Paul Domowitch | Race an issue for Giants GM Reese

Posted: September 26, 2007

LET'S REWIND Jerry Reese's amazing story. Not all the way back to the beginning. Not all the way back to his dirt-poor childhood in Western Tennessee, when he gutted hogs and cows and picked cotton to help his mother put food on the table for he and his seven brothers and sisters.

Not all the way back to his college days at Tennessee-Martin, when the 5-9 runt of a safety twice earned All-Gulf South Conference honors and led his team in tackles as a senior.

Rewind it to a decade after that. Rewind it to 1994. Reese, who had worked his way up the coaching ladder at his alma mater, had just been promoted to assistant head coach.

He was in hog heaven. Tennessee-Martin wasn't the big leagues, but it was big enough. For a 29-year-old guy who was just 13 years removed from a house with no indoor plumbing, life didn't get much better than that.

Then an old friend stopped by and complicated the hell out of Reese's life. Jeremiah Davis, a former Tennessee-Martin assistant, who now was an NFL scout with the Giants, told Reese of a scouting opening with the NFC East team.

"I wasn't really interested,'' Reese said. "I had moved up to assistant head coach. I was thinking, 'Man, I'm a heartbeat away from being a college head coach.'

"I said, 'J.D., I've got a chance to be the head coach here. I'm not leaving. I'm making 35 grand. I'm not leaving.' He said, 'Jerry, please, just think about it.' I never dreamed then that 14 years later, I'd be the general manager of the Giants. It's one of those stories you can't make up.''

You can't make it up, but it happened. From no indoor plumbing to small-college star to small-college assistant coach to NFL scout to just the third African-American general manager in NFL history, elevated to the post last January.

And if Donovan McNabb thinks all eyes are on him because of his skin color, multiply those eyes by about 200 and you'll get a pretty good idea of the microscope that Reese is under.

"It means a lot,'' Reese told the Daily News in a recent interview. "I don't take it lightly that it's kind of my time to carry the torch. I have to be successful on a lot of levels. No. 1, for young black executives. If I'm successful, they'll feel like they've got a chance. It will improve their chances of getting [front-office] opportunities. If I go out here and bomb out, it's going to make it tougher on them.

"Failure is not an option for me.''

As a white man in America, I can't even pretend to relate to the enormous burden that Reese and McNabb lug around every day. If I fail, if I screw up, it affects no one but myself and my family. Not so for Reese and McNabb. McNabb knows his success can open the door a little wider for other aspiring black quarterbacks. Same with Reese.

"When I say that, people tell me, 'Man, that's a lot of pressure to put on yourself,' '' Reese said. "But I'm not a pressure kind of guy. I don't get stressed out or feel pressure. That's not who I am. If you could see the meager beginnings I came from, you'd understand that this is a piece of cake compared to that. Pressure is looking for your next meal. Trying to help your mom and your brothers and sisters. That's pressure.

"But I do feel responsible for doing well. I have [black] friends around the league who say, 'Jerry, you're in there, man. Make it happen.' When they say 'in there,' they're talking about one of the most storied franchises in all of sports. No disrespect to any other franchise, but this is New York. If you make it big here, if you can succeed here, people take notice. You can cause change. I'm driven by that. Every day, when I come to work, I have a purpose.''

Reese spent his first 5 years with the Giants as a college scout, living in Tennessee. Then, in 1999, his predecessor, Ernie Accorsi, brought him to North Jersey to be an assistant in the team's pro personnel department. Three years later, he was promoted to director of player personnel.

Reese was Accorsi's No. 1 choice to replace him when he retired after last season. But it wasn't certain that he would get the job. Chris Mara, whose brother John is the Giants' president and chief executive officer, wanted the job. Former Giants coach Bill Parcells even threw his name in the ring late in the game. Ultimately, Giants ownership went along with Accorsi's recommendation.

"There were a lot of people saying it was Jerry Reese's job,'' Reese said. "Then there was a little bit of waiting, and it looked like some of the other candidates [were getting serious consideration], and I really wasn't sure I was going to be the guy or not.

"I just kept my head down and focused on the job that I had. That's been my formula since I've been with this organization. Work hard, do your job the best you can, and everything else will take care of itself.''

In a fitting bit of timing, Reese got the phone call telling him he was the Giants' new GM on Jan. 15, which was Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Reese's first 8 months on the job have been difficult. The Giants, who lost seven of their last nine games last season, are 1-2 heading into Sunday night's game at the Meadowlands against the Eagles.

The running back that antagonized the Eagles for the better part of the last decade, Tiki Barber, retired so that he could focus full time on ripping coach Tom Coughlin. Defensive end Michael Strahan also mulled over retirement and missed all of training camp and the preseason before finally reporting a week before the start of the season.

Barber's replacement, Brandon Jacobs, is out with a knee sprain. The Giants' defense gave up 80 points in the first two games and is ranked 25th in total defense and 29th in passing.

"I didn't get a grace period with the whole Strahan thing coming like it did,'' Reese said. "But that's part of being a GM. You've got to roll with the punches. Reshuffle the deck. Play the cards you're dealt and move on.''

The difference for Reese is that he's not the only one who will be affected by the cards he plays. *

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