Two fathers sat on wooden gymnasium bleachers with their eyes on a high school freshman basketball game and their minds on mapping out a solution to one of the Giants’ biggest needs.
Applauding baskets. Encouraging hustle. Analyzing the wide receivers about to become NFL free agents.
As their sons shared the ball for Don Bosco Prep, the dads trading information were Giants coach Joe Judge and Nate Burleson, an 11-year NFL receiver, “Good Morning Football” co-host and — most relevant here — a “big brother” to Kenny Golladay.
“I asked him what’s going on with Daniel Jones, and he said ‘It’s up to us to help him out with coaching and getting him more weapons,’ ” Burleson told The Post. “When Joe says something, you get the sense he’s really thought it out and he means it. When he asked about receivers, I told him, with all due respect to a lot of good receivers out there, Kenny is the guy.”
It matched the feeling in the team facility, where Golladay was at the top of the wish list even before franchise tags removed Allen Robinson (Bears) and Chris Godwin (Buccaneers) as possibilities.
Before the Giants signed Golladay, 27, to a four-year, $72 million contract (tying him with Odell Beckham Jr. and Tyreek Hill for the sixth-highest per-season money at $18 million), Judge and others in the organization had dozens of small conversations like that one with teammates, coaches, scouts and executives who had encountered Golladay during his four seasons with the Lions or at Northern Illinois.
The objective was to know the 6-foot-4, 214-pound Golladay like he was his own child: Listen to praise. Listen to criticism. Determine if the picture changed over time.
Would the Giants get a fighter who earned his way from no FBS college scholarship offers to being a third-round draft pick to twice topping 1,000 yards receiving? Or had that young player disappeared and been replaced by a headache who didn’t push to return from a hip injury over the final 11 games last season because of his expiring contract, and reportedly skipped a Saturday team meeting because he had tuned out his coaches?
“You think of diva, and you think everything opposite, and that’s what Kenny is,” said Rod Carey, Golladay’s coach at Northern Illinois, now at Temple.
Then came the big ask: Would Golladay come to East Rutherford on a three-day visit?
Top free agents expect to have handshake agreements done before free agency even opens. Asking for a visit is often interpreted as an insult and lesser players than Golladay are scoffing right now at the idea around the league to come meet with a team owner and coaching staff — and be observed by flies on the wall who might notice in a quiet moment whether a front was put on for the bigwigs.
When Golladay subjugated his ego for the Giants, it was almost as important as anything he said during face-to-face meetings. Excitement pulsated through the building that he fit the culture.
“It says he understands the investment they are making in him,” Burleson said. “If any Giants fans out there are wondering, he is one tough dude.”
Judge’s Giants are not for everybody. It’s a team-first atmosphere with discipline and hard coaching, like “The Patriots Model” seasoned with more personality, transparency and appreciation than the original or the Lions’ failed replica. DeAndre Baker, a 2019 first-round pick, was cut, veteran receiver Golden Tate was suspended and assistant coach Marc Colombo was fired last year when they crossed the line in different ways.
More than anything, the Giants wanted to hear “right fit” from people who know the expectation and know Golladay. Quarterback Matt Cassel, who started his 14-year NFL career with the Patriots and ended it with the Lions during Golladay’s 2018 breakout season, said that’s the case.
“If that’s what [Judge] is trying to create, he is going to get exactly what he wants from Kenny,” Cassel said. “Part of that New England culture is doing your job and not creating distractions. That’s who I believe Kenny is. Are you going to create problems amongst the players and complain and sulk? He was never that guy. He comes to work with a great professionalism.”
‘Throw it to Kenny’
The scouting report on Golladay in high school read like this: Reliable hands, great body control, a willingness to block in a run-first offense. Six-foot tall and 185 pounds soaking wet.
It earned him no stars, no ranking and no photo in the Rivals recruiting database, and a ticket to play for North Dakota — in the shadow of NFL-quarterback factory North Dakota State.
Golladay’s lifelong NFL dream was unrealistic until a growth spurt, time in a college weight room and a self-made highlight tape empowered St. Rita of Cascia High School coach Todd Kuska to help Golladay find his way to Northern Illinois as a junior transfer.
“He came back to us after his first summer at North Dakota and looked the part of an NFL receiver, and I said, ‘This kid is going to be something special,’ ” Kuska said. “He had to sit out a year, but the coaches at Northern Illinois came back and said, ‘Wow, this is the best guy on our team.’ ”
And maybe the quietest, which sometimes is misunderstood.
NFL receivers and cornerbacks are stereotyped as flashy, outspoken and brash. But the Giants found an exception with cornerback James Bradberry and wanted the same at receiver.
