TAMPA,FLA. — TAMPA, Fla. -- He was the anti-interview when the Giants played in the Super Bowl four years ago, a portrait in monosyllabism for the world's press to study. It seemed in character for a player so gruff and rugged his teammates tried to nickname him "Rambo."
Mark Bavaro is not a cartoon, though. We have learned that this week. He remains among the game's toughest players, but the notion that he has a matching personality is wrong. We know that now. Back in the Super Bowl again, Bavaro, the Garbo of the Giants, has this time opened up and let the world see inside. And to borrow from Gertrude Stein, there is there there.
In a soft voice buttered with a Boston accent -- "Bill Pah-sells" -- he has discussed the war, his renewed Catholicism, his commitment to the anti-abortion movement, his surly ways of yesteryear. This sudden outpouring has shocked even teammates, several of whom admit they haven't scratched Bavaro's surface even though they have shared a locker room for six years.
He is 27 years old now, a father of two, a Notre Dame graduate with relentless green eyes, endless eyelashes, a one-week beard, pointed nose and broad chest. He was an All-Pro tight end until his knees started giving out a couple of years ago. Now, he is just the root from which grows the Giants' strong, no-nonsense style. "The definition of a football player," Bills linebacker Darryl Talley said.
He is a thinker, too. We know that now. In a Super week in which just about everyone has volunteered the redundant assessment that football is insignificant compared with war, Bavaro has come across as an earnest, eloquent voice.
"You open up the newspaper and see blood on the front pages and see prisoners of war with bruises, and it casts a pall on everything," he said. "There is a lot riding on this game, but I think the best course is to get through the week as fast as we can, get it over with and get on to more serious matters. I would prefer not to have a celebration if we win. It's just hard to be lighthearted."
He is not often given to lightheartedness, even in times of peace, at least publicly. He was almost as mysterious to teammates as he was to reporters in his early NFL years, refusing to offer much about himself other than what his punishing game revealed. When teammates tried to nickname him Rambo, though, he declined. He said he had relatives who had served in Vietnam, and the nickname did them a disservice.
It was among the first hints that there was softness and substance behind that intimidating, inscrutable veneer. Another was his habit of dropping to his knee in prayer when he scored a touchdown.
"I came back to Catholicism in college," he said. "There were times in my life, during high school, when I wasn't very happy with it. But, at Notre Dame, I came to understand what it means to be a Catholic. I'm aware of God in my life every day. I give thanks whether I'm in the end zone or my living room."
His beliefs have made him think hard about his societal role as an athlete. "People use athletes and movie stars as role models," he said. "Well, they don't have the answers. I know a number of athletes who shouldn't be role models. I look to the clergy. The idea of life is to get to heaven. I look to professionals for guidance."
The agenda accompanying his faith has included a commitment to the anti-abortion movement. Two years ago, he was part of a peaceful demonstration in front of an abortion clinic in Manhattan. He was one of several protesters carried off on a stretcher, taken to jail and held for two hours. "It was all prearranged with police," he said, "a non-violent attempt to make a point."
Any stand on abortion stirs anger and debate. Bavaro is rational. He wants no part of the groups that bomb clinics. "That is a radical fringe," he said, "and I don't want to be aligned with them in any way. They think violence is the answer. I abhor it."
He abhors violence. You can't help smiling at the irony. This is a player who admires a hard hit even when he is the crunchee. "I can appreciate them," he said. Perhaps the most memorable play of his season occurred when the 49ers' Ronnie Lott leveled him with a hit in December. Bavaro hopped up with a wry smile. Lott stayed down.
He can still catch and run, too -- he caught 33 passes this season -- but his bad knees probably will keep him from regaining that All-Pro mix of soft hands, quick feet and hard chest. There have been rumors that he was considering retirement, rumors he quashed the other day. It is not the only revelation he has allowed this week. We have learned he has a heart and a mind, that he is not the goon of legend.
"The last time we were in the Super Bowl, I was just young and overwhelmed," he said. "I'm a shy person anyway, and I just didn't know how to handle the mob of press. I'm better now. I'm older."
It was in the middle of another interview session. Members of the New York press stood slack-jawed at the sight of their Garbo rattling on. A military helicopter buzzed overhead. Bavaro glanced up with a deadpan expression. "Is that one of theirs," he asked, "or one of ours?" A joke. He even tells jokes.