There was a reason Mark Bavaro was nicknamed “Rambo.”
The former All-Pro tight end had an uncanny resemblance to actor Sylvester Stallone, who played Vietnam veteran John Rambo in the Rambo franchise.
Bavaro was also similar in build to Stallone, though Bavaro’s bulk was due to the physical position he played.
During his nine-year career, Bavaro won two Super Bowls with the New York Giants and gained the respect of teammates and opponents.
— Amy Sedlatschek (@amysed1) May 16, 2015
What Giants fans loved most about Bavaro was that he didn’t say much, and he played through injuries – several injuries.
He simply did his job, catching tough passes over the middle and shutting down oncoming pass rushers.
This is the story of Mark Bavaro.
From Pipsqueak to Tough Guy
Mark Anthony Bavaro was born on April 28, 1963, in Winthrop, Massachusetts.
🏈 Games played = 126
🏈 Recept = 351
🏈 Receive yds = 4,733
🏈 Receive TD = 39
🏆 2× SB champ
⭐ 2× All-Pro
⭐ 2× Pro Bowl
— JVAN (@VanderlansJim) April 28, 2022
He grew up as a shy kid and experienced rejection by many of the kids in the neighborhood.
“I never had friends as a kid,” said Bavaro. “I was shy. I felt more comfortable hanging out with my father at track practice or with my grandparents in East Boston, where I was born.”
That changed when he began coming out of his shell at Danvers High School in Danvers, Massachusetts.
“When I got big and I got good in football, my personality changed, and I’m not proud of what I became. I became kind of surly, almost arrogant,” added Bavaro.
He became a weight room fiend and worked out religiously.
At one point, Bavaro’s high school coach, Ernie Smith, contacted the Danvers highway department and acquired some old, 250-pound manhole covers.
Bavaro used the covers as part of his workout routine.
Al Michaels just mentioned Mark Bavaro’s name. Maybe the best high school player I’ve seen. No doubt the strongest. Went on to play at ND, and somehow Bavaro lasted until the fourth round. His brother David was on the undefeated Syracuse team that tied Auburn in The Sugar Bowl.
— BTJ (@BrianJoyce10) October 1, 2018
Since his father was a track coach, Bavaro excelled in that sport as well, at least until his bulk began hindering his performance.
In fact, at one point, Bavaro was a talented high jumper.
“Mark’s form was so good as a high school sophomore that I took a bunch of Super Eight movies of him and used them in my classes,” said Jim Madore, who was Bavaro’s track coach at Danvers. “Then his body changed from all the weightlifting. He got heavy but could still get us a second or a third in the high hurdles, and in his junior year he high-jumped 6’6″ to finish second in the state indoor meet.”
As Bavaro became more successful in sports and packed on muscles to his eventual 6’4” frame, he became an intimidating presence to his classmates.
Former teammate Mike Landers commented years later that Bavaro and his closest friends were “scary. They’d be by themselves, always by themselves. They’d go to a party or a dance and sit there staring at people and wouldn’t socialize. People would be frightened by them.”
High School All-American
During Bavaro’s junior year at Danvers, he led the Northeastern Conference in receptions for touchdowns as a tight end.
As a senior, he became a high school All-American known for his technically sound blocking and soft hands as a pass-catcher.
Bavaro was also solid as a defender, earning conference All-Star accolades.
— Artie Lange (@artiequitter) August 3, 2012
While setting the tone for the Danvers football team, Bavaro was playing through serious pain.
At one point he dislocated an elbow and was supposed to miss up to two months.
Instead, Bavaro was able to get a special brace made and played the following week.
When it came time to choose a college, Bavaro had narrowed his list to Purdue, Ohio State, Stanford, Michigan, and Notre Dame.
He eventually decided to play for the Fighting Irish and their coach, Dan Devine.
Rough Start for Bavaro
By the time Bavaro arrived in South Bend in the summer of 1981, Devine had left the program and in his place stepped Gerry Faust.
Faust was an unexpected hire as he had come from the high school ranks.
In 1981, while Notre Dame went 5-6, Bavaro played in only two games.
