Jeff Hostetler was named the Giants’ starting quarterback with two weeks remaining in the 1990 season, a transaction that elicited skepticism if not outright dismay among a legion of the team’s fans. The Giants were 11-3 and had a two-game lead in the NFC East race. But in six years with the team Hostetler had made just two starts and thrown 109 passes. And he was replacing the iconic Phil Simms, whose nearly flawless performance in Super Bowl XXI had led the Giants to victory and earned him the MVP award.
Many Giants supporters wondered how the team could possibly win another title with Hostetler at the helm.
They needn’t have worried. After solidifying his credentials in victories over Phoenix and New England to close the regular season, Hostetler led the Giants to playoff triumphs over Chicago and San Francisco (in an epic NFC Championship Game) before capping his storybook run with a stirring win over Buffalo in Super Bowl XXV. Hostetler did not throw an interception in five games. In three postseason games, he completed 45 of 76 passes (59.2 percent) for 510 yards and two touchdowns.
In the Super Bowl, he connected on 20 of 32 passes for 222 yards, including a 14-yard touchdown to Stephen Baker just prior to halftime. The Giants’ 20-19 victory was the defining moment in a 13-year, three-franchise career that ended in 1997.
As great as that game was, a decision Hostetler made soon after its conclusion has had a far greater impact not only on his life, but the lives of so many others.
“Right after the Super Bowl, my wife and I and my brothers decided we were going to start a foundation,” Hostetler said. “We wanted to accumulate funds to impact the lives of people who were going through either a traumatic illness or financial crisis.”
Since its beginning more than 20 years, the Hoss Foundation has helped hundreds of people near Hostetler’s home in Morgantown, W.Va. and as far away as South Africa. Jeff, his wife Vicky, son Jason and brother Doug all put in countless hours working for the foundation. His commitment to help people has earned Hostetler the Giants Alumni Man of the Year award.
“I was blessed with the opportunity and the abilities to play in the NFL,” Hostetler said. “I just felt compelled to help those that … I don’t want to say are less fortunate. They have fallen on tough times, because we all do. There are times when something happens and you just might need a little pat on the back or helping hand or something like that.”
The Hoss Foundation has done that by supporting the Ronald McDonald House, providing thousands of Christmas toys for children who would otherwise go without, building houses in Morgantown through the foundation’s Days of Hope project and reaching out to youngsters on a mission to Africa.
Hostetler, his father, brother, three sons and three nephews all traveled last year to South Africa.
“We wanted to help build another building for their school,” Hostetler said. “These are kids that are orphans or young girls that get prostituted, so they’re being protected there. For some of them, the meal they get at school is the only one they’ll receive for the day. We looked into it and decided that’s where we wanted to go. And it was absolutely awesome. We ate with the kids. We got schooled by the kids in soccer. We went to try to make an impact on them and it was reversed, they made a huge impact on us.”
Hostetler desire to help people can be traced to his youth on a farm in Hollsopple, Pa. (population 900). He was the fifth of seven children growing in a Mennonite family and learned values that remain at his core today.
“Mennonites are known for helping when somebody is struggling,” Hostetler said. “They all gather and they go help. When I was seven or eight years old, my dad (Norman) got real sick and we had almost 3,000 bales of hay to be made. If you know anything about hay, you have to make it at certain times. If you can’t, you lose out. He was sick and unable to do it. All of a sudden we had hundreds of people show up at our place that weekend they got all of it in.
“My mom and dad were always that way when there was somebody that either got sick or just was experiencing bad times. Lots of times we’d either take a meal or go visit or do something like that. Of course, being younger, I didn’t really enjoy that. My mom, at times, would twist my ear and say, ‘You’re going.’ It never left me.”
Like so many young men who played for the Giants, Hostetler was also influenced by the kindness of Wellington Mara.
On June 11, 1985, Vicky gave birth to their first child, Jason. Almost immediately, Jason was diagnosed with pulmonary stenosis, a narrowing of the pulmonary valves in the heart. He underwent his first surgery when he was less than 24 hours old. Jason would have three more operations in the next 11 months.
“They gave us a very bleak prognosis and outlook,” Hostetler said. “For his next seven years, we didn’t know (if Jason would survive). It was a really, really difficult time. Spending time in the hospitals and seeing other young parents going through things, it changed who Vick and I are. It kind of spurred some of the things that we try to do now.”
So did the response of Wellington Mara. Hostetler was a third-string quarterback who hadn’t played a down the previous year as a rookie. But he was a Giant and that’s all that mattered to the team’s much-admired owner. Jeff and Vicky were just 24 and 23, respectively, small-town kids with an infant in a big-city hospital.
