After ‘The Helmet Catch,’ David Tyree took a winding road to his second Giants job
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — David Tyree went for chicken wings a few weeks ago, stole a glance at the television in the restaurant and saw … David Tyree, playing for the Giants in Super Bowl XLII. Here, again, always and forever, was The Helmet Catch, or, for those rare humans who don’t watch football or own televisions, that time Tyree caught a football with nothing more than several fingers and the equipment shielding his head.
“Congratulations,” his friend said at the restaurant, their eyes trained on the TV.
“What the hell are you talking about?” Tyree asked.
“You didn’t know?” the friend asked, relaying that the NFL Network had named his catch the single greatest in NFL history.
“No idea,” Tyree responded.
Strange and true: The retired wideout whose spontaneous resourcefulness birthed the ultimate NFL highlight, whose miraculous reception was spoofed by Justin Timberlake and explored in a short film by Spike Lee, does not watch said highlight at his Jersey home. That’s because Tyree, his wife Leilah and their seven children—four boys, three girls, ages three to 15—do not have a television. His kids, even the teenagers, do not possess smart phones. No iPads. No video games. The Tyree family considers a trip to Barnes & Noble a big night out, even as bookworms do double-takes at the Super Bowl hero scanning the biography section. “I’m basically the gatekeeper to buffoonery,” Tyree says. “I’m also a purist. We don’t do eBooks.”
Stranger and also true: The retired wideout who was arrested for drug possession in 2004 while playing for the Giants, who regularly arrived late to team meetings and often drank until he blacked out, is now the franchise’s director of player development, a big brother-ish, mentor-like role that is common throughout the NFL. As he assists the current New York football Giants in career transition, training and development, it’s not lost on Tyree the Technophobe that “they won’t do anything but text.”
His story is a non-linear, at times backward, evolution. Tyree partied before he became famous, found God, made The Helmet Catch, won a Super Bowl, went on Ellen, hugged Flavor Flav on Jimmy Kimmel, suffered through injury after injury, retired, wrote a book and then mostly retreated from public view.
Now, Tyree is a wrestling parent who chose singlets over shoulder pads for his sons. Leilah is a certified nurse and a midwife, and he jokes they now have enough children to compete in 7-on-7 drills with another brood. This life seemed unlikely to even Tyree as recently as 2010. In fact, when one of his Syracuse college teammates, Falcons pass rusher Dwight Freeney, is told of Tyree’s current role with the Giants, his eyes widen and he says, “Get the hell out of here.”
It’s true, Freeney is informed. When wideout Odell Beckham Jr. and several teammates sparked widespread outrage by spending their recent off day in Miami on a speedboat, Tyree was among those who provided counsel. Freeney shakes his head. “I’ve never seen a more drastic change in an individual,” he says, “than with him.”
Tyree reclines inside a public relations office at Giants headquarters, the TV nearby tuned to a bowl game in late December. He wears a red nylon Giants pullover, blue jeans and black Nikes—and appears similar in size and fitness level to when he retired. Told of Freeney’s reaction to his latest incarnation, Tyree doubles over in laughter. “That is probably an accurate assessment,” he says.
Before he moved permanently into the player development office, Tyree spent quite a bit of time there—not yet the Developer, still the Developing. His predecessor was Charles Way, a Giants fullback from 1995 to ’99, and he summoned Tyree on numerous occasions. Tyree was fined $10,000 for serial tardiness and crashed not one but two cars. Police also found him in possession of 200 grams of marijuana after they stopped him for a broken tail light, and he later spent four days in the psychiatric ward of a local hospital after claiming he was the devil and heard voices. Concerned family members performed, he says, “what you might call an exorcism.”
“It was like a nervous breakdown,” Tyree says. “Life converged on me all at once. I’m a new Christian, I’m sincere, but I’m deeply deceived. I didn’t really possess the humility to listen. Next thing I know, I’m sitting in the hospital, and they’re testing me, talking about psychosis.”
After jail, before the Super Bowl run, one of Tyree’s pastors told him he would be in the Hall of Fame one day. Yeah, right, he thought. That seemed implausible, considering that even though Tyree had made a Pro Bowl and ranked among the NFL’s top special teams players, he entered the 2007 season with 50 receptions—as in, career grabs, over four NFL campaigns. His specialty? Covering punts and kickoffs. Not exactly a glamorous position.
“To my teammates and peers,” he started a letter he wrote the Giants before that season. Essentially, the dispatch urged his teammates to work harder, turn to God and have “the assurance that you did everything in your power to succeed.” He predicted a Super Bowl victory and invited them to Bible study at his house. While few showed, this marked his first real step into player development, unbeknownst to him at the time.
Tyree’s mother, Thelma, died from a heart attack early in the Giants’ postseason run, causing him to miss the divisional round contest against Dallas. The G-Men won that game and survived the frigid temperatures in Green Bay the next week to reach the Super Bowl, where the undefeated Patriots waited.
Fast forward past even Tyree’s touchdown early in the fourth quarter that made the score 10–7, Giants. The Patriots regained the lead with 2:42 remaining, and on New York’s ensuing drive, on third-and-five from their own 44, quarterback Eli Manning escaped heavy pressure and lofted a prayer down field to Tyree … who leapt … and trapped the ball against … all together now … his … helmet. Four plays later, Manning found Plaxico Burress for the winning score, and Tyree had what he now calls “the most forgotten touchdown and greatest catch in NFL history.”
Almost nine years later, Tyree remembers few specifics from The Helmet Catch. At the Super Bowl, he didn’t know what had transpired until he watched it on replay later that night at the team hotel. “I was,” he says, “impressed with my own work.”