Irish fans I know we all realized that the @NDFootball TE HiLite did not include All Time Great Mark Bavaro! HOF member of the #TightEndU Alumni! One of the toughest and best to put on the uniform for sure! His career was a Hi Lite! #Toughness #GoIrish #Giants pic.twitter.com/yqXunI32OY
— John McNulty (@CoachJ_Mc) April 9, 2020
The following season, he injured his hand and had to miss the entire year.
When he returned for his junior year in 1983, Bavaro played well in spring ball but wasn’t sure Notre Dame was still in his future.
Faust talked him into staying, and Bavaro became a starter.
In 1983, Bavaro played in all 11 games and caught 23 passes for 376 yards and three touchdowns.
— LETTERMEN (@LETTERMENUSA) April 28, 2017
The Irish went 6-5 and were invited to the Liberty Bowl.
However, Bavaro and most of the team didn’t feel like they deserved to go to a bowl considering how poorly they had played that year.
Notre Dame accepted the invitation anyway.
Before the game, several players were interviewed by the Chicago Sun-Times about their feelings toward Faust.
Bavaro was the only non-senior to respond.
“I can’t see it getting any better,” he told the Sun-Times. “There is not room for mistakes with Gerry Faust. If you make a mistake he calls you a lousy football player. He doesn’t let you play. I don’t think he realizes what he’s doing in the things he says.”
Although the Irish beat Boston College by a point in the Liberty Bowl to go 7-5, Faust felt betrayed.
“The coaching staff was kind of cold to me after that,” Bavaro said. “Gerry wasn’t a bad guy. He was just in a tough situation.”
During the 1984 season, Bavaro led Notre Dame in receptions with 32 and receiving yards with 395.
“Hey fellas, lemme tell ya about Mark Bavaro, tight end from Notre Dame. He’s the greatest tight end I’ve seen since Joey Heatherton’s.” pic.twitter.com/sHdnBhVDjS
— Major Blackentarry (@blackentarry) May 29, 2022
The Irish went 7-5 again and lost to SMU in the Aloha Bowl.
Bavaro was named a first-team All-American and was fourth on the Notre Dame list for tight ends in career receptions and receiving yards. He could have accomplished even more, but Bavaro was ready to move on.
“I just wanted the coaches to tell the NFL that I was a graduating senior, even though I had a year of eligibility left,” Bavaro said.
The Giants Draft Bavaro
Bavaro was a good player coming out of college, but NFL teams weren’t quite sure about his pro ability.
It turned out that Faust and his staff had misled pro scouts who inquired about the tight end.
“We’d had bad reports from his coaches,” said Giants coach Bill Parcells. “Then there were problems with injuries—two bad shoulders and a bad knee. Our scout, Jerry Angelo, went out to look at him. He said, ‘Take this guy, you’re going to love him.’ I said, ‘Is he tough?’ He said, ‘Hell, yeah, he’s tough. As tough as they come.’”
While the Giants were going through their due diligence about Bavaro’s health, he was selected in the 15th round of the USFL draft.
— New York Giants (@Giants) May 1, 2019
Thankfully, New York thought better of Bavaro and took him with the 100th overall pick in the fourth round of the 1985 NFL Draft.
“Maybe if the coaches at Notre Dame had pushed me more, I would have gotten drafted higher and made more money,” Bavaro said, “but then I wouldn’t have gotten on the Giants and gone to the Super Bowl. That’s one thing I wouldn’t trade, no matter how much they paid me.”
It wasn’t long before the Giants coaches and players recognized that Bavaro was no ordinary rookie.
He didn’t say much, did his job well, and wasn’t in awe of the high-profile New York stars like linebacker Lawrence Taylor or quarterback Phil Simms.
Mark Bavaro was TOUGH 😤
— New York Giants (@Giants) October 15, 2022
Even tough-to-please defensive coordinator Bill Belichick was impressed with Bavaro.
“If there’s a memory in my mind of training camp, it’s all the times ‘LT’ and Carl (Banks) would line up across from Mark in one-on-ones,” recalled Belichick. “Those were the days back in training camp where you practiced every day in pads. There were no better battles in my entire career than watching Carl and ‘LT’ go against Bavaro one-on-one.”