In his first FBS game, Golladay led the nation that week in receiving yards, including six catches for 170 yards in the second half, playing alongside two more-established future pro receivers.
“I went in at halftime said, ‘I don’t know that any adjustments need to get too fancy. We need to throw it to Kenny. Every time, we need to throw it to Kenny,’ ” Carey said. “He never said or thought a thing, and never celebrated like he was freaking out. It’s just like, ‘This is what I do.’ ”
In his last FBS game, Golladay put aside self-preservation to play for a 4-7 team on its fifth-string quarterback. Because his mom — a schoolteacher — reinforced it was the right thing to do. He caught a touchdown pass and dislocated an elbow.
“That will tell you all you need to know about him and his mom and how he’ll handle New York,” Carey said.
Just like that, a No. 1 wide receiver was groomed for Judge, Jones and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, who managed Dez Bryant with the Cowboys. Golladay led the NFL with 11 touchdown catches in 2019. Six came from inside the 10-yard line.
“He’s the big, strong receiver Daniel has never had — in college or as a pro,” an NFL scout said. “Garrett can handle Golladay.”
‘Worth the money’
There are YouTube videos of Golladay dragging his toes in the end zone. Hanging onto the ball while taking a shot in the back. Pulling a throw out of the sky. But the image of Golladay’s concentration in rookie meetings exists now only in the mind of Bob Cooter.
“He had these great notes,” the former Lions offensive coordinator said. “He was really into the process of learning. Not every player loves the classroom part. It sounds like a small thing, but it’s not about the notes to most coaches. It’s about how serious you take it. A rookie Kenny Golladay really wanted to get better.”
He did. Quickly. So much so that Cassel — who played with Hall of Famer Randy Moss — had one question after his first Lions practice in Golladay’s second season.
“I was like, ‘Who is this guy?’ ” Cassel said. “When you match size and speed, he reminds me of guys like Plaxico Burress. A little bit of Randy Moss. I’m not trying to put him into those categories yet, but he has that type of play-making ability.”
The Lions drafted Golladay in 2017 expecting to get a starter for their three-wide offense. By 2018, Golladay had improved as a route-runner and replaced Golden Tate as quarterback Matthew Stafford’s preferred target. It remained that way in 2019-20, playing alongside Danny Amendola, a Judge favorite.
“As soon as he showed us his work ethic and the way he handled his business,” Cooter said, “it was just a matter of time.”
Soon, Golladay was on the sideline giving feedback to veteran quarterbacks. It was a different spin on his presence in the locker room, where he could have a conversation with anyone, but didn’t inject himself into others for attention.
“The coaches there will say they were hard on him and had a level of expectation for him,” Cassel said. “He just needed to believe he could be the level of player they thought he could be. There are guys I’ve been around who when they get criticized — even if it’s constructive — go into this hole. And then it’s hard to get them out of it without a little pat on the butt. Kenny put his head down and grinded even harder.”
Burleson, who lives 20 minutes from the Giants’ facility, already has offered Golladay “a home-cooked meal and couch” if he ever needs it.
“I texted him congrats and I started early with the motivation,” Burleson said. “Knowing Kenny, for him to sign this deal, if you want to become a legend, you have to not only show you are worth the money, but that you are worth another big deal.”
‘Excited about New York’
On the way home from St. Rita’s football practice a week before NFL free agency began, Kuska and his son started speculating. Golladay’s hometown Bears made sense. So did the Dolphins, near his adoptive offseason home. They called for the scoop.
“He said he was really excited about New York,” Kuska said. “He just felt the pieces were in place to go there and make an impact. He wants to win. He’s never backed away from a challenge at all.”
Part of the Giants’ challenge was to investigate, beyond just obtaining a letter of clearance from the NFL, Golladay’s role in an incident last summer that led police to be called, as first reported by Sports Illustrated.
Wary of looking like different rules apply to inherited players and “our guys,” and cognizant that a big contract is seen as a stamp of approval for behaviors by the rest of the locker room, exhaustive research indicated Golladay did not create the problem and his response was appropriate.
Adding Golladay changed how Giants fans viewed the offseason. Other free agents noticed, too.
“I kept asking my mom for clarity, and then I saw Kenny was going around,” new Giants cornerback Adoree’ Jackson said. “So I was just chilling, waiting, and then next thing I know he’s signing with the Giants. I was like, ‘Well, that’s a lot of clarity right there,’ to be able to go compete against guys like that in practice, so when it’s game time you can just go out there and play ball.”
When that time comes, the Giants think the NFL’s No. 31-ranked offense in 2020 has its missing ingredient.
“If I was a quarterback,” Cooter said, “boy, I’d be trying to find Kenny Golladay down there in the red zone.”