His thick Boston brogue stood out as soon as we exchanged greetings. Going into the call, I knew that Bernie Corbett was the voice of Harvard football and Boston University hockey, but the accent still threw me. I stumbled and looked down at my notes to make sure that I was in fact talking to the guy who literally wrote the book about the New York Giants. Anyone would be confused.
Corbett is the author of The Most Memorable Games in Giants History: The Oral History of a Legendary Team. Like any other Giants fan, Corbett is gearing up for this Sunday night's game between the Giants and the Dallas Cowboys, two teams battling for control of the NFC East. Corbett's even a season ticket holder. Unlike so many other Giants fans, however, Bernie Corbett also has season tickets to the Boston Red Sox.
With teams in 32 of America's largest media markets, with a couple exceptions, and some $7 billion each year in broadcasting revenues, you might have forgotten that the NFL was once a considerably smaller product.
"When the NFL first started get exposure on television, in the mid- to late-fifties, pre-AFL, you had a situation where there was huge void in New England," explained Corbett.
The NFL's rise to television dominance started slowly. At first, only the Los Angeles Rams and Washington Redskins had all of their game televised along with the league championship games. The Giants joined the ranks of the team that had all of their games broadcast by the laet 1950s.
"When the NFL started beaming all of the games, the Giants games ended up in all of those New England markets," said Corbett. Nature abhors a vacuum, but it takes more than just filling vacant airwaves to establish a toehold with sports fans.
"The Giants had the biggest footprint fan base of any team in the history of sports, and as luck would have it, they were good," added Corbett. "The were glamorous; they were colorful. Frank Gifford, Sam Huff...they were household names. They were great players. They played big games, like the 1958 game."
The 1958 game Corbett refers to is the NFL championship game between the Giants and the Baltimore Colts, also known as the "Greatest Game Ever Played." It took place at Yankee Stadium and was broadcast nationwide. Complete with a sudden death overtime win by the Colts, that game helped launch the NFL to national prominence and ushered in the first modern incarnations of the league's national television deals.
"My dad and all of his friends, pro football fans that lived in Boston, they were all Giants fans," said Corbett. "I think I was seven or eight years old when I started watching the games."
Paternal bonding is more powerful than the television markets, sometimes more powerful than winning.
"Ages three through 21 were years that the Giants didn't make the playoffs," noted Corbett. I never thought I'd see them make the playoffs, I swear to God. The defintion of playoffs to me growing up was something that someone else's team plays in. Loyal to the Giants, loyal to my father, I would never think of rooting for someone else."
Corbett's formative years as a Giants fan coincided with a very successful period for the Cowboys, who became regular postseason entrants in 1966. The rivalry between the Giants and the Cowboys didn't really heat up until the 1980s, when Giants rediscovered success, led by household names like Phil Simms and Lawrence Taylor. A 1981 regular season finale between the two teams makes an appearance in Corbett's book as one of the greatest games.
In that game, the Giants were fighting for a spot in the playoffs. The Cowboys, led by Tom Landry, had the NFC East all wrapped up, but were vying with the 49ers of Joe Montana and Bill Walsh for top seeding the playoffs. New York won the game in overtime. It put them into the playoffs, where they lost in the division round to the 49ers, the eventual champs. Dallas lost to the same 49ers team in the conference championship.
That game ushered in the more heated Giants-Cowboys rivalry we know today, the one that will play out on Sunday night with implications for the NFC East title. Naturally, that rivalry touches Corbett's family tree.
"When you sit down on Sunday, the great American tradition, when you sit down on Sunday next to your dad, if you love your father, you root for the same team. If you want to be a pain in the ass front runner like my younger brother, you become a Cowboys fan."