When he practiced, Bavaro would give everything he got and didn’t back down from anyone.
Worst of all for the Giants’ vets, they couldn’t provoke the rookie.
He simply ran a play and then went back to the huddle for the next one.
“People always ask me, ‘Is he really that mean? Is he really that tough? Is it true that he doesn’t talk to anybody?’” said receiver Phil McConkey. “I tell them, ‘Look, he’s a gentle, sincere person,’ and they laugh. They think I’m crazy.”
By the end of training camp, Bavaro’s teammates couldn’t help but notice that he looked a lot like actor Sylvester Stallone.
I once had a friend convinced Mark Bavaro was also Rambo. Unfortunately, today’s kids can just look stuff up online…making it more difficult to convince their friends of outlandish things. pic.twitter.com/dMa2sUUeQY
— 80s Sports N Stuff (@80sSportsNStuff) September 4, 2019
Bavaro also carried himself like Stallone’s John Rambo character in the movie First Blood.
Before long, he was saddled with the nickname “Rambo.”
Just before the first week of 1985, starting tight end Zeke Mowatt sustained a season-ending injury.
That thrust Bavaro into the starting role, and he was more than ready.
In Week 6 against the Cincinnati Bengals, he caught a franchise record 12 passes, although the Giants ended up losing.
Game Week @ Bengals: 1985- It was a record breaking game for rookie TE Mark Bavaro, who came into the game w/ 3 catches & had 12 for 176 yards. @giantseisen had an article w/ @PhilSimmsQB talking about his best pass under pressure & it was this 2nd pass to Bavaro #togetherblue pic.twitter.com/Z5iSDJg8Q9
— BigBlueVCR (@BigBlueVCR) November 27, 2020
Normally stoic, Bavaro was known to talk trash on occasion.
“In the Dallas game his rookie year he’s talking to Jeff Rohrer, their outside linebacker,” Simms said. “‘You’re the worst linebacker I’ve ever seen,’ Mark tells him. I mean this is the kid’s fifth game as a pro. “‘Who the hell are you?’ Rohrer says. “‘I’m nobody,’ Mark says, ‘which makes you even worse.'”
By the end of the season, Bavaro had 37 receptions for 511 yards and four touchdowns.
He was voted to the Pro Football Writers Association All-Rookie Team after the year.
Legend in the Making
By the start of his second year in 1986, opponents recognized that they’d be in for a battle when they faced Bavaro.
Given the demands of the tight end position, Bavaro sustained a number of injuries during the season, including a broken jaw.
Befitting a man nicknamed “Rambo,” Bavaro simply had his jaw wired shut, ate through a straw, and kept playing.
“Bavaro is the toughest player I have ever coached,” remarked head coach Bill Parcells.
The Bavaro legend continued to grow during a game against league bully San Francisco in Week 13.
At one point, the Giants were down 17-0. That changed when Simms found Bavaro for a short pass early in the third quarter.
Bavaro took the pass and proceeded to rumble down the field. One by one, several 49ers advanced to tackle him, including safety Ronnie Lott.
8️⃣9️⃣ days until Giants football with #89 Mark Bavaro! pic.twitter.com/Is3myyWItk
— Talkin’ Giants (@TalkinGiants) June 15, 2021
Most bounced off like harmless flies, and at one point, the Giants counted seven San Francisco players trying to tackle Bavaro.
After picking up an astounding 31 yards, the Niners finally brought him down.
“I show people films of that play, and I have them count the people who had shots at Mark,” said McConkey. “One, two, three, now there’s Lott bouncing off, now Williamson, seven total. On the sideline we just looked at each other in amazement.”
That play jump started the Giants, who proceeded to score 21 unanswered points to win the game.
After the contest, 49ers coach Bill Walsh sang Bavaro’s praises.
“Bavaro is the premier tight end in the league,’’ Walsh said.
Super Bowl XXI
During the ‘86 season, Bavaro caught 66 passes for 1,001 yards and four scores.
His reception mark broke New York’s single-season catch record for tight ends.
He was voted to his first Pro Bowl and named a first-team All-Pro.
