Saturday, January 12, 2008
Updated: January 13, 4:25 PM ET
Umenyiora and Ware's friendship, competitiveness in playoff spotlight
By Greg Garber
IRVING, Texas -- On Sunday afternoon, they will cross the field at Texas Stadium and, with great emotion, hug each other. And then, as is their custom, New York Giants lineman Osi Umenyiora and his Dallas Cowboys counterpart DeMarcus Ware will engage in small talk as they leisurely stretch.
"We'll laugh [about] how we can't believe we are here," Umenyiora said Wednesday at Giants Stadium. "If you see where we came from and the paths we took to get here, for us to both be known as some of the most feared pass-rushers in the league right now, coming from that is stupid when you think about it."
A few hours later, Umenyiora and Ware each will attempt to destroy, respectively, Tony Romo and Eli Manning.
The two played together in high school and college in Alabama for a total of four seasons, but this will be only the seventh time the Cowboys' Ware and the Giants' Umenyiora have opposed each other. With a berth in the NFC Championship Game on the line, this is the most important game of their lives.
"I see him playing for a different team, but I know he is supporting his family and he's doing what he needs to do," Umenyiora said of Ware. "I am just happy for him right now. Whenever I see him make a play -- even when it is against us -- it's 'That was a good play, DeMarcus.' I just wish he hadn't done it against us."
The symmetry is, well, it's amazing, really.
Umenyiora is 26 years old and is 6-foot-3, 261 pounds. He was a second-round draft choice of the Giants in 2003 and, as a defensive end, has produced 41½ sacks in 72 career games. Umenyiora was fifth in the NFL this season, with 13, including six against Philadelphia on Sept. 30.
Ware is 25 and, at 6-4, 252, slightly faster and leaner. He was a first-round choice of the Dallas Cowboys in 2005 (No. 11 overall), and credits that to Umenyiora's earlier success. Ware plays outside linebacker and has recorded 33.5 sacks in 48 games. He was third among the NFL's leading sackers, with 14.
|Every QB's nightmare: Osi Umenyiora rushing from one side, DeMarcus Ware the other. The former high school and Troy University teammates are rivals in the Giants-Cowboys NFC playoff game Sunday.|
Earlier this season, they were both voted to play in their second Pro Bowl. Hard to believe they rode the same yellow bus to Auburn (Ala.) High School.
"In high school, he was a big guy, like 290, 300 pounds," Ware said on Friday at the Cowboys' Valley Ranch headquarters. "He was playing defensive tackle, sitting right there beside me, so we couldn't hardly sit in the seat together."
Said Umenyiora, "I remember there was a girl I had a huge crush on, Contessa Franklin. We used to sit back there and talk about her."
Umenyiora took the more exotic route. He was born in London and moved to Nigeria when he was seven. Seven years later, seeking a better education, he joined his sister in Alabama. Even though Umenyiora is only eight months older than Ware, he was several grades ahead; he was an advanced student and graduated from high school at 16.
It wasn't until his junior year that Umenyiora tried football. He was a natural on defense, but Ware, a native of Alabama and a freshman, played wide receiver and weighed less than 200 pounds. Umenyiora concedes that they were not very good players at the outset, kind of awkward, he said.
I remember there was a girl I had a huge crush on, Contessa Franklin. We used to sit back there and talk about her.
--Giants DL Osi Umenyiora, recalling riding the bus with high school teammate DeMarcus Ware, now with the Cowboys
Naturally, they both saw themselves playing for Auburn, the local college powerhouse. That didn't happen, though, and Umenyiora matriculated to the program at nearby Troy University, where he redshirted his first year. When Ware didn't get any major offers coming out of high school, Umenyiora said he talked the Troy University staff into bringing him in.
"He said, 'You know what? This guy is going to be a player,'" Ware said. "'You need to pick him up, he is my boy. I will take him under my wing, and he will be a great pass-rusher.' I got a scholarship down there, and it could have been because of him."
