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The New York Giants' locker room is as much a shrine to the
franchise's glory days as it is a place for the 1997 Giants to
dress. The walls are adorned with large color photographs of New
York players, and a handful of the classic wood lockers, which
give the place a men's-club feel, carry gold plaques etched with
the names of former stars . It was here that coach Jim Fassel
addressed his team before the Giants' season opener against the
Philadelphia Eagles: a rookie NFL coach talking to a team that
finished last in the NFC East in 1996 and that had the youngest
roster in the league. Fassel likened the task New York was
facing to someone's riding a bike on a tightrope strung between
two mountaintops. He paused, then added, "I'm the one driving
the bike. Who'll risk everything to jump on and come with me?" A
few arms shot up immediately and a few more soon thereafter
until, finally, every player had a hand raised.

Fifteen weeks later, after the Giants had beaten the Washington
Redskins 30-10 to win their first division title since 1990,
Fassel stood near the spot where he had made his opening-day
speech. This time tears streamed down his face. You could hardly
blame him.

Linebacker Corey Miller stepped forward and handed Fassel a game
ball. "Coach, we're all very thankful for what you and the rest
of the coaches have done," said Miller, "and we're looking
forward to many more good things to come." Fassel choked out
these words: "From worst to first. No one believed it was
possible except the guys in this room." Then he walked around
the locker room and shook every player's hand.

Off to one side New York's 81-year-old president, Wellington
Mara, holding an NFC EAST CHAMPIONS T-shirt, stood with his
grandson John Jr. When the Giants started 1-3 and fans were
asking for Fassel's head on a platter, the franchise's patriarch
remembers writing to a friend in the league that even though New
York was struggling, something special seemed to be happening.
Last Saturday, Mara was asked if this, the most unlikely of the
17 division titles with which he has been associated, had made
him cry, too.

"I only cry when we lose," he said, perhaps thinking ahead to
the playoffs, where the 9-5-1 Giants could very well get whacked
by a wild-card team. "What do you say we give this team five
more years before we start comparing it to any of our great
older teams? We've got the youngest team in the league, right?
Well, I bet they'll be pretty good when they grow up, huh?"

If the silver-haired Mara, a 1997 Pro Football Hall of Fame
inductee who kept his tie in place on Saturday with a clip
commemorating the 1962 NFL Championship Game (in which the
Giants lost to the Green Bay Packers), is old school, then
Fassel represents the future. He's just not what New York fans
have come to expect in a coach.

Fassel is a seemingly laid-back 48-year-old Californian who
could pass for Mr. Peabody's son, Sherman. With his
sandy-colored 'do, he must have looked just the part when,
before getting a job as a Utah assistant coach in 1976, he
worked as a salesman for an air-conditioning company. How un-New
York is Fassel? When the car of his wife, Kitty, was stolen in
November, he dialed the car phone number and--God love him--told
the alleged thief, "I want my car back." (He still hasn't
recovered it.)

Fassel is a stickler for detail. Every week the Giants' offense
practices in the same colored jerseys New York will wear in its
upcoming game. Aware that it was possible to spy on practices
from a nearby hotel, he moved workouts for his team's first
meeting with the Redskins inside Giants Stadium. On the night
before games, phones are turned off in the team hotel so no one
is bothered, and when on Nov. 9 New York played the Tennessee
Oilers in the Liberty Bowl, which has small locker rooms, he
staggered the arrival of the team buses so that players wouldn't
have to wait to get taped.

"The difference between this year and [life under former coach
Dan] Reeves is like night and day," says cornerback Jason
Sehorn, who returned the second of his two interceptions on
Saturday 35 yards for a fourth-quarter touchdown. "We have the
youngest team in the league. Who do you think would work better
here: a guy who had been doing things with a lot of success for
20 years and saw no need to change, or someone who is new at
this and more flexible and is constantly telling us, 'This is
your team, tell me how to run it better.'"

This isn't to suggest that Fassel is a pushover. In the
preseason, for example, he blistered left tackle Roman Oben for
getting beaten on a pair of sacks. "I've really let a few of the
guys have it this year," says Fassel. "But nobody ever wilted.
And that's the key to this team. Under all the pressure and all
the obstacles, none of us wilted.

"When I got here, we were a no-fight, no-feeling group. We
needed to create a personality. What has emerged is a group of
guys who love to tee it up and play football. What I love the
most about this team is when the offense has trouble, someone
from the defense always tells me 'Don't worry, Coach. We'll get
us back in it.' And when the defense struggles, someone from the
offense always comes by on the sideline and says exactly the
same thing."