The Giants went 14-2, defeated the Niners and Redskins in the playoffs, and faced the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXI.
35 years ago today, the Giants defeated the Broncos in Super Bowl XXI, 39-20, winning their first Super Bowl in franchise history.
Phil Simms completed 22 of 25 passes for 268 yards and three touchdowns, winning MVP honors. pic.twitter.com/dVEOsGEbFH
— Giants Videos (@SNYGiants) January 25, 2022
In the week leading up to the game, Bavaro met with the media and set the record straight about his Rambo nickname.
In short, he hated it.
”I`ve asked my teammates to stop it,” Bavaro said. ”Rambo exploited the Vietnam vet. I`ve got a lot of respect for those people. My uncle and cousin were over there, Donald Bavaro and Bobby Rossi. In the Army. They made it through. They were regular old soldiers. I don’t want to be known as `Rambo.`”
When the press asked him how he described himself, Bavaro was to the point.
”I don`t,” he said. ”I don’t describe myself.”
When Parcells was asked to describe his second-year tight end, the coach smiled.
“A bad guy,” Parcells said. “Not mean. Just bad in Pancho Villa style.”
Fellow teammates were also appreciative in their praise for Bavaro.
“Mark plays the game with a quiet dignity. He thinks football should be played tough. I’m just guessing that because he hasn’t told me,” said Giants guard Chris Godfrey.
By halftime of the Super Bowl, New York was down 10-9 to John Elway and his Broncos.
In the second half, the Giants’ offense came alive, and it all started with Bavaro.
With 10:08 remaining in the third quarter, Simms found his favorite tight end for a 13-yard touchdown.
After scoring, Bavaro kneeled in the end zone in prayer.
28 years ago today: Giants beat Broncos in Super Bowl XXI at the Rose Bowl. Mark Bavaro was the original Tim Tebow. pic.twitter.com/2vdLb1mTP4
— Joe Resnick (@JoeResnick) January 25, 2015
As the afternoon commenced, the Giants throttled Denver until the final gun signaled their 39-20 victory.
Bavaro’s stats that day were four receptions for 51 yards and a touchdown.
For the next few years, Bavaro was as steady as ever.
In 1987, he caught 55 passes for 867 yards and a career-best eight scores.
— New York Giants (@Giants) November 30, 2017
He was voted to the Pro Bowl again and also received first-team All-Pro honors for the second time.
Meanwhile, New York missed the postseason in ‘87 and 1988.
During the 1988 season, Bavaro had 53 receptions for 672 yards and four touchdowns.
Then, in 1989, he struggled to stay on the field due to lingering knee issues and was limited to 22 receptions for 278 yards and three touchdowns.
Super Bowl XXV
In 1990, Bavaro came back and played in 15 games, hauling in 33 passes for 393 yards and five scores.
The Giants began the season 10-0 before being humiliated 31-13 by division rival Philadelphia, a contest typically showcasing bad blood on both sides.
“When you played these guys,” Bavaro said, “they weren’t out to beat you in a football game – – they were out to murder you. They wanted to hurt you. They wanted to end your career.”
New York finished the season 13-3 and crushed Chicago before facing the 49ers in a tough NFC Championship battle.
Late in the fourth quarter, Giants defensive end Leonard Marshall hammered quarterback Joe Montana so hard that the quarterback was knocked from the game and did not play the following year.
The final episode of the Joe Montana Docuseries is going to be a tough watch for 49ers fans. Between the Leonard Marshall hit and the trade to the Chiefs, it's going to be a tough one. pic.twitter.com/F6oyHo6L6S
— Jeffrey Walizer Jr (@JWalizerJr) January 28, 2022
Without their all-world signal-caller, the Niners succumbed to the Giants 15-13.
That sent the franchise to their second Super Bowl in five years where they faced the high-scoring Buffalo Bills.
During Super Bowl XXV, Belichick designed a perfect defense to slow the Bills.
Parcells chewed up the clock on offense, and Bavaro caught two huge third-down passes to keep drives alive.
— Ken Gelman (@kengfunk) February 1, 2017
With eight seconds left, the Giants were up by one point.
