Failure is not an option for Jerry Reese

Jerry Reese and the Giants are focused on the NFC title game in San Francisco. Chris Faytok/The Star-Ledger/US Presswire

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Jerry Reese was sitting at his desk Wednesday, a window on the practice fields behind him, the road to San Francisco in front of him, when his voice suddenly rose while recalling that first meeting with the head coach.

Reese was promoted by the New York Giants on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday five years back, hired as the first African-American general manager of a New York football team. He knew Tom Coughlin as a Giants scout and personnel guy, but he needed Coughlin to understand something as his brand-new boss.

"Tom," Reese told him, "failure is not an option to me."

Coughlin's face suddenly brightened as if flipped on by a switch.

"Those were the first words I ever said to him as GM," Reese recalled in an interview in his office with ESPNNewYork.com. "And you could see it immediately on Tom's face, kind of like, 'Hey, I think we've got the right guy here.'"

The right guy? Who was saying that when the Giants announced the retiring Ernie Accorsi was being replaced by the anonymous Reese, a small-college safety who never played in the NFL, the great-grandson of a sharecropper, a kid from Tennessee who grew up skinning hogs in a backwoods slaughterhouse?

Chris Mara, a respected talent evaluator and brother of the co-owner John, desperately wanted the job. Chris was influential in the trade for Eli Manning, in the drafting of Ahmad Bradshaw, and he'd ignored other opportunities around the league to wait for Accorsi to retire.

Only the Maras' 50/50 partners, Steve and Jonathan Tisch, didn't want a GM who would've been unfireable, and Reese became the compromise candidate. John Mara broke the news to Chris, broke his brother's heart, but shared the Tisches' belief in Reese as a prospect who might become a front-office star.

"And every now and then," Reese said, "I'll tell John, 'You had to have some nuts to walk out there that day in January five years ago and say, 'OK, this is our general manager,' to the New York press. Everybody's like, 'Who is this guy?' and 'Where did he come from?' John just told me, 'You earned it. You deserved it.'"

But back to that opening meeting with Coughlin, who had nearly been fired in the immediate wake of the 2006 season. When Reese told him failure wasn't an option, he wasn't talking about his own career as a GM. He was talking about the aspirations of young African-American executives-to-be.

"A lot of people suffered, including Martin Luther King," Reese said, "for me just to have the opportunity to be here."

He planned on honoring the suffering and sacrifices with a work ethic and success rate that would open doors for the next generation of Jerry Reeses, and no, nobody said it would be easy. Last summer, when Steve Smith and Kevin Boss left, when Shaun O'Hara and Rich Seubert were cut, when Plaxico Burress signed with the Jets, Reese got his share of letters, emails, and voice mails from irate fans wondering what in the world he was doing.

Every GM in every sport knows the drill. Some actually wished poor health on Reese, and some Jurassic-minded fans questioned if he was qualified for the job.

"Nobody ever came out and called me the N-word, but I do think it got racial at times," Reese said. "In '07, guys were saying, 'Wellington Mara is rolling over in his grave,' and 'I can't believe they hired you.' It's just part of the deal. I'm my own worst critic, anyway."

Reese never backed away from the challenge. In fact, during training camp before the 2007 season, the rookie GM reviewed a roster that had 8-8 written all over it and actually had the nerve to say, "I think we have as good a chance as anyone else … in the National Football League, period, to win the whole thing. There's no question in my mind."

Of course, the Giants won the whole thing, and Reese became the first African-American GM to claim a Super Bowl title. Two days after his team beat the 18-0 New England Patriots, Reese sent an email to Doug Williams, the first African-American quarterback to claim a Super Bowl title.

"I will keep pushing," Reese wrote. "I won't let you down."

So he kept pushing through the Burress shooting in 2008, through the playoff-free seasons of 2009 and 2010, and through the kind of low-profile offseason in 2011 -- re-signing Kevin Boothe, signing David Baas, etc. -- that inspired some fans to call for a new GM. Reese responded by declaring the Giants a playoff team, and by later telling ESPNNewYork.com the following:

"I think this team is good enough, yeah, to go all the way. I do. I do."

Now Reese is on the brink of going 2-for-2 in his Super Bowl forecasts, and his summertime choices are looking smarter by the possession.

Steve Smith? "He had 107 catches [in 2009], and we won eight games," Reese said. "In his big year we went 8-8. I love the kid, he did a terrific job for us, but with his injury situation it didn't make sense for us to pour a lot of money into that contract."

Kevin Boss? "He had 35 catches and [531] yards," Reese said. "I thought the tight ends we had could duplicate that."

Plaxico Burress? "We knew we had 20 touchdowns and 2,000 yards coming back in Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham," Reese said. "We knew Victor Cruz had flashed, [Ramses] Barden and [Domenik] Hixon were coming back, and we'd drafted Jerrel Jernigan. We just needed one of them to step up."

David Baas? "Not a sexy move," Reese said, "but we had him as the highest-rated guy in free agency at his position and we knew we had a couple of old, hurt guys [O'Hara, Seubert] on the offensive line that we were going to move on from."

Kevin Boothe? "I said he became our priority," Reese said, "and everyone went, 'You've got to be sh---ing me? But he knew our system, we could fit him in anywhere on the line, and he's been great for us."

So has Cruz, the undrafted, unwanted one who finished with only 1,536 receiving yards. Reese had no idea Cruz would immediately ascend to NFL stardom, but then again, another New York GM, Branch Rickey, said luck is the residue of design.

"That offseason Super Bowl thing," Reese said, "Philly won it this past season. They went out and made big, sexy moves, and other teams have done that in the past. But this isn't fantasy football. You have to make the right offers, and you can't panic in free agency if players don't take them.

"My job is to make us relevant every year, and give us a chance to make the playoffs and win the Super Bowl. You do that by making good football moves for your team."

And by making tough ones, too. Reese won a contract staredown with Michael Strahan in the '07 camp, and another contract staredown with Osi Umenyiora in the team's latest camp. Wednesday, the GM pointed to a visitor in his office and spoke of the pain of firing proud and accomplished Giants.

"Players sitting right where you are," Reese said. "Richie Seubert, Amani Toomer, David Tyree. The hardest part of my job is telling those people that we're going in a different direction. … I've watched guys cry right in front of me. It's terrible. I absolutely hate it."

On Reese's desk rests a bottle of fish-oil pills (to keep his blood pressure in check), a pamphlet of passages titled "Encounter with God" and a small, loose-leaf notebook that serves as his daily diary. The GM tries to read the devotional literature every day and write down his thoughts on the passages' meaning.

Though not as publicly expressive about his faith as Tim Tebow, Reese revealed he experienced a spiritual awakening years ago. "We've won the Super Bowl, and I've been the GM of the Giants," he said, "but totally submitting my life to Jesus Christ is my biggest accomplishment ever, and it's not even close."

Reese prefers to limit his interviews, to let the players and coaches bask in the glow of another NFC Championship Game. He doesn't wear his Super Bowl ring, he said, "because it's big and gaudy, and because it happened so long ago. I'd like to get a new one to wear."

He's 48 now, and his career is just getting started. As a calm, reserved voice inside a calm, reserved franchise, Reese has a chance to match or exceed George Young's 19-year run as Giants GM, and to match or exceed Young's two titles.

But the cause is much bigger than Jerry Reese himself, which is why failure is not an option on the road to San Francisco and beyond.

Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." "Sunday Morning With Ian O'Connor" can be heard every Sunday from 9 to 11 a.m. ET on ESPN New York 1050.