Ten years ago this week, Colonel Greg Gadson sat at FedEx Field, wondering just what he had gotten himself into. The night before, the decorated war hero had spoken to the New York Giants at their team hotel, a speech of encouragement and hope, a timely message for a 2007 season that had started 0-2.
As Gadson sat in the stadium, he looked up at the scoreboard just prior to halftime.
The Giants were down, on the road, 17-3 to the Washington Redskins. He remembers chuckling, shaking his head and thinking his career as a motivational speaker was probably over.
Instead, it was far from the final speech he’d give to the Giants that year as the team found inspiration in Gadson’s life and resilience.
Growing up as a Giants fan in the Tidewater area of Virginia, Gadson always dreamed of one day playing in the NFL. That dream faded once he went to school at West Point and served a tour of duty in Iraq.
He knew full well that he wouldn’t follow in the steps of Lawrence Taylor, his favorite player in the NFL and the reason why he wore No. 98 at Army (Lawrence’s college number at North Carolina). But he did impact the Giants during a 2007 season that ended with an improbable Super Bowl title over the New England Patriots.
Gadson spoke in Week 3 of that 2007 season at the team’s hotel, hours before the Giants would take the field in Washington. Not unlike this year, the Giants struggled out the gate in 2007, going 0-2 and facing an NFC East rival on the road in their third game of the season.
He never spoke to an NFL team before, but he had plenty to draw upon from his own life.
“I decided to talk to them about life and the fragility of life. You don’t get a lot of second chances to do things. It’s about being in the moment. I tried to talk about commitment to each other,” Gadson told Metro. “I’m as proud an American as anyone here. I love America, mom and dad and apple pie. But when we’re downrange and under fire, we’re fighting for each other. There’s nobody in the stadium, no Giants fan who can do anything for you. You have to fight.”
He remembers more of that speech.
“I’m here before you as someone who won’t do the things I used to do in the Army. A lot of things can change you — injuries, illness or death,” Gadson said. “I don’t want you to look back and say ‘What if?’ What if I worked harder? What if I did more?’ I remember the score at halftime...I remember thinking that I’m not a very good motivational speaker.”
He played college football for Army where he served as one of their captains his senior year. He had a promising career in the military and distinguished himself during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
But that career took a detour when, on May 7, 2007, while returning from a funeral for two soldiers in Iraq, an explosive went off and severely injured Gadson. Due to the injuries, he became a bilateral above-the-knee amputee.
Former Giants head coach Tom Coughlin had heard about Gadson’s story through Mike Sullivan, a member of his coaching staff who played with Gadson at West Point. He invited the colonel to come speak to his team that Sunday before playing the Redskins.
The day before he was to speak to the Giants, Gadson wondered what he could possibly say to these NFL players. His own career on the football field was strong but certainly not at the level of these Giants players he was going to address.
So he went with his gut and spoke about what happened to him the last few months, about the turns his life took just four months earlier. The players responded well and every couple of weeks when they spoke on the phone, Sullivan would tell Gadson that the players were asking about him.
Coughlin extended an invitation for Gadson to join the team whenever he wanted to.
“I was a bit cynical, thinking ‘They’re being nice because I’m the guy who got blown up.’ I didn’t appreciate the depth of what they thought of me,” Gadson said.
The Giants rebounded from their sluggish 0-2 start to finish 10-6 and make the playoffs. For the Wild Card game at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Gadson went down as a guest of the team and Coughlin in particular.
After checking in at the team hotel, he headed to the lobby to wait for the team. He figured some might remember him but he never anticipated the emotion the team would have when they saw him for the first time in the lobby.
“I could see it in their eyes. I could see the admiration and love they had for me,” Gadson said. “I could feel it.”
Embraces, hugs and handshakes followed.
The Giants won the Wild Card game and the invite went out from Coughlin again for Gadson to join them next week at the Dallas Cowboys. It was an offer Gadson had to decline this time as he had surgery planned.
When the Giants won, setting up a meeting with the Green Bay Packers the next weekend, Coughlin again sent an invitation for the former colonel to be an honorary team captain alongside Giants legend Harry Carson.
Gadson, now founder of Patriot Strategies LLC, admits that in the months after his injury, the Giants had by this point become a brotherhood to him. It was not unlike the bond he felt with his fellow soldiers.
With the Giants, he followed the team schedule, was in the team hotel. Gadson ate meals with the players and staff, was in the locker room before and after the game. It wasn’t a formal role, he was just there to provide support and encouragement.
A win set Gadson up with a trip to the Super Bowl in Arizona. Again, the invitation from Coughlin was extended. Again, Gadson was integrated fully into the squad.
Two days before the Super Bowl, that Friday — following the first time he saw the Giants practice all year — Gadson sat on the bus next to Coughlin. He leaned over and said he’d like to speak to the team again if it was alright with Coughlin.
The Giants head coach smiled and agreed. The man whose speech had helped kickstart their season four months earlier in Week 3 was always welcome to speak.
Especially before a Super Bowl where his team was such heavy underdogs to a Patriots team that came into the game 18-0.
“Shared some of my personal feelings — how the Giants ‘had become a team’ — how they took on the challenge before them,” Gadson said. “The first thing I told them, and this is still emotional for me right now, if I could be anywhere right now, I’d be back with my soldiers back in Iraq. I knew it wasn’t possible. But I was there with them and I couldn’t ask for a better team then or now. The response was total quiet he says — I don’t know if they even clapped.”
He thought his message again had fallen short. Instead, the team concept Gadson spoke of resonated the following day.
The Giants, down 14-10 late in the fourth quarter, utilized a miraculous David Tyree catch on the side of his helmet to spark a fourth quarterback comeback. Tyree, an oft-used wide receiver, was coming off a tough practice that Friday where he had several drops.
After Tyree’s big play, a Plaxico Burress touchdown catch moments later helped to pull off one of the biggest Super Bowl upsets of all time. The team that Gadson had spoken to the day before had done it.
Gadson received his Super Bowl ring from the organization that May, a year after a roadside bomb had changed his life and in turn, had changed a Giants season.