For Accorsi, Joy Ride of Reward and Risk

There are fewer professional sports executives these days who treat their jobs as a calling, the end result of a life's passion instead of a career decision. Members of the old guard make their points with stories that end with a punch line or an epigrammatic quotation. They seem at home regaling friends in a hotel lobby, conversations punctuated with throaty laughter and the recitation of the starting lineup of some team whose championship banner is a half-century old.

Their lives seem interconnected with incalculable twists and turns that give their backgrounds color and charm. The great majority have been winners, or none of their stories, quotations or life tales would be entertained at all.

At 59 years old, Giants General Manager Ernie Accorsi is hardly from another era. He would say, as a devout sports historian, that he has absorbed the lessons of those who preceded him. And when it comes to recent sports history, Accorsi, a primary figure in the molding of the Super Bowl-bound Giants, has had a knack for making memories.

"A friend of mine told me, `Nothing is ever conventional with you,' " Accorsi said last week. "And I wonder sometimes."

For example?

As the general manager of the Baltimore Colts in 1983, Accorsi drafted John Elway with the National Football League's first pick even though Elway had promised to never play for the Colts.

"I figured any franchise good enough for Johnny Unitas was good enough for John Elway," Accorsi said. "And if we had been patient, Elway would have signed and saved the franchise for Baltimore."

But without consulting Accorsi, the Colts' owner, Robert Irsay, traded Elway's rights to Denver. Accorsi eventually quit, seven weeks before Irsay moved the franchise to Indianapolis.

"I knew they were going to move and I was not going to be a part of that," Accorsi said.

A year later, as general manager of the Cleveland Browns, he drafted quarterback Bernie Kosar, selecting him several months before anyone else in the league realized Kosar was eligible to be drafted. Accorsi had discovered an entirely legitimate, if little understood, loophole in the supplemental draft guidelines.

Kosar would lead the Browns to three American Football Conference championship games, where he and Accorsi lost to you guessed it Elway's Denver Broncos.

Of course, those Browns would become today's Baltimore Ravens, who play Accorsi's Giants next Sunday in Super Bowl XXXV.

"It is remarkable, I admit," Accorsi said.

More remarkable is that a man of such simple habits a divorced father of three who lives alone in Manhattan and who spends most days in his office and most nights at home watching televised sports could have so many unforgettable plot twists in his professional life.

Another example:

Twenty years ago, when Accorsi was Baltimore's assistant general manager, he fielded a call from a movie producer who wanted some Colts jerseys for a film that was set in Baltimore. The movie was "Diner," and it included a scene where a bride- to-be is interrogated with laughably difficult trivia questions about the Colts. She must pass the exam for the wedding to go on as scheduled.

Guess who ended up writing the questions in what is probably the most famous scene in the movie?

"The whole project had been changed several times, and in the course of this, they give me the script," Accorsi said last week in his Giants Stadium office. "Well, it was preposterously easy. It had questions like, `Name the team colors.' I told them the test wouldn't have any credibility, especially in the state of Maryland. So I rewrote the questions."

A sampling of the new questions: What were the team's original colors? (Green and gray.) How much did the Colts spend on the phone call to Pittsburgh to negotiate the signing of Unitas? ($1.45.)

"They were tough," Accorsi said, grinning. "I did have a feeling that if it had been legitimate and not the movies, she wouldn't have passed."

Accorsi grew up in Hershey, Pa., and learned a love of sports from his father, who preached the gospel of baseball and the Yankees.

The two would talk sports for hours while driving around central Pennsylvania delivering beer in Ernie Sr.'s truck.

At night, Accorsi, an only child, tuned in any sport he could get on the radio. It is a habit that has died hard. Stop by Accorsi's summer training camp office and he is liable to be listening to some game from Chicago over the Internet.

He went to Wake Forest and upon his graduation in 1963, with dreams of being a sports executive, he became a sportswriter. There was some precedent to this path in those days. Commissioner Pete Rozelle of the N.F.L. and Commissioner Walter Kennedy of the National Basketball Association had been sportswriters.

But first, Accorsi stumbled into another oddity. In 1963, working for The Charlotte News, he wrote what is considered the only published account of the life of Archie "Moonlight" Graham, who played for a championship minor league team in Charlotte in 1902.

Graham, 86 years old when Accorsi interviewed him, became better known a quarter-century later in the movie "Field of Dreams." Graham, whose character was played by Burt Lancaster, had made his one, and only, major league plate appearance for the 1905 New York Giants, a walk.

In Accorsi's star-studded journey, the next stop was Penn State, where Joe Paterno was laying the foundation for his dynasty. Accorsi said his title was "assistant to everybody, although some people call that being a gofer." But Accorsi absorbed many of the teachings of Paterno, with whom he has remained close for more than 30 years.

That association came in handy in the winter of 1999 when Accorsi was considering quarterback Kerry Collins as a free- agent signing.

Paterno provided insight into the former Penn State all-American at a time when Collins was on the scrapheap. Accorsi, after exhaustive investigation, completed the biggest and most dramatic free-agent acquisition in the modern history of the Giants.

Accorsi received immediate and harsh criticism for his decision, especially since Collins received a $5 million signing bonus and a $16.9 million, four-year contract.

"I'm a risk taker," Accorsi said. "That is consistent with my history. I consider drafting Elway and Kosar just as big a gamble."

Collins, whose five touchdown passes helped put the Giants in next week's Super Bowl, is now considered a steal at a little more than $4 million a year.

Accorsi, who has a network of friends in all the major college and pro sports, including broadcasters, coaches, ex-players and owners, was brought to the Giants as an assistant general manager seven years ago. He was hired by George Young, then the Giants' general manager, who had worked with Accorsi in Baltimore.

"We've been friends since the first day we met, May 1, 1970," Accorsi said. "We must have had a two- or three-hour conversation at our first dinner together."

When Accorsi succeeded Young upon his resignation in 1998, there was a perception that Accorsi was a Young clone. Anyone who knows the two knows differently.

"I don't want to get Italians mad at George," Accorsi said. "But he likes to say, `Ernie is more Mediterranean than I am.' "

Which was Young's way of saying Accorsi is more emotional. And while he keeps a low public profile, Accorsi is a fiery behind-the- scenes leader.

When the Giants went 7-9 last season, he gathered the whole organization: scouts, coaches, personnel men. He stood at one end of the room and pointed at each man, one by one: "You are 7-9. You had a losing season. Don't say it was the head coach or the players. Don't pass the blame. We're all 7- 9."

On many mornings, Accorsi sits quietly in a Giants Stadium office filled with black- and-white sports photographs. Pen in hand, he answers every piece of mail from fans with a personal letter. It was not long ago that the mail was scorching and critical.

"But I wrote back because if it mattered enough to them to take the time to write, then I would take the time to answer them," he said.

Of course, now he is a hero. In character, he has a meaty response for that twist of fate, too.

"Joe Paterno once told me publicity is like poison," Accorsi said with a thin smile. "It won't hurt you if you don't swallow it." Jan 21, 2001