He's the other Marshall connection on the NFL's New York Jets. Unlike the glare of the Gotham City spotlight that new Jets quarterback Chad Pennington must seemingly endure every day, former Marshall defensive tackle Giradie Mercer has slipped under the New York media radar and right on to the Jets roster.(Note: Mercer was waived by the Jets this past Tuesday, after this column was written)
Mercer took advantage of the Jets off week to return to Huntington for Marshall's thrashing of Buffalo. Roaming the Herd sidelines wearing a replica Jackie Robinson jersey and his unmistakable ear-to-ear grin, Mercer was ecstatic to be back on the corner of 20th Street and Herd Avenue to witness the latest chapter in the still-developing story of Marshall football.
"I try to make it back to one (Marshall) game every year," said Mercer, who ended his Herd playing career in the Motor City Bowl win over Mountain West Conference Co-Champ BYU in 1999. "I came down for the Youngstown State game last year and had a great time. When we get an off week, I always want to come back if I can."
While Chad Pennington joined the Jets as a much-heralded first round draft pick. Mercer's route to New York was a road filled with plenty of twists and turns. In the hours following the 2000 NFL Draft, Mercer signed as a free agent with the Carolina Panthers, but was cut five weeks later. The six-foot-two, 285-pound defensive tackle signed with Philadelphia in mid-July, but after suffering a torn tricep tendon during fall camp, needed corrective surgery on his arm and spent the entire season on the Eagles injured reserve list.
The 2001 season for Mercer began with the news that the Eagles were cutting him loose. After a month in the New England camp, the Patriots waived Mercer two weeks prior to the opening of the regular season. Mercer was claimed, and then released by the Green Bay Packers before he finally got the call from the New York Jets.
After turning 26 in March, Mercer realized that the 2002 Jets camp at Hofstra could be the crossroads of his fledgling NFL career. He responded to the challenge with an outstanding camp and earned a spot on the Jets opening week roster. Mercer cemented his roster spot in the Jets final exhibition game against Philadelphia. With 36 seconds left in the first half, Eagles quarterback A.J. Feeley dropped back and threw a strike into Mercer, who grabbed the ball and rumbled 23 yards for a touchdown.
"Any time you have a chance to play pro football and go out there and help your team first and foremost, it's a blessing," said Mercer.
With Chad Pennington recently inserted into the starting lineup for the slumping Vinnie Testaverde, Mercer welcomed the sight of his former Herd teammate directing the Jets offense.
"It's not quite like old times, because I'm not starting," laughed Mercer. "I'm not politicking for myself, but (Jets head coach) Herm Edwards if you are listening, holler at your boy Girardie. But seriously, before the game with the Chiefs when Chad came out there and was butting heads with everybody, that was great. It did remind me of old times."
Mercer has been adding depth at the left defensive tackle slot for the Jets. Some early season injuries along the defensive line gave him a chance to play more snaps than many observers expected.
"I've been the fourth guy in there for us. We have had some injuries up front. Larry Webster came over from Baltimore and when he went down for a while that allowed me to play a lot early. Now that he's coming back I'm not really sure how that will effect my playing status," reasoned Mercer. "We basically overhauled our look at defensive tackle and when I get in there, I make the most of my opportunities."
Mercer could not be prouder of the progress of Byron Leftwich. Not only to they have Marshall in common, but Mercer and Leftwich both attended H.D. Woodson high school in Washington D.C.
"I seems like I've known Byron forever. Not only did we attend the same high school, we are from the same neighborhood." Mercer said of Leftwich. "I talk to him every day or at least every other day and I remember what it was like when my class was leaving Marshall. I think everyone here in the football family knew how good Byron could be when many of fans in town only knew him for throwing some strong-armed interceptions. It's great to see someone like him reach their potential and even go beyond it."
When Mercer left the Herd after the undefeated season in 1999, Marshall had a reputation of also being a strong defensive team. Marshall has had its defensive ups and downs since then, but Mercer gave the unit high marks after the Herd's first teamers dominated Buffalo.
"I looked at the guys tonight and talked to some of them before the game and I thought they played their butts off," said Mercer. "This year's defense has a lot of youth and they are young all over, not just in one area. This game could be a turning point for them and hope they just get better with every game."
During his stint at Marshall, Mercer was known as the spokesman of the defense. He first coined the term "the Dangerfield Defense" for his teammates, who seemingly got no respect in the shadow of the Herd's more high profile offensive stars. Now that he's in the NFL, Mercer is finding that some of the league's biggest names can run some smack that leaves him envious.
"I think (Tampa Bay Bucs defensive tackle) Warren Sapp is in a league of his own," laughed Mercer. "He talks about his teammates, everybody else's teammates, he just doesn't care. But he's a heck of a ballplayer and can back it up."
And like Sapp, Mercer doesn't just talk the talk, but can also walk the walk. It's easy to see why Girardie Mercer continues to be one of the most popular players to ever don the Green and White. Just make sure than when you ask him about the Herd, you have extra change in the parking meter because the conversation is going to take a while.
But time flies when you are having fun with Giradie Mercer.