POSSESSED

The Devil and David Tyree: How the Man Behind the Super Bowl’s Greatest Catch Lost His Mind

Alcoholism. Speaking in tongues. Preaching gay marriage doom. The disturbing true story behind the greatest catch in Super Bowl history.

02.07.16 10:38 AM ET

It’s been coined “The Helmet Catch”—a snag so miraculous it was spoofed by Justin Timberlake with an artfully placed piece of gum, while NFL Films founder Steve Sabol wrote it “defied logic, history, gravity, and just about anything else you care to mention.” It is, with all due respect to Joe Montana and the Johns—Taylor, Riggins, and Elway—the greatest Super Bowl play ever.

On the night of Feb. 3, 2008, the New York Giants were trailing 14-10 against the undefeated New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. With 1:15 remaining in the game, the Giants faced a 3rd down with 5 yards to go for a 1st from their own 44-yard line. Quarterback Eli Manning called the play “76 Union Y Sail,” aka “Phantom,” hoping to hit a receiver for a deep pass. He took the snap and the pocket immediately collapsed, with three defenders closing in on Manning. Defensive lineman Jarvis Green caught hold of his jersey, spinning him around and nearly dragging him down for a sack, but Manning broke free and fired a strike downfield to the 24-yard line. There, Giants’ receiver David Tyree, blanketed by three members of the Pats’ secondary, leaped high for the ball, avoiding a swipe by strong safety Rodney Harrison and securing the ball with his right hand, then his left, against his helmet.

First down, Giants. Fifty-eight seconds left. Four plays later, Manning found Plaxico Burress in the back of the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown, sealing their unlikely Super Bowl victory.

It was a poetic moment for Tyree, a special teams player who’d caught only four passes during the regular season at receiver, and had one catch for 4 yards in the G-Men’s three playoff victories that year en route to the big game. Just prior to the playoffs, Tyree’s mother Thelma suddenly dropped dead of a heart attack, causing the distraught 28-year-old to sit out their first playoff game.

And less than four years prior to that, Tyree was holed up in a New Jersey psych ward, speaking in tongues and claiming he was the devil.

A native of Montclair, New Jersey, Tyree had battled addiction throughout high school and college, carrying his demons with him to NFL. 

“After every game I would have a 40-ounce of malt liquor, and then I would, uh, have a blunt, which is like a cigar gutted with, you know, with marijuana in it,” Tyree revealed to ESPN’s E:60. “Then I would have a half a pint of Jack Daniels.”

Tyree crashed his car twice while on the Giants, and his teammate Amani Toomer recalled witnessing him reeking of booze in practice. During his 2003 rookie season, Tyree was fined a total of $10,000 for serial tardiness to meetings. In order to help pay the fines—and feed his craving—he began selling marijuana.

“My response is, ‘Hey, I got some of the best bud. Might as well get some of the homies together and start selling it,’” said Tyree. “It seemed like a pretty decent plan at the time. It was a quick fix, and the least it could do is take care of my habit and make a few bucks at the same time.”

Things grinded to a halt on March 3, 2004, when Tyree was pulled over on the George Washington Bridge with a broken taillight. Police found a half-pound of marijuana in his car, and charged him with possession and intent to distribute.

Fortunately for the athlete, the case against him was dismissed. Shortly thereafter Tyree, who had never been religious, walked into a church and experienced what he calls a spiritual awakening. “I actually wept for about 20 to 25 minutes, just wept straight, cried like a baby—in essence was born again,” he said.

It didn’t last. Tyree started hearing voices. Satan, he says, had taken control of his soul.

“Somebody asked me what my name was and I told him, ‘The devil,’” said Tyree. “I can’t remember that. I was being possessed.”

Tyree’s relatives, scared and confused, confronted him one day and performed an exorcism.

“As they begin to pray, I remember slithering off the couch,” recalled Tyree. “Stuff you’d pretty much see in movies—almost a modern-day Exorcist without the green face. It’s stuff most people can’t handle, you know? Even most Christians can’t handle. Most people don’t see that side of spirituality, most people don’t believe in spirits or demons.”

“Everybody wants to believe in god and heaven and rejoice, well, I’ve been exposed to the darker side of Christianity and spiritual things in general.”

The exorcism didn’t work, so in April 2004, Tyree’s family admitted him to the psychiatric ward of East Orange General Hospital.

“He would talk in circles,” his then-fiancée, Leilah, told E:60. “Physically, he was, like, sweaty. He was having palpitations, his hands were very clammy, he would slide off the bed and I would try and put him back on the bed. He would stand at the window with his hands [spread] like a cross. He would lay on the bed… to relax, he would look straight up to the ceiling and just point and smile, and I would be like, ‘OK…’”

Tyree, whose family has a history of schizophrenia, only remembers flashes of his time at East Orange.

