EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ — New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin was furious.
The fights were out of control during joint practices held at the University at Albany between his team and the crosstown rival New York Jets in August 2005. The fiery coach got into the action, yelling and screaming at Jets defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson 20 yards away.
“‘Your guys started the fight,’ former Giants running back Brandon Jacobs recalls Coughlin saying to Henderson. ‘My guys wanted to protect themselves. You guys need to calm down. We’re here supposed to be getting better. You guys come out here with that s—.’ And he was just going off.”
The Jets and Giants haven’t practiced together since — until now. On Thursday, the Jets will make the short trip across New Jersey to the Quest Diagnostics Training Center to practice with the Giants ahead of the teams’ final preseason game on Sunday (1 pm ET, NFL Network).
For Jacobs, those fights are an annual tradition.
“This is what happens when you do a joint practice,” Jacobs told ESPN in a recent conversation. “We did it and folks have been doing it every year after that. It’s what you do at a joint practice. You fight!”
Brawling isn’t what the current regimes are looking for when the Giants and Jets get together on Thursday in East Rutherford. They’re aware of what happened the last time, but it doesn’t matter to them now. They’re just hoping to get in some quality work against another opponent. Albeit one that shares the same backyard.
“I just heard it was a couple of brawls in there,” Giants coach Brian Daboll said of the previous meeting. “We’ll try to stay [away] from that.”
It was more than a couple. Here’s how it all went down:
‘Nobody was paying attention to the Jets’
The Jets were coming off a 10-6 season and playoff appearance with coach Herm Edwards entering the 2005 campaign. They had high hopes with quarterback Chad Pennington and a talented veteran defense.
The Giants, meanwhile, hadn’t made the playoffs in a couple of years and had a young quarterback in Eli Manning and relatively new coach in Coughlin hoping to make their mark entering their second season in New York.
There was still a natural rivalry between the franchises fighting for Big Apple supremacy. The Jets and Giants did not like each other. They played annually in the third preseason game when the starters generally played three quarters, and the Jets were still the perennial little brother sharing Giants Stadium.
This joint practice meant something.
“It was tense. Remember where we were at that time — the Jets were the best team in New York,” former Giants wide receiver Amani Toomer said. “They were coming off the playoffs. We hadn’t made the playoffs in a bit. They just came in thinking they were King Doodoo. They were like, ‘This is a playoff team.'”
The Jets bused in for the day from Hofstra, their home base on Long Island, with that little-brother-has-something-to-prove bravado. It was an early morning and a long ride, setting the stage for a grumpy group looking to make a statement.
“The big thing that got everybody kind of excited was the f—ing trip — two-and-a-half hours on a bus to face another team in training camp,” former All-Pro Jets defensive end John Abraham said . “Everybody was irritated about that. The Giants had the aura that they were the better squad. They had [defensive end Michael] Strahan, they had [tight end Jeremy] Shockey, they had all the guys. Nobody was there to see him. We were there, but we weren’t there. For me it was like, ‘Nobody is taking pictures of us.’ Nobody was paying attention to the Jets.”
This was still the era of two-a-day practices. Training camps were long and hard. It wouldn’t have taken much to get either team going aside from seeing the other jersey.
Egged on by the coaching staff — specifically Henderson, who declined to be interviewed for this story — the Jets were gassed up to the point of combustion by the time they made it to Albany.
“Herm Edwards had a really tough training camp and I remember we were at Hofstra. We woke up at 4 or 5 in the morning to get on these buses and drive to Albany,” former Jets safety Eric Coleman said. “The night before, our coaches were getting us fired up, telling us how we need to compete, how we can’t take any crap from anyone else and that we have to establish our dominance.
“We get there and we put all our stuff down on some gym floor. There’s no locker room. They have a curtained off area on the court. So everyone was really cranky and upset anyway to start.”
Something was bound to happen with an upset crosstown rival entering the joint-practice arena.
“[Henderson] told us the night before. He’s like, ‘If I see one of our guys fighting, I better not see anybody on the sidelines watching,'” Coleman said.
The Shockey brawl
It didn’t take long for the fireworks to start. Two plays to be exact.
Toomer recalls getting chippy during 1-on-1 drills early in practice. By the time they reached team drills, practice had no chance to run without major hiccups.
The Jets were by all accounts the aggressors.
“It was one of those things where I’m pretty sure they talked about it prior to practice,” said former Giants offensive lineman Chris Snee, a rookie at the time. “That was their goal.”
Snee also seemed to think the Jets had their sights set on Shockey, the outspoken Giants tight end. He was an easy target to get going.