“One of the biggest impacts for me was Mr. Mara,” Hostetler said. “We spent the first four, five weeks of his life in Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. Then the season started. Mr. Mara helped us out in quite a few ways, but the main way was he provided a car to take Vicky in and out of the city. It was a huge, huge gesture. It was a tough, tough situation for us and Mr. Mara went ahead and took care of logistics for us. That was huge, because I didn’t have to worry about Vick getting lost or worry about her safety. That always stuck with me.”
Jason’s condition gradually improved and today he is married to Amy, the father of Jeff and Vicky’s first grandchild (Alexis Grace) and the Executive Director of the Hoss Foundation.
Jeff’s career also improved slowly but steadily. He didn’t throw his first pass or start his first game until 1988, his fifth Giants season. Hostetler started another game in 1989, but was still a little-used reserve when Simms suffered a broken foot that ended his season in a loss to Buffalo on Dec. 15, 1990. When Hostetler took the first snap of the Super Bowl six weeks later, he had started four regular games, still the fewest by a Super Bowl starting quarterback. Hostetler’s 87 passes in 1990 is the lowest total ever by a quarterback in a season in which he started in the Super Bowl.
But when the Giants squeezed past the Bills, Hostetler earned a permanent place in Giants’ lore. Simms, Hostetler and Eli Manning are the only Super Bowl-winning Giants quarterbacks.
“I get blown away by that game,” Hostetler said. “It was a huge game and it was just awesome to be a part of it and have a key role in it.”
Hostetler left the Giants prior to the 1993 season. He played four seasons for the Los Angeles/Oakland Raiders before ending his career with the Redskins in 1997.
“I loved my time with the Giants,” Hostetler said. “It made me who I am today. There were struggles, but everybody goes through struggles and tough times and difficult times. As fire purifies and refines silver or gold, so it does to us. You go through those tough times and you become stronger. You realize who you are and you realize what’s important and what’s not. I look back at my years with the Giants and sure I wish I would have had more opportunities. But when I was presented with the opportunity, I took advantage of it.”
After retiring from football, Hostetler dabbled in several businesses, including owning a bagel shop in Morgantown, where he starred at West Virginia University (Vicky’s father is his former coach, Don Nehlen). He is currently a property and home builder in Morgantown with his middle son, Justin). Hostetler’s youngest son, Tyler is a senior at WVU.
But Hostetler’s true passion – aside from his family – is his foundation. For more than two decades, the foundation was privately funded by Jeff and Vicky. They also work tirelessly to solicit donations of everything from money to building materials. Last year, for the first time, they began doing some fundraising.
“There’s such a huge need out there,” Hostetler said. “We just decided that maybe it’s time to allow others to help us help them. I hate to ask for money. I’m a firm believer of tithing 10 percent of what you earn. While I was playing, there were all these opportunities to help. I just didn’t want it to go somewhere where I didn’t know how it would or where the money would go.”
The Hostetlers were the first to donate to the Ronald McDonald House in their hometown. The house is a home-away-from-home for families of seriously ill children and they have stayed active supporting the RMH. “It was really close to home as far as what we’ve gone through,” Hostetler said.
The foundation also works closely with the children’s section of West Virginia University Hospital.
“We help and supply things for families,” Hostetler said. “We were really involved in that when I was playing. As we’ve gotten older, we’ve become more and more involved.
“We’re helping people financially that either can’t have kids or want to adopt kids from overseas. We’ve been able to help and help facilitate adoptions. Most of our foundation granting and projects are in the northern West Virginia or southwestern Pennsylvania area. I’m a firm believer in being hands on. I’m actively involved in whatever we do. My wife is. My kids are. You have to be able to touch it.”
Each year, the Hoss Foundation has a gift project in which it tries to meet the needs of people during the Christmas season. The foundation purchases gifts and offers assistance to families staying at the Ronald McDonald House in addition to providing gifts for those that can’t afford them.
“Last year, we bought, wrapped and delivered over 6,500 gifts to about 1,150 individuals and family members,” Hostetler said. “We’ve done that for 10-11 years. In the last three years, we’ve had close to 700 volunteers help us. We wrapped almost 6,500 gifts in less than three hours. It’s an event.”
So is the Days of Hope Project, in which the foundation built a home for a Morgantown family that had been slammed by an unimaginably unfortunate circumstance.
In the fall of 2010, Dave and Tammy Smith gutted their house. They planned to move with their children – Katie, who was then 15, Kevin, 10 and nine-year-old Kyle - into the basement while they slowly rebuilt. “We were actually about to take the roof off and really tear into it and we thought, ‘Let’s get through winter first,” Dave Smith said.
Before they could, Tammy, then 40, was diagnosed with stage four liver cancer.
“We thought, ‘What are we going to do?’” Smith said. “That was a monumental undertaking with her being healthy. We’re looking at years of hard work being healthy and I had no idea what I’m doing to do if she’s not healthy.”
