Phil McConkey: Super Bowl champ, Navy pilot, and veteran advocate
On January 25, 1987, New York Giants wide receiver Phil McConkey stepped onto the field under the Pasadena sun with one goal—the same goal he’d had since he was a young boy—Score a touchdown at the Super Bowl.
After a making a stunning 44-yard reception on a rare flea flicker play down to Denver’s one-yard line, he thought he’d just missed his chance. In the fourth quarter, however, a touchdown pass bounced off a teammate’s fingertips … and tumbled end-over-end right into McConkey’s hands for a TD. The Giants finished Super Bowl XXI victorious at 39-20.
Phil McConkey is a standout GovX member and a vocal supporter of military veterans and men and women of service. As a former CH-60 helicopter pilot, he served five years with the Navy during the height of the Cold War. He’s the current president of Academy Securities, a San Diego-based and service-disabled, veteran-owned investment firm. Always considerate of the services of an all-volunteer military, Phil infuses his professional endeavors with support for the current generation of military service members, focusing heavily on finding career and networking opportunities for post-9/11 veterans.
In anticipation of this Sunday’s Super Bowl matchup between the storied New England Patriots and the ferocious Seattle Seahawks, Phil answered a few of our questions about military brotherhood, making his mark on football history, always striving to support the men and women who serve, and finally, his two cents about #deflategate.
What’s it like preparing for a Super Bowl? What do you imagine is going through the minds of the guys preparing to play on Sunday?
In the two weeks before a Super Bowl, your dream starts to become a realization. We practiced at home for a week before we came to California, and then we practiced that second week at the LA Rams’ facility. Even though it was 28 years ago, it’s as vivid as if it was yesterday. I remember all the practices being even more nerve-wracking than the game itself.
Everyone gets nervous before a game. If you don’t get nervous, then it’s time to not play the game anymore. Everyone had butterflies in their stomach. I don’t know how you can’t. For that Super Bowl, it wasn’t any different. You get into this practice routine, this constant pain of training that you eventually learn to be comfortable with. Through your conditioning, and your practice, your pain becomes your ally.
And Super Bowls back then were much different than they are today when you consider that most guys played for the same teams for years and years. Today, you see players get shuffled around all the time. That’s just how the NFL is these days. But in 1987, you had guys who’d been playing for the Giants their whole careers, and this was the first time the team had ever been to the Super Bowl.
I’m not trying to make light of the accomplishments of this year’s Patriots and Seahawks players, but just to put it in context, you have to remember that will be the sixth time the Patriots have been there, and the Seahawks were there last year. In 1987, none of us had ever been there.
Tell us about your two most famous plays in that game.
I played the best game of my NFL career on that day. After that flea-flicker play, missing the end zone by just one yard, I had thought I’d missed my chance. Sure, we ended up scoring on the next play which definitely clinched the game for us, but I wasn’t sure I’d get my chance to score a touchdown that day.
But then, in the fourth quarter, a third-down play on the six-yard line … the ball got sent to Mark Bavaro. When you’re a fan watching it, everything looks like it happens at breakneck speed. But when you’re on the field, everything slows down. I remember that ball tumbling in slow motion. You block everything else out, like you’re in a vacuum, a state of suspended animation. Your concentration is so keen and focused. That ball just started tumbling and I was there backing him up and it came down into my hands.
I’ve been on flight ops behind the stick of a helicopter before, and I remember my concentration being as keen then as it was that day on the field. I’ve never been in a combat engagement, but I’ve had the privilege of knowing many combat veterans who’ve related to me some of their experiences, many of them in the most recent wars. I’m definitely not trying to say that being on a football field is at all like the intensity of a life-and-death combat situation, but there is a sense of concentration that people go through when they’re focused on something.
You played on the New York Giants, and Bill Belichick was the defensive coordinator. I’m sure you’ve got some words to say about him and how he plays the sport.
I’ve known Bill since I was 18 years old, even before playing on the Giants. The thing I’ve always admired about him is how consistently he approaches the game. I mentioned earlier about how players shuffle from team to team, but with Bill, he still manages to keep the game consistent and the way he manages his players consistent through the years. Sure, he’s had Tom Brady for a while, and this is the Patriots’ sixth Super Bowl, but part of that legacy is because Bill is all about winning and blocking everything else out. You hear people cut him down by claiming he’s boring or that he’s got no personality. But that’s because he’s just dialed in all the time, and everything he does is about getting better and learning more. He’s never claimed to know everything about the game. The moment you think you know everything, you’re in trouble. That applies to sports, business, and even the military.
And as for this nonsense about deflated balls … did you see that game’s final score? There’s always craziness when the Patriots do well, and people use this as a rallying cry to take them down and try to knock Bill off a pedestal. But you know what the Patriots always do? They use this controversy as fuel to their fire. They have this “us against the world” mentality, and that’s why I think the Patriots will win on Sunday. Also—and this may be just my opinion—but I think they’ll win because they’re not playing the Giants.
What did you take away from your military experience, and how did serving in the Navy influence your professional life?
I was just a skinny kid from Buffalo who went into the military in 1975. I went to the Naval Academy, and then learned how to fly helicopters in Pensacola. I flew CH-46 Sea Knights off the USS Concord. For a kid from Buffalo to get a chance to travel the world and learn how to fly, that’s what I’ll always remember.
But what I remember most from the Navy is also what I remember most about being an NFL player. I remember the comradery. I remember the relationships that were forged, being with your brothers as part of something greater than yourself. I remember the military, but I mostly remember the guys I served with. I remember playing football, but I mostly remember my fellow teammates.
The Vietnam War ended shortly before I started my military service. The only war I ever waged was a cold one. But even early in my service, I remember feeling disparaged if I was out in public in my uniform. It’s not like today, where you see a man in uniform and you feel a sense of respect and admiration. I think that’s because unlike for many people back then, the people who go into the post-9/11 military volunteered to be there, so there’s more respect for them.
I’m grateful that we’ve reached that point, but there’s not enough being done. As people, we treat our veterans well, but as a nation, we don’t. That’s why I always work this viewpoint into my current efforts. At our firm, we hire as many post-9/11 veterans as we can, and I talk to other business-minded people about this all the time. These men and women are the next Greatest Generation, and if we take the time to train and hire current combat veterans, I believe it will save us economically and bring us to levels of prosperity that might be considered unseen these days. I work with veterans all the time, working on networking opportunities and services that they can use to transition into the civilian sector and into the companies and corporations that can take advantage of their great talent. There’s a lot more that needs to be done, but I’m extremely optimistic about the future of our country, especially when you consider the combat veterans who end up running for public office. We need the traits embodied by a US service man or woman in the Senate, the House of Representatives … that’s what we need.
I’m in awe of the service of our veterans. I’ve met some truly impressive people in my life, through sports and business, but they don’t compare to the nondescript people who volunteer to engage in combat. I don’t know if I’d be able to do what they do. There’s no greater calling than when you’re ready to sacrifice yourself for others … their services are things that we always need to recognize.