They finished with 52½ sacks between them and, when they played together for two seasons, it was a frightening sight for opposing quarterbacks. Their relationship has all the complex components of a brotherly bond. In one college game, when Umenyiora and Ware broke in from opposite sides and found themselves side by side, Umenyiora swept Ware aside and got credit for the sack. Ware was furious.
"Right before the ball was snapped, we would always look at each other and say, 'Who is going to get there first?'" Ware explained. "We would be coming around the corner and we were about to bang into each other and, all of a sudden, he steps up and gets the sack.
"Two or three times a year, he would get there a split-second faster before me and I would be 'Osi, I run faster than you, how can you get there before I do?' And he would say, 'I'm better. I'm better than you.'"
[Umenyiora said:] 'You need to pick him up, he is my boy. I will take him under my wing, and he will be a great pass-rusher.' I got a scholarship down there, and it could have been because of him.
--DeMarcus Ware, crediting Osi Umenyiora with his recruitment by Troy University
These days, the stakes are even higher.
After Umenyiora dropped six sacks on the Eagles, Ware was one of the first to call him.
"A lot of expletives, man," Umenyiora said, laughing. "I don't think he was extremely happy. But deep down inside, he was like, 'Oh, man, I have to go out there and try to get seven sacks.'
"That is just the way we are."
Said Ware, "I was like, 'Oh, man, I have one sack and he got six in one game. Now I'm behind."
Then he unabashedly asked Umenyiora the secret to beating the Eagles' offensive tackles.
Before the season, the two lethal pass-rushers made a wager. Provided they both made the Pro Bowl, the man with the fewer sacks would be treating in Hawaii. Officially, Ware was one better, but Umenyiora said it came on a technicality. Make that a conspiracy.
"I had 14 sacks this year, man, I really did," Umenyiora said. "But they took one away from me."
New York Giants
2007 Season Stats
Indeed, late in the second quarter of their teams' Nov. 11 game, Umenyiora sacked Romo, but according to the Cowboys, their quarterback was attempting to hand the ball off. Coach Wade Phillips sent a tape to the league office and, sure enough, the sack was expunged from Umenyiora's total.
Was Ware behind the change?
"The plot thickens," Umenyiora said, smiling. "If I had my money on it now, I would say it was definitely DeMarcus. Without question, it was DeMarcus."
Ware, also smiling, denied the allegation.
"That is false," he said. "I don't know about that.
"Tell him about the Green Bay game. I sacked Brett Favre, and they called me offside. They sent me a letter apologizing, saying that I wasn't offside. So that is 15 to his 14.
"I got it this year, baby!"
As a result, it will be Umenyiora who picks up the monstrous nightly checks at the Pro Bowl.
"It's payback time now," Ware said. "Being a bigger guy, he always tried to steal stuff off my plate, you know, stick his finger in my biscuit and say, 'Do you want that?' It's little brother getting back at big brother now. He is going to have to buy a lot of food."
"I am definitely the better pass-rusher -- without question," Umenyiora said. "He gets to rush from the open side. They blitz him all the time. I've got to take on an offensive lineman every play. You guys give him too much credit. He's not that good at football.
"Whenever I see him do something, make a play, I always feel like I have to make one better. I still feel like he is the younger one and I am still the mentor, no matter what he does."
"I think [it's] because I looked up to him so much," Ware said. "If I had questions about football, about finances, I would come to him and talk about it. He was that figure I looked up to in high school and college, so he had to keep high standards."
They talk almost every week, usually technical stuff about the common opponents they face.
"I tell him a little something, but not the full package," Umenyiora said. "Whenever he does something good, I am happy. In the locker room, even when we are watching tape on him, I am bragging about him all the time. They are calling him my girlfriend. I mean, they are saying all kinds of things in that locker room because I am bragging about him.
"I am just so proud of him."
2007 Season Stats
2007's NFL Sack Leaders
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.