A quarterback at Southern Cal and Long Beach State who was
selected in the seventh round of the 1972 draft by the Chicago
Bears but never played in an NFL regular-season game, Fassel
made 11 coaching stops in 24 years before getting the Giants'
top job. As the offensive coordinator at Stanford from '79 to
'83, he got the credit for landing prize recruit John Elway. In
his only other head coaching experience, he led Utah to a 25-33
record from '85 to '89. General manager George Young got a close
look at his future coach when Fassell was an assistant in New
York in '91 and '92. The following year, when Elway was
considered by some to be on the downside of his career, it was
Fassel, then the Denver Broncos' offensive coordinator, who
guided Elway to his most productive season. This year Fassel has
had success developing a quarterback with virtually no NFL

A 1996 fourth-round draft pick out of Florida State, Danny
Kanell came off the bench for the injured and uninspiring Dave
Brown during an Oct. 5 game against the Dallas Cowboys. The
scrappy Giants responded to Kanell, and New York beat Dallas
20-17. But when he began to struggle, Kanell received a
step-it-up-or-else ultimatum from Fassel in the week leading up
to a Dec. 7 showdown against the Eagles. Kanell responded by
throwing three touchdown passes in a 31-21win.

But Fassel hasn't been all tough love with Kanell, who makes the
league minimum of $164,000 for a second-year player and has been
known to sign 500 autographs in one sitting to supplement his
income. Kanell hasn't exactly been brimming with confidence
playing in the glare of the New York spotlight. Fans still have
a problem putting the face with the name. Recently after
explaining to a couple of neighbors which position he plays, he
entered his townhouse to find a note on his kitchen counter. The
message was from a woman who walks his Rhodesian Ridgeback
puppy, Rookie. "I'm really sorry," it started out, "but another
dog peed all over Rookie's head today."

"Two weeks ago I was fighting for my job, and now I'm handing
out NFC East championship hats to my family," Kanell said on his
way out of Giants Stadium on Saturday. "At first I was bothered
by how Jim went public with his challenge. But privately, the
week after he said that, he practically never left my side. He
was like a shadow, taking care of me and helping me to prepare.
He didn't just speak out and then abandon me. Now I'll prepare
like I did for the Philadelphia game for every game I play."

More of Fassel's tinkering uncovered another hidden gem. When he
took over the Giants last January, one of the first areas that
Fassel addressed was getting his fullback more involved in the
offense. Some strategic twists were implemented in the spring,
and Charles Way went from being a solid blocking back who rushed
for 85 yards and caught 39 passes in his first two seasons to
being on the cusp of the Pro Bowl almost overnight.

Way leads all fullbacks in yards from scrimmage, with 683
rushing and 299 receiving. In a perfect world the player whom
teammates have nicknamed Mr. Goody Two Shoes would be joining
defensive end Michael Strahan and linebacker Jessie Armstead at
the Pro Bowl. "Charles has been the mainstay for this team all
year," says Fassel. "He has carried a heavy load, and I wouldn't
trade him for any fullback in the league."

If New York, which is 3-5 outside its own weak division, is to
have any chance at winning a postseason game for the first time
in four years, Way will have to show the way. And the defense
will have to continue to swarm opponents in the same manner that
has produced an NFL-best plus-23 in the giveaway-takeaway
category. "We're all pretty nice guys," Armstead says, "but once
we're on the field, we will kill people if that's what we have
to do to win."

The Redskins were more than happy to just play dead on Saturday,
but in administering the obligatory Gatorade shower, Miller and
Strahan hit Fassel so hard with the cooler that they almost
knocked the coach over. After the game ball presentation, Miller
apologized to the coach for the rough treatment. Then he went
back to the middle of the locker room and hollered one last
message to his teammates. "Hey, fellas," he said, "we're not
done yet."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS Sehorn (31) skied for the first of his two interceptions, one of six turnovers the Giants forced.[Jason Sehorn intercepting pass intended for Michael Westbrook]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS Kanell (13) has a low profile, but he has guided the Giants to an 8-2-1 record since taking over. [Danny Kanell throwing football in game]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS Way rambled for a 15-yard score on the Giants' second possession, and New York never looked back. [Ken Harvey, Charles Way and others in game]