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Giants fans Lauren Ravo and Jean Reyes react to the Giants vs. 49ers NFC conference championship game. (Photo by Leslie Barbaro/The Record)
Posted: Tuesday January 24, 2012, 1:50 PM
By ZACH PATBERG of The Record

The photo couldn’t have found a better home at the North Arlington bar Sunday among the sea of blue jerseys: New York’s defensive linesman Leonard Marshall sacking San Francisco quarterback Joe Montana in the 1991 game that gave the Giants the conference championship.

And sitting behind the framed picture, a bit older but no less a giant, was Marshall himself, signing autographs and rooting with the rest of crowd packed into Molly’s Bar & Grill as their Giants once again took on the 49ers for the league title.

“I’ve missed only three [home] games in 35 years,” said Terry Chiappa of Lyndhurst as Marshall signed a copy of the photo. “You’re the man.”

Earlier, 10-year-old brothers Antonio and Sebastian Espina waited in line in Giants jerseys, each with a football. Their sister, Naysha Sanchez, saw Marshall’s scheduled appearance posted on Molly’s Facebook page.

“It’s amazing,” said Antonio, a self-described Giants fan since birth.

“Especially with the 49ers coming up tonight,” Sanchez added.

To Marshall, the game may have changed – more passing these days, higher scores, more last-minute touchdowns — but not the rivalry rooted in the 1980s and seen again Sunday.

“The Giants had issues with the 49ers when it came to winning titles,” he said. “It’s been like that ever since.” Before Sunday’s game, San Francisco had a 4-3 advantage in playoff games against New York.

Marshall sees similarities in the Giants of 1986 — the team that beat the 49ers, 49-3, before winning the ’87 Super Bowl — and the team today.

“During our run for the championship, every guy was accountable,” he said. “And today, the whole defensive line is accountable, from Corey Webster to Antrel Rolle to any of the linebackers.”

Some might say, however, that few linemen could have gotten away with a sack like Marshall’s to Montana more than two decades ago. The fourth-quarter hit left the San Francisco hall of famer with a bruised sternum, cracked ribs and a broken hand and has been ranked as one of the most devastating tackles in NFL history.

Marshall, who was with the Giants 10 seasons and for two Super Bowl victories, recalls it vividly: “I remember Montana rope back, beat a tackle, and I lose my footing, and I’m crawling. When I get up I see Montana pull up, I see him signaling to [receiver] Jerry Rice and all of sudden I just leave my feet – I’m going for the [ball] strip – and I knew it was lights out, Irene, for the guy.”

On Sunday, he watched the rematch with a newer generation of fans, one filled with both camaraderie and territorial wariness. Before the game, New York Jets fan Sean Hester, 45, brought to the bar a cake with an upright football that read “Go Giants.” It was a sort of peace offering to unite New Yorkers against a West Coast foe.

“That’s right, we should bring it all together now,” said the Kearney resident, sporting the green Jets jersey and a fedora.

Those around him in blue accepted the cake and Marshall posed with it for a photo. Later, though, as kickoff approached, Rob Garrison, a lifelong Giants fan whose father “can’t breathe” when a game’s on, eyed the dessert with suspicion.

“If they lose tonight,” the 29-year-old from Wallington said, “I’m kicking the ball off that cake.”

Email: patberg@northjersey.com

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