TAMPA, JAN