By Jeff Freier on February 10th, 2010 1:23 PM
We all know about the great athletes in New York sports history – Babe Ruth, Tom Seaver, Lawrence Taylor, Joe Namath, Mark Messier, Walt Frazier – and even the busts – Ed Whitson, Mo Vaughn, Roberto Alomar, Stephon Marbury, Scott Gomez. But what about the slightly-to-highly-above-average athlete? The kind-of-great but not all-timer? They may not have been Hall-of-Famers, but they were All-Stars, fan favorites, cogs on a championship team or maybe even just pretty darn good. They’re the little brother that didn’t hog all the attention. But they’re certainly worth talking about and remembering. So when do they get their due? Well, now they will. Here is a series of the not-quite-legendary in New York sports history.
Giants linebacker Brad Van Pelt was the bridge between the Alex Webster/Norm Snead/Ron Johnson era and the Lawrence Taylor/Phil Simms/Bill Parcells years. He played for five different coaches (Webster, Bill Arnsparger, John McVay, Ray Perkins, Parcells) and in four home stadiums (Yankee Stadium, the Yale Bowl, Shea Stadium, Giants Stadium). And he was a Giant through and through. He was tough, versatile, hard working and hard-nosed – everything that’s synonymous with being a Giant.
An outstanding all-around athlete, Van Pelt played football, baseball and basketball at Michigan State. He was a two-time All-American and won the Maxwell Award as the best college player, and was the first defensive back to do so – he played safety in college (and he was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame). He dropped down to the second round of the 1973 draft and fell into the Giants’ lap because many thought he would sign with the baseball St. Louis Cardinals as a pitcher. His unique calling card was his uniform #10. The NFL had just instituted its policy of positional numbering, with linebackers having to wear numbers in the fifties. But Van Pelt was able to keep his college number due to the fact that he was listed as the Giants’ backup kicker (which he was at Michigan State).
Van Pelt suffered through the 1970s playing for one awful team after another, but he was the bright spot in one of the most inauspicious eras in Big Blue history. In fact, he made five consecutive Pro Bowls (1976–’80) and was voted the franchise’s player of the decade for the ’70s. It wasn’t until 1981 when he and the Giants finally made the playoffs. It was his only postseason appearance and winning season with the team. By then he was part of a linebacking corps known as the Crunch Bunch. Together with Harry Carson, Brian Kelley and a young Lawrence Taylor, the foursome combined for one of the best and most menacing linebacking gangs in NFL history.
The gritty linebacker finished his career with 24.5 sacks and 20 interceptions, but he was so much more than stats and numbers. After the glamour, Broadway years for the Giants of the 1950s and early ’60s, Van Pelt ushered in the punishing, tenacious blue-collar ways that the Giants would be known for during the next three decades. He played a total of 11 seasons with Big Blue, and finished his career playing in Oakland for two years and a final season in the sun with the Browns. Sadly he died of a heart attack at the age of 57 just last February. He just missed out on the glory years of the 1980s and left this world much too young. Brad Van Pelt had bad timing but he was a great, great player with a heart as big as Giants Stadium.