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My Uncle Monk: A True New York Giant

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Empire State building Photo by Brian Cleary

My sisters and I always loved it when my mom and dad invited our Aunt Joanie and Uncle Michael over for dinner. Aunt Joanie, thanks to her extraordinary sense of humor and her hilarious laugh, was the source of superb, rib-tickling entertainment—-and Uncle Michael was our “Uncle Monkey,” the larger-than-life, charismatic man who was always kidding around with us and playing football with us in the back yard.

With Uncle Monk, we always knew we were in the presence of a New York giant. He was the famous lawyer in the family—-he studied law as an undergrad at Yale (while playing tight end on the football team), then was a pilot in the United States Air Force before going on to earn his degree from Harvard Law School in 1960.

After two years of working as an associate at Cahill Gordon, for the next five years, Michael became an Assistant United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York. In the late 60s, just as Michael returned to Cahill Gordon as a partner, he met and counseled undercover NYC police officer Frank Serpico, who wished to take his story of widespread police corruption to the New York Times. Serpico was set up by his own cops and subsequently shot in the head while trying to barge into a supposed drug deal.

If you haven’t seen the movie Serpico, starring Al Pacino (who won the 1974 Best Actor Academy Award for his stunning performance), it’s well worth your while. The young lawyer in the film who helped Serpico bring his story to the New York Times was Uncle Monk in real life. Serpico survived the bullet wound and moved to Switzerland. Shortly after that, Michael was named chief counsel to the Knapp Commission, which was formed by the City of New York to investigate and expose police corruption.

Uncle Monk took on a number of high profile cases over the years—-winning for the children of Martha “Sunny” von Bulow and representing a number of famous clients/defendants which include boxing promotor Don King, New York Yankees star Dave Winfield, real estate tycoon Donald Trump, the Central Park 5 (as an appointee to the Central Park Jogger case review panel), financier Louis Wolfson and controversial Borough of Queens president Donald Manes.

In 1991, the New York Times called Michael “the consummate New York lawyer.”

If you watch the first few minutes of this interview, you might be impelled to read Michael’s book: They Wished They Were Honest: The Knapp Commission and the New York City Police.

By now you might be wondering why I am writing this article for my fellow Arizona Cardinals’ fans at ROTB and around the world—-well, it is because of my dear Uncle Monk that I became a life-long Cardinals’ fan.

It was one of the greatest and worst weeks of my life, saddened immensely by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. After a recent visit from Aunt Joanie and Uncle Michael where my sisters, best friends and I threw around the brand new “Duke” NFL football that Uncle Monk gave me—-and later that day hearing Uncle Monk ask my mom and dad if he could take me to my first NFL football game at Yankee Stadium—-all week leading up to the game I was on cloud nine—-until the principal came into my 4th grade class to tell us that JFK had been shot and that the school buses were on their way to take us home.

For those of us who watched on in horror at the events of November 22, 1963, it was devastating to watch our entire nation weep, wail and reel from the brutal reality of what those insidious gunshots meant to the lives of so many at home and abroad.

It was a miracle of sorts that the NFL game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the New York Giants was even played that weekend.

But, for a scared and utterly confused eight year old boy, going to this game with his beloved uncle was a godsend.

We arrived at the stadium early enough to see the warmups—-and from the very minute we had walked down the ramp and had taken our seats, I couldn’t help but notice the speedy and acrobatic play of #8 dressed in white, wearing the milk white helmet and deep red feathers of the Cardinal. I became an instant Cardinals’ fan because there, right in front of us, I couldn’t take my eyes off of the Cardinals’ free safety Larry Wilson.

That’s what independent thinking eight year olds do, you know. They search for idols. And with a hero sitting next to me who was so gracious to accept that I was fond of the foe and in particular one sensational player (to the point where he bought me a Cardinals’ pennant), I was able to cheer freely (but quietly in the Bronx, of course) for my new idol and a my new favorite team.

Uncle Monk embraced my instant affinity for the Cardinals so enthusiastically that over the next couple of decades he invited me to the Cardinals’ game every time they came to New York—-which for so many years was once a year because the Cardinals and Giants were NFC East rivals. Thanks to Uncle Monk, I was given a ring-side seat during the Cardinals’ best years in the 1970s with QB Jim Hart, T Dan Dierdorf, G Conrad Dobler and WR Mel Gray.

Then in the late 1970s, early 1980s I will never forget feasting my eyes at the Meadowlands on a rookie running back named O.J. Anderson who was galloping phenom—-and then on a young, smooth throwing quarterback from Portland St. named Neil Lomax, a lightning quick WR/DB named Roy Green and a nimble, sure handed TE named Jay Novacek.

But, in those years, the Giants were the far superior team—-and the lowlight of that era was when I went to the snack bar at half-time to pick up a couple hot dogs and beers for Uncle Monk and me, a rowdy, drunken Giants’ fan was screaming, “The Cardinals game is always my FAVORITE GAME of the YEAR!!! Because—-IT’S ALWAYS OVER BY HALFTIME!!!”

I hated to admit it—but the fan was right.

By the mid-80s I lived a little too far away from the Meadowlands to keep going to the Cardinals’ game as I was teaching, coaching and running a dormitory at a private boarding school, 130 miles away.

Thus, Uncle Monk’s and my yearly tradition was over—-

But, every family gathering we would share out latest thoughts about the Giants and Cardinals.

One Christmas, Uncle Monk had a big surprise for me. I always loved going to Aunt Joanie’s and Uncle Monk’s house in Scarsdale, New York at Thanksgiving and/or Christmas and have the chance to see my beloved cousins Joanne, Dede and Marnie—-but this particular Christmas was extra special because Uncle Monk took me into the den where he had draped a sheet over the table. “You will never guess what’s under the sheet,” he said.

The next thing I knew, Uncle Monk wooshed the sheet aside and there it was——Uncle Monk’s own original football game with individually hand-crafted toy players under a motorized field!!!—-and on one side stood the New York Giants and on the the other side were the St. Louis Cardinals!!! Uncle Monk had painted their jerseys and their helmets to precision!!! He even devised a spring leg on the kicker—-and I had to practice up to get good at using that spring leg to kick the ball through the uprights.

Uncle Monk wanted to try to market his game—-and back in the early 1980s I think it would have had a good chance, but along came the video game era and that was that.

But also in the 1980s, with my cousin Marnie now at Boston College (where I had graduated in 1978), Uncle Monk was fascinated with Marnie’s classmate, QB Doug Flutie—-so fascinated in fact that one Thanksgiving he was telling Marnie and me that he believed that Doug Flutie, despite his diminutive size, could be successful in the NFL. I fondly remember Uncle Monk concluding the conversation by saying. “Hell, I would hire Flutie just to be in the huddle!”

Thus, I imagine that Uncle Monk would be just as fascinated, if not more, with the Cardinals’ rookie QB Kyler Murray.

Therefore, I write this article as an ode to the most gregarious, open-minded, passionately opinionated, family loving and thoroughly generous man I have ever known—-

And I write this article with a heavy heart because my dear Uncle Monk, at age 87, is under the watchful care of Hospice, and soon our family will be laying our true New York giant to rest.

Like I did as an 8 year old kid with tears in my eyes for having just lost my beloved president, I will be watching this year’s Cardinals/Giants game in New York with a profound mixture of sadness and awe.

To me, there will be no losers in New York this weekend—-because of the hero sitting next to me forever in my heart.