(Photo courtesy of the New York Giants)
By Ron Borges
Talk of Fame Network
The position he played 30 years ago would be barely recognizable today, but it was one that few approached with more raw emotion and physical dominance than Mark Bavaro.
Bavaro was a tight end from the old school. He was not a glorified wide receiver spread out and running deep posts. He was an inline blocker and a receiver who worked in heavy traffic in the middle of a defense. He craved contact the way bees crave honey.
And he usually found it.
Bavaro was a fourth-round draft choice of the New York Giants in 1985, the 100th player taken that year. By his second season in the NFL, he was All-Pro, something he would achieve twice. He was also a growing legend, known as “Rambo’’ to his teammates, not only because he bore a strong resemblance to Sylvester Stallone but because he said little and did much, nearly all of it violent in nature.
Bavaro would take over the starting position for the Giants in his rookie season after an injury sidelined Zeke Mowatt and wouldn’t give it back until a degenerative knee injury forced him to take a year off to rehabilitate after surgery in 1991. By then, Bavaro’s reputation had been made. The hard way.
“If there’s a memory in my mind of training camp, it’s all the times ‘LT’ and Carl (Banks) would line up across from Mark in one-on-ones,” recalled Bill Belichick last year during Super Bowl week. “Those were the days back in training camp where you practiced every day in pads. There were no better battles in my entire career than watching Carl and ‘LT’ go against Bavaro one-on-one.
“It was just awesome. All three of them were so good, so competitive, so tough. I don’t think Mark has ever got the recognition that any of us who coached him or played against him know that he deserves.
“Mark was as good a player as we had on the Giants, and that includes a lot of players. I know every time we played the Eagles, and they played that ‘over’ he was out there on Reggie White. He blocked him without any help. He blocked Reggie White better than most tackles blocked him. There was not another tight end in the league who could do that. I think that alone should put him in the Hall of Fame. This guy was a great football player.”
But he was more than just a blocker. In his rookie season, Bavaro sent out a warning of what was to come when he had 12 receptions against the Cincinnati Bengals, a game that convinced quarterback Phil Simms he had a valuable new weapon at his command.
A year later, Bavaro not only led the Giants in receptions with 66; his total doubled that of New York’s next highest receiver. Bavaro toted those catches for 1,001 yards and cemented his place as an NFL hard-nose on Dec. 1, 1986. On the Monday Night Football stage he caught a pass from Simms over the middle and continued until it took SEVEN San Francisco defenders, including Hall-of-Famer Ronnie Lott, to bring him down.
By then, Bavaro had lugged Lott on his back for 14 yards before he finally toppled over at the San Francisco 17-yard line, a stream of crumpled 49ers scattered around him.
“Bavaro is the premier tight end in the league,’’ 49ers’ coach Bill Walsh said that season.
It was an opinion shared by many until his knee gave out after six years as a starter. That stretch included a serious knee injury in 1989 that limited him to seven games and another year in which he played six weeks with a broken jaw, taking his meals through a straw but seldom missing a snap.
Bavaro would play a central role in the Giants’ victories in Super Bowl XX and XXV, making two key third-down receptions in the latter that kept drives alive in what became a classic 20-19 victory over the Buffalo Bills.
Despite starting 15 games that season, Bavaro was told after the Super Bowl that he suffered from a degenerative knee condition that would require surgery and likely end his career. He was to have made his first big payday the following season, but the Giants released him, later re-signing him for half what he was due ($310,000).
Bavaro rehabbed all year while also coaching tight ends at Dom Savio High in Boston, then signed a one-year contract to play for Belichick in Cleveland in 1992. He started every game and, although not the explosive offensive threat he’d been with the Giants, he remained a relentless blocker and reliable pass catcher.
Bavaro then moved on, signing the following season for more money with the Philadelphia Eagles, where he finished his nine-year career as a two-year starter. In his first season in Philadelphia, Bavaro had 43 receptions for 481 yards and six touchdowns, respectable numbers for the position at that time.
Bavaro finished his career with 351 receptions for 4,733 yards and 39 touchdowns, numbers that pale by today’s standard because of the way the passing game and the tight end’s role have evolved. But once tight ends were rough-and-tumble performers who made their living in the middle of the field and in the middle of a defensive lineman’s chest. Few that ever played that position played it better than Mark Bavaro.
“I think Mark’s in a really special category,’’ Belichick said. “His toughness, his overall complete play as a tight end and blocker, just as a total competitor, was just outstanding.’’
Asked once if he would have rather played in today’s more wide open game than in the more physically demanding, hard-nosed 1980s, Bavaro didn’t hesitate.
“I would definitely have to adapt my football philosophy (today), and I don’t think I would like it as much,’’ he said. “I really enjoyed being on the line. Blocking back then was 80 percent of the game for me. You’d hope to catch maybe three or four balls a game and have those three or four balls be important. That was the biggest goal I’d have going into a game — to make three or four pivotal catches.”
It was a goal Mark Bavaro often achieved. Was it enough to make him a Hall of Famer? Maybe the greatest coach in pro football history, Bill Belichick, seems to think so.