“I can’t remember saying ‘I’m the devil,’” he said. “In my right mind I’m not going to tell anybody I’m the devil, but everybody else in the room remembers it very clearly.”

“At that time, I just said, ‘You know what, God? I don’t know what’s going on. I’ll just give it to you,’” he added. “And just slowly but surely, the voice in my head began to quiet down, began to quiet down, began to quiet down.”

David Tyree lights The Empire State Building blue in celebration of the NFC Championship Game on January 20, 2012 in New York City.  (Photo by Craig Barritt/Getty Images)

Craig Barritt/Getty

David Tyree.

Those voices, Tyree says, disappeared, and after four days in confinement he was released from the mental hospital. His condition was never diagnosed, and he says he hasn’t experienced any recurrences.

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Tyree married Leilah, and the following year excelled on the field as well, becoming a First Team All-Pro member for his stellar play on Giants’ special teams, and earning a trip to the Pro Bowl. He chose to keep the hospitalization a secret from his teammates.

That fateful Super Bowl catch in 2008, however, would be the last reception of his NFL career—but not the last time the SB42 standout made front-page headlines. After a series of nagging injuries forced him into early retirement in 2009, Tyree dove headfirst into his born-again Christendom, delivering speeches at a number of Battle Cry concerts. The Battle Cry Campaign was an initiative started in 2005 by Teen Mania Ministries—and backed by the likes of Pat Robertson and Chuck Colson—that sought to bring evangelical Christianity back into the lives of U.S. teenagers. It preached that pornography, homosexuality, and popular culture were ruining the lives of America’s youth.

Its literature railed against: “Our current society with 35 percent baby boomers as bible-based believers: increasingly perverted TV, film, music and video games, proliferation of Internet pornography, rise of activist government officials promoting gay marriage, attempts to remove the Ten Commandments from public buildings and attempts to remove God from the Pledge of Allegiance.” (Teen Mania Ministries disbanded in 2015.)

On June 15, 2011, Tyree announced he’d aligned himself with the far-right National Organization for Marriage—a deeply homophobic organization dedicated to banning same-sex marriage. In an interview for the NOM posted to YouTube, Tyree spoke out against gay marriage, claiming it was “wholly unsacred” and that if gay marriage was passed in New York, “This will be the beginning of our country sliding toward—it’s a strong word, but anarchy… That will be the moment where our society in itself loses its grip with what’s right.”  

Tyree also advocated gay conversion therapy, tweeting, “I’ll never be a former black. I have met former homosexuals. That’s the truth.” And five days after the controversial video interview, he doubled-down on his anti-gay stance in an interview with the New York Daily News, saying he’d give up his legendary Super Bowl catch and Super Bowl win in order to block gay marriage. 

“Nothing means more to me than that my God would be honored,” said Tyree. “Being the fact that I firmly believe that God created and ordained marriage between a man and a woman, I believe that that’s something that should be fought for at all costs. So I’ll lay down everything I am to preserve the honor and integrity of the God that I serve.”

“Perhaps God orchestrated [The Helmet Catch] to give me a platform for what I’m doing here today: to urge political leaders all over our nation to reject same-sex marriage,” he added.

Despite his campaigning, the New York State Legislature passed the Marriage Equality Act on June 24, 2011, with the law taking effect on July 24, 2011.

After securing a powerful position in the New York Giants’ front office as director of Player Development in June 2014, Tyree and the team came under fire by gay-rights organizations for the hire, given his anti-gay marriage and pro gay-conversation therapy stances.

“When did Tyree decide to be straight?” asked Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin in a press release. “The idea that someone can change their sexual orientation or gender identity is ludicrous, and the New York Giants are risking their credibility by hiring someone who publicly advocates this junk science. His opposition to basic legal equality aside, David Tyree’s proselytizing of such dangerous practices goes against the positive work the Giants organization has done in recent years.”

ESPN reached out to Tyree for a response to the HRC’s statement, and he replied, “I don’t have any comment about it. I’m just excited to be with the Giants.”

A month later, the very day the Marriage Equality Act took effect in New York, Tyree had seemingly done a complete 180, telling Sports Illustrated’s Wade Davis, founder of the LGBTQ sports ally and leadership initiative You Belong, “Christianity teaches us love, compassion, and respect for our fellow man, and it is in that light that I will continue to work with Wade and others to better serve the gay community. I would absolutely support any player on the Giants who identified as gay, in any way I could.”

Tyree did not address the statements he’d made three years prior, including whether he’s still fanatically opposed to same-sex marriage and in support of gay conversion therapy. He did address that otherworldly catch, however, in a 2015 interview with USA Today.

“It stunned me,” said Tyree. “For me, it brings on a real sense of humility. I knew my role. I knew what I was capable of as a player and a wide receiver. But obviously, that really exceeds anybody’s expectations as far as the timing of the play. I always see it as a gift from God.”