Bills kicker Scott Norwood trotted onto the field to kick a potential game-winning 47-yard field goal.
The kick sailed wide right, and New York escaped with an improbable 20-19 win.
In Bavaro’s second Super Bowl, he caught five passes for 50 yards.
The Giants Waive Bavaro
Unfortunately, Bavaro’s knee issues were worse than initially believed.
Before the 1990 season, he had reconstructive surgery, and a second surgery was performed months later.
During the ‘90 season, Bavaro rarely practiced but played in 15 games.
— New York Giants (@Giants) September 26, 2015
In the summer of 1991, the Giants waived Bavaro unexpectedly due to his injuries.
“The doctor advised him against playing football again,” new Giants head coach Ray Handley said.
Bavaro had hoped the team would keep him, so he could rehab during the season and return in 1992.
“These six years have been the best of my life,” he said. “I have captured the American dream.”
After some back-and-forth between the Giants and Bavaro’s agent, the franchise decided to pay Bavaro a prorated salary for ‘91 and placed him on the physically-unable-to-perform list.
Instead of rehabbing with New York, Bavaro spent the season as a tight ends coach for a Boston area high school.
Cleveland Signs Bavaro
Despite being told several times by his doctor that he should hang up his cleats, Bavaro soldiered on.
Bill Belichick was now the head coach of the Cleveland Browns and reached out to Bavaro.
Happy to get a chance to play again, Bavaro signed a deal to become a Brown.
“Over the past few months,” said Bavaro’s agent, David Fischoff, “I had calls from several teams inquiring about Mark, but he feels comfortable with Bill. Mark needs an understanding coach.”
The understanding was that Bavaro would not be able to practice regularly, and Belichick trusted his tight end to tell him when he could go.
My Top-5 Players who played for the #Browns and Giants:
5. Mark Bavaro
4. Kevin Zeitler
2. Carl Banks
1. Pepper Johnson
— Menachem Ickovitz 🇮🇱 (@menudo_man) December 21, 2020
In 1992, Bavaro started all 16 games and caught 25 passes for 315 yards and two scores.
Cleveland finished the year 7-9, and Bavaro was not brought back.
Bavaro Becomes an Eagle
In 1993, the Philadelphia Eagles signed Bavaro, which was surprising given the history between Bavaro’s Giants and the Eagles
“They (Philly) were about as hostile as a crowd can be, you know?” Bavaro said. “I think if they were allowed to, they would have probably had snipers up in the stands shooting us on the field. That’s how intense the rivalry was. That’s how much hatred there was between the two teams back then.”
There was no hostility to be found between Bavaro and his new teammates though.
During the 1994 season, he had 43 receptions (his best total since 1988) for 481 yards and six scores.
— Dave (@DavidGuidera) October 11, 2018
He received the George Halas Award that year as a player who had overcome great adversity to perform on the gridiron.
His output couldn’t help the Eagles, though, as the team went 8-8 and missed the postseason.
In 1994, the team went 7-9 while Bavaro caught only 17 passes for 215 yards and three touchdowns.
As much as he wanted to keep playing, Bavaro’s knees told him he’d had enough.
After the ‘94 season concluded, he retired.
During his career, Bavaro had 351 receptions for 4,733 yards and 39 touchdowns.
— Retro Sports (@RetroSports411) July 16, 2017
He was a two-time Pro Bowler, two-time first-team All-Pro, and two-time Super Bowl winner.
Since retiring, Bavaro has worked in the stock market as a sales trader and plays golf as his new favorite sport.
In 1987, Bavaro married Susan Downes, and the couple had three children.
His son, Lucas, played football as well and starred as a defensive back for Dartmouth College.
Here is a look at former NFL star tight end Mark Bavaro and his son Lucas, a St. John's Prep safety headed to Dartmouth pic.twitter.com/YRWy9twJ
— Danny Ventura (@BostonHeraldHS) November 21, 2012
Bavaro played less than a decade in the NFL, but he’s still regarded fondly as the archetype of the modern-day tight end.
“I think Mark’s in a really special category,’’ Bill Belichick said. “His toughness, his overall complete play as a tight end and blocker, just as a total competitor, was just outstanding.’’