone was rubbing his head and patting him on the back and boosting his spirits, which like his health have been under attack since the initial diagnosis last March.
"You look at this kid, who's going through so much in his life, and his one wish is come and be with us?" Victor Cruz said. "It was inspiring."
And yet this was also about football. That's what he wanted them to hear.
"The message," Coughlin said, "was loud and clear."
Coughlin took Adam's statement – play like world champions – and hammered it home during Saturday night meetings at the team hotel and then again during pregame on Sunday. This was the perfect summation. You're world champions, play like it. So here they came, they said, pushed by the kid's big words, pushed by the sight of him on their sidelines, this unrelenting teenager.
There was a relentless pass rush laying waste to Aaron Rodgers all night. There was a bruising rushing game churning up 147 yards. There was Manning, not just slinging three touchdowns but even refusing to slide on one run and throwing a shoulder into a Packer defender.
"That wouldn't be recommended on a normal basis," Coughlin said. "But in that case, to see him do that, I think sent a message to the rest of our team as well, in terms of whatever you have to do to succeed, do it."
In other words, play like the world champions you are.
"I think [Adam] got everybody fired up," Manning said.
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When it was over, a conference rival and possible playoff hurdle run right out of the building, they brought Adam Merchant into the middle of a raucous locker room. This, the players told him, wasn't just for him, but because of him. This, they said, wasn't about his wish of attending a game, but proof of him influencing a game.
It would've been too much to handle except when you've been through the endless doctors and needles and diagnosis, nothing can get to you anymore. So the kid just sat there in delight. He thinks he's turned a corner in his battle – "he should be OK," his dad said hopefully – and he hopes the Giants have also.
"Hopefully we're done with the roller coaster," Tuck said.
If so, mission accomplished via Make-a-Wish.
"It was awesome," the NFL's newest motivational speaker said. "It was a dream come true."
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