The Super Bowl Spotlight Shines on a Changed Man
The walls of the jail cell were built from stone, providing the perfect place for David Tyree to hit rock bottom. Arrested for drug possession after the police found half a pound of marijuana in his car, caged between stone walls and steel bars, Tyree covered his face with his hands.
Those hands, with awkwardly bent fingers and mangled knuckles, grabbed national attention years later. During the improbable victory over the undefeated Patriots, Tyree caught a desperation pass on the winning drive by pinning the ball against his helmet.
The catch introduced the 28-year-old Tyree to the world. He made the cover of Sports Illustrated and flew last week to Los Angeles to appear on national talk shows.
“What looked to be the lowest point in my life ended up being the greatest thing that ever happened to me,” Tyree, speaking of his arrest in 2004, said Saturday morning while sitting at his kitchen table.
From special-teams demon to Super Bowl deity. From moonlighting drug dealer to born-again Christian. From a child who drank alcohol and smoked marijuana with his family to a sober father and husband who started his own nonprofit organization.
This is Tyree’s version of his transformation.
The first time he can remember vomiting after drinking alcohol was in eighth grade. By his junior year at Montclair High School, he celebrated the same way after every football game — drinking a 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor and a half-pint of Jack Daniel’s whiskey, and smoking a blunt, a skinny cigar hollowed and filled with marijuana.
Tyree’s mother, Thelma, tolerated drug use in her home. She also smoked marijuana. Her philosophy, according to Tyree: “She would rather us be at home, acting the complete fool under her watch, than out on the streets, doing the same things and finding trouble that was definitely waiting for us. My house was a free-for-all.”
“Patrolling the devil’s den,” is how Tyree describes his high school life. He said that Thelma was a wonderful mother, that they were as close as mother and son could be. He does not want their relationship misinterpreted.
Born in East Orange, N.J., raised mostly in Montclair, Tyree developed a mentality built on toughness. This served him well on the football field and helped him find trouble off it.
In college at Syracuse, Tyree often drank until he blacked out. One morning, he woke up naked. Another morning, he woke up covered in mud. Each time, he could not remember why.
The Giants drafted Tyree in the sixth round in 2003. He went to church and claimed to be a Christian. But he also wanted to live what he called “an N.F.L. lifestyle” — booze and drugs and women, all readily available since he had money.
In his rookie season, Tyree was the N.F.L.’s special-teams rookie of the year and the Giants’ rookie of the year. But his seemingly perfect life was unraveling.
Near the end of Tyree’s rookie season, Coach Jim Fassel fined him $10,000 for being late to a team meeting. Tyree apologized the next day and thanked Fassel for the lesson in maturity. Fassel said he could not remember anyone ever thanking him for a fine.
Privately, Tyree figured he would recoup the fine.
“I’m smoking the best bud, so I might as well start selling it,” he said of his thinking. “That just shows you the mind-set that you have. You’ve got gangsters, you listen to 50 Cent, all this craziness. That’s the life I was living. So it made sense, man. ‘I just lost 10 G’s. I’ve got to hit the streets and get my money back.’ ”
The morning Tyree left jail, in March 2004, his estranged girlfriend, Leilah, sent him a text message. It read, “I’m with child.” She was pregnant with their second son.
He promised to visit her in Syracuse and went home and downed a bottle of Rémy Martin cognac. During the visit that month, Leilah presented Tyree with an ultimatum — her lifestyle or his.
Tyree promised change, just as he had promised before. He glimpsed a Bible on her bed, and when he picked it up and started reading from the book of Genesis, for the first time, the words on the page made sense. He went home and “called every woman and told them, ‘Things are about to change.’” Tyree said he never drank again.
Then one day, for no reason in particular, Tyree went to the Bethel Church of Love and Praise in Bloomfield, N.J. He sat in the back, about a month after the arrest.
A woman started singing before the congregation, her voice, loud and passionate, filling the room. As Tyree listened, he felt her joy and realized he had none. He lowered his head into his hands and started crying, first sniffles, then sobs lasting 25 minutes.
“I’m a successful player in the N.F.L., having what most people would desire for their lives,” Tyree said. “I’m at the pinnacle of sports. But I had no joy. I had no peace. My life was obviously in disarray.”
As Tyree talks, his family floats between the kitchen and the living room. His 6-year-old son, Teyon, grabs the digital recorder off the table. His 3-year-old son, Josiah, watches a movie in the basement. Leilah, now his wife, prepares for an afternoon baby shower. She is expecting twin girls later this month.
Missing from the picture is Thelma, who died in December of a heart attack at age 59. After Tyree found God, they went through a rough patch. He described himself then as “the Christian you don’t like,” someone who was overbearing in his beliefs. He sometimes told his mother: “You need to find Jesus. You’re going to hell.”
When Thelma died in Florida, a few years after she said she found God, her final words were: “I’m liberated.”
Up the coast, Tyree and the Giants were preparing for a game against the Redskins. The Giants pulled Tyree out of a team meeting. Leilah had tears in her eyes.
“Your mom,” she stammered. “Your mom died of a heart attack.”
For five minutes that seemed like hours, Tyree stood and stared out the nearest window. He felt someone rubbing his back, whispering in his ear. He turned to look. It was Giants Coach Tom Coughlin.
“He always believed in me,” Tyree said.
After the Giants started the season 0-2, while Tyree was recovering from a fractured wrist, he wrote a letter to his teammates and stuffed it in each locker. The message was: Something special would happen this season.
Tyree never expected to make possibly the greatest catch in the history of the Super Bowl. He never expected an earlier touchdown grab in the same game, his first of the season.
Or the trip to Los Angeles, the personalized underwear — with an 8 and a 5, representing his jersey number — from Ellen DeGeneres, or the bear hug from the entertainer Flavor Flav on Jimmy Kimmel’s show. The producers at DeGeneres’s show even fashioned Velcro to a helmet and attached a football to it, simulating Tyree’s circus grab.
“It’s imperative for me not to act like this was all me,” Tyree said.
Though the catch opened up numerous marketing opportunities for the once-anonymous Tyree, he remains more concerned with changing lives. In 2006, Tyree and his wife started Next in Line, a project that counsels teenagers.
Markell Hardy, a 14-year-old freshman at Montclair High, said she knew Tyree for a month before she found out he played football. She talked about trips to Six Flags, to Giants games and dinners.
“He really doesn’t come off like he’s a big football player,” Hardy said. “I think of him as my uncle. I just love him.”
A week ago, the world knew little of Tyree. Four years ago, he claims to have only vaguely known himself.
“It’s more than just a feel-good story,” Tyree said. “It’s not about David Tyree. It’s bigger than this Super Bowl catch. It’s about destiny and purpose.”