With Tammy in the hospital, Smith moved the children into his parents’ home, uncertain what lay ahead. “For about two months we were in a panic,” he said.
Then someone approached Hostetler on the family’s behalf. Could the Hoss Foundation rebuild the Smith’s house? Hostetler’s first reaction was to do what he could to help. But the project seemed so big, so complicated that he wondered if it was beyond his group’s capability.
“They didn’t have the time, resources or anything like that to finish this thing and they have no place to go because they can’t go back to living with their in-laws,” Hostetler said. “It was just a really bad situation. It was probably a $150,000 to $250,000 project. I kept walking away from it, because I said it was just too big of a project. God just kept bringing me back to it and I finally realized, ‘Yeah, it’s too big of a big project for me. But somehow someway, we’re going to do it.’”
Hostetler reached out to his building profession contacts. He approached national and local suppliers who donated everything necessary to build a house, from roofing to flooring and everything in-between. Approximately 400 people volunteered to put it together. One group drove 70 miles after work to install the tile. A small army of women helped with the painting. A man from Lancaster, Pa. donated an entire customized kitchen.
“He had come down and we met with (Tammy) and it was her dream kitchen,” Hostetler said. “It was just a great community effort.
“Jeff got a lot of suppliers to rally around it and we just got help left and right,” Smith said. “Every time it seemed like we needed something else, it came to us. He pulled stuff together and in a couple of weeks he had all kinds of people lined up for labor, for supplies. He had it pretty well organized.”
Hostetler’s goal reached beyond simply finishing the house.
“I told him I had some savings set aside and it was one of those deals where you’re going to build it as you afford it,” Smith said of his initial plans for the house. “We were going to do most of the work ourselves and that’s why it was going to take a period of years. We didn’t have all the money at the outset. He told me in the initial meeting that his goal was to finish the house for us and to protect our savings account.”
The house was built in the light of inspiration and the darkness of grief, because Tammy was dying.
“The mom was able to get into the house after we got it framed back up, but she died on Mother’s Day,” Hostetler said. “We knew we had to get it done. According to her husband, that was the second to last smile that she ever had, when she was in the house, because she knew the family was going to be okay.”
Tammy died on May 8, 2011, the Smiths’ 18th wedding anniversary. In September, Dave and his children moved into a brand new four-bedroom, three-bathroom house. And as Hostetler had promised, they had their savings account intact.
“I am very blessed that Jeff came along,” Smith said. “I am very blessed that the community stepped up the way they did. I’m living in this beautiful house and it didn’t crush me financially because everybody was so generous with their supplies and labor. But the most important thing, and thing that you can’t buy, it protected the childhood of my children. If you can imagine trying to do this project yourself, you’re going to spend the years that it would take to do this and those years are times that you should be spending with your kids after school and on weekends. So the biggest benefit that I can see was he protected my children’s childhood. They still get to be kids. Because truthfully, had he not stepped up like that, my kids wouldn’t be able to play the sports and do the activities that they do, because I wouldn’t have had time to take them. I would have had to say, ‘I’m sorry you can’t play baseball. I need you to help around the house.’ It would have been that type of thing. What a way to lose your childhood. First you lose your mom and then you lose your childhood. That’s what I think of the most in all this. The structure is beautiful. It’s a great home, but the most important thing is he preserved my family as much as he could and I’ll never forget that.”
Hostetler has indentified his next Days of Hope project. A 51-year-old Morgantown woman has undergone multiple surgeries while she fights throat cancer. She has disabilities with her hands and feet and a house that is improbably sinking in the center.
“We’re going to determine whether we demolish the whole thing and build it back up or if we can come in and salvage it,” Hostetler said. “We’ll make that determination here and then we’ll get it started sometime in the fall.”
But as Hostetler and his foundation move forward, he hasn’t abandoned those who’ve been helped along the way.
“He always asks about the kids and he wants the boys to come over to his house and shoot some basketball,” Smith said. “I guess his kids are kind of grown and he has a granddaughter now. I think he misses a little bit of the noise and commotion that comes with kids. You got to have that background noise of the feet running around and balls bouncing. He keeps in contact with us and he’s taken a real interest in my daughter. The boys are kind of young, but my daughter was 15 at the time. Jeff and Vicky made sure that Katie was okay. If Katie needed something, they would take her to lunch or take her to get a manicure. They were just constantly concerned with her. It’s hard to miss your mom, but she’s reaching that age where girls really need their moms. So they’re very protective of her.”
To Hostetler, it’s a labor of love.
“There are a lot of people that love to help,” Hostetler said. “They just don’t have the financial resources to do it. We’re trying to take the financial resource need out of it and allow people to come in and give of themselves. That’s some valuable stuff.”
And as Hostetler and the members of his foundation have discovered, some very rewarding stuff.Michael Eisen is a senior writer/editor for Giants.com