Like clockwork, he did. The second play of a team drill working on running plays, all that pent-up training camp frustration and years of rivalry overflowed.
“The first 9 on 7 drills, myself and Oliver Celestin were the safeties. 9 on 7 is a run drill and they go to run a play, and Jeremy Shockey goes and blocks Oliver. The whistle blows and he just keeps blocking him,” Coleman said. “He keeps going and I’m like, ‘Oh, yeah?’ I run over to him and I start punching Jeremy. I tackled him on the ground and it starts this huge brawl. All of our Jets guys jump on top. We’re all fighting. A lot of the Giants guys are on the sideline, just watching.”
Dispatches of the account vary. Jacobs remembers Shockey dumping Coleman at the end of a run to start the shenanigans. Other reports had Shockey taking an unnecessary shot in the back and linebacker Jonathan Vilma entering the mix to make it a 3-on-1 vs. Shockey. No matter how it truly started, it was a full-team brawl.
“The thing got pretty bad,” Jacobs said.
Guys throwing punches at helmets and running wild. That memorable fight took 15-20 minutes to settle as seemingly everyone got involved.
“We were fighting and the funny thing is though, at the bottom of the pile, it’s myself, Jeremy and Oliver,” Coleman said. “And Oliver’s helmet starts to come off, and Jeremy Shockey is grabbing Oliver’s helmet, telling him to put his helmet on.
“He said, ‘Your helmet’s coming off.’ He was at the bottom of the pile protecting Oliver from his helmet coming off while we were supposed to be fighting. That was hilarious.”
Coaches lose their temper
The Giants and their coaching staff didn’t see the humor in it. They took specific exception to the actions and behavior of Henderson.
“That guy was an idiot. I understand you want to make an impression and all that, but he was inciting these guys to do those types of things,” Toomer said. “I remember that guy. I remember like this is totally unnecessary. You know what I mean? There is a purpose to practice to get better and he was trying to prove some kind of weird something.”
Coughlin didn’t allow tackling to the ground at practice and didn’t like the big hits his players were taking. Giants wide receiver Willie Ponder was clocked so hard while running a route over the middle at one point by Jets rookie safety Kerry Rhodes that he left practice with bruised ribs and spit up blood. That caused another dust-up.
That’s when Coughlin lost his temper, but Henderson didn’t seem to care. He was defending his crew’s action in the heat of the moment.
“That’s the way we practice, Coach,” Henderson responded to Coughlin on the field. “We put our hats on people.”
The Jets players appreciated the support. They were doing what was expected.
“When [Henderson] was yelling at the other coach, it was kind of like seeing your dad yell at somebody,” Coleman said. “No matter what’s going on, you’re behind him and you’re going to get his back. We had a nice family unit, especially on that defense and Donnie was the leader.”
The Shockey fight is the one that everyone remembers because of how quickly it unfolded and how long it took to settle. But that was really just the tip of the iceberg during the morning of melees.
Toomer got into it with Jets linebacker Eric Barton after he was knocked down on a short reception. He swung at Barton’s helmet. Snee remembers tussling at one point with Jets defensive lineman Sean Ellis, and was also involved in a shoving match alongside fellow offensive lineman Rich Seubert with Jets rookie James Reed. Jacobs ran over Jets cornerback Pete Hunter or Rhodes to flame another fight. There was the Ponder and Rhodes incident.
“It was constant. It was after every play,” Snee said. “Pushing, shoving. It was just non-stop. It really was.”
This is what made it so unique. It wasn’t just one or two incidents. It was an entire day of football fisticuffs.
The afternoon session even had another brawl precipitated by what one dispatch called a body slam by Jets fullback BJ Askew on Giants safety Brent Alexander.
“It was awesome,” Jacobs said. “It was a great day. I took a shot with a helmet. Maybe that was from Sean Ellis. He had his helmet off and hit me in my head with it. I had on my helmet but I was on top of some defensive back , wailing back on him and Sean hit me aside my head.”
When it all ended they all trekked back to the Albany gym. On one side were the Giants; on the other, the Jets. They had to walk in separately. One team at a time to keep the peace. Later they broke bread together.
“I remember they had like the best training-camp food ever,” Coleman said of what the Giants staff served. “We ate well, we took showers, we got back on the bus and we just couldn’t wait until we got to New York to go hang out. We were laughing and joking the whole time. It was kind of funny.”
It was a surreal scene to cap a wild day, one that still makes many of those involved laugh to this day.
“I’ve never seen that much [fighting] at a practice I was at,” Abraham said.