“People sideswipe, like he’s a one-catch wonder,” Tyree says. “I had a pretty good career.”
Rodney Harrison, the safety covering Tyree on the play, has described his catch as luck. “Providence,” Tyree corrects. “That was a divine moment. That was not luck, so don’t minimize it because you’re on the wrong side of it. Rodney’s going into the Hall of Fame. He’ll be O.K.”
Tyree shakes his head, laughs, smiles. That was the last pass he caught in a Giants uniform.
“Providence,” he says again.
In the immediate aftermath, Tyree loved how the play defined him. There were talk shows and autograph requests and fans who told him they tore ligaments in celebration. But as various injuries stalled his 2008 season, sent him to Baltimore in ’09 and ultimately drove Tyree into early retirement, he grew to disdain the play and what it represented: his football peak.
Retired life wasn’t any easier, as Tyree went to work for a friend who ran what he describes in vague terms as several companies in everything from finance to payroll to workman’s compensation. His calendar, once scheduled by the hour with team meetings, practice and film study, was suddenly nothing but blank pages. “It was daunting,” Tyree said. “Just not having a clue. Really, I just wasn’t ready for it. It exposed my weaknesses as a professional.”
In 2011, Tyree added controversy to his retirement portfolio, saying on Twitter and elsewhere that he would trade his renowned catch if that stopped gay people from being married. Condemned by the Human Rights Campaign, among others, Tyree only dug deeper into his stance. He posted that “there is no scientific evidence to support the claim of being born gay” and associated with the far-right National Organization for Marriage. Tyree would later meet with Wade Davis, a retired NFL player who came out after his career ended, and tell Davis that his personal views would never impact how he would treat another human. But the tweets, like The Helmet Catch, would in some ways always partially define him.
Tyree wished he had listened more to Way, his predecessor in player development, when he spoke about opportunities that teams and the league provided to players for their post-football careers. “I wasn’t aware,” he says, “and I wasn’t seeking those things.”
The uncertainty was also future job prep, although Tyree didn’t know that, either. What he knew was that the real world had exposed him, and that didn’t matter to the five children of his who needed food and shelter. At one point, Tyree was unemployed for fourth months, and, fraught with anxiety, he considered a career in broadcasting. Imagine that, The Helmet Catch Guy turned Talking Head.
Then one day in 2012 he got a phone call.
“Providence,” he says again.
Retired NFL wideout James Thrash called to invite Tyree to a seminar on career transitions. The other attendees felt just as lost as Tyree did, and that eased some of his anxiety. Thrash also introduced Tyree to Troy Vincent, the former Eagles safety who worked for the NFL in player engagement. Vincent offered Tyree a part-time gig in his office. It wasn’t much money, but Tyree accepted immediately.
Tyree spent most of the next two years with the NFL, commuting from northern New Jersey to Park Avenue, learning the rhythms of that office life. He worked on the league’s 1st & Goal initiative, providing football teams in inner-city schools with necessary resources like better equipment and academic advisors. He helped with the career transition program, having just transitioned himself away from doubt.
In 2014, at the league’s rookie symposium, Tyree learned that Way was a finalist for a position in the league office. Just a few weeks prior, when a friend asked him if he would ever consider working in player development for a particular team, Tyree had dismissed the possibility. He didn’t want to move. But if Way left, the Giants position would open, and his family could stay put. That’s what happened. Way took the NFL gig, Tyree interviewed for his old post and the Giants hired him—although not without controversy over what he had said and tweeted three years earlier.
“I felt horrible,” he says. “If anything, my beliefs helped me have an understanding for all people. I mean, I know people. Frigging love people. Having strong convictions don’t mean you’re devoid of love and understanding.”
As for how and whether his views on gay marriage have evolved, Tyree says “that was a long time ago” and that he would support a gay Giants player “100%.”
Tyree leans forward at Giants headquarters. The Helmet Catch unspools on my cell phone; this particular YouTube video has been viewed more than 300,000 times. “I knew I wasn’t letting it go,” he says, his eyes locked on the screen as the highlight he rarely watches plays on repeat.
“I’m just making sure I secure the ball,” he continues. “I knew I had the catch.”
He’s asked if he ever shows this clip to Beckham after one of the wideout’s patented one-handed grabs. He laughs again. “The difference between me and that kid is that everything he does he can probably do again. I told you. Mine was a divine act.”
Tyree sees his entire life this way, as a series of events outside his control, leading to this moment, even to this interview in the p.r. office. The pot, the arrest, the controversy, The Helmet Catch, the slide back into relative anonymity—all that, he says, made him better at his current role. He can relate to players like Beckham, or running back Rashad Jennings, who as a junior at Liberty made $1,100 off The Helmet Catch when he won a Super Bowl pool, his score prediction coming closest to the actual result. “There’s an authenticity to [Tyree] that you can’t just create,” Jennings says. “You have to have lived through those situations and come through them. We know that when he says something it’s genuine. He’s been there.”
Sometimes, mostly when a player sits down in his office, Tyree flashes back to his meeting with Way. That kid needed to grow up—and did, eventually.
He can’t escape The Helmet Catch, whether at wrestling meets or grocery shopping, and he receives somewhere between 10 and 20 letters a week from fans. His helmet from the play resides in Canton, Ohio, in an exhibit at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His pastor was correct. He made it there.
“If anything,” Tyree says, “I could have capitalized more on that play. I know I didn’t squeeze the towel. But that’s O.K. My dream was to play Division I football. I did that. I was a pretty decent football player. I had my moment.”
He stops, picking his words carefully. “Everyone wants to talk about The Catch,” he says. “But I feel like the book I could write now would be far better than the book I wrote a few years ago.
“My story is about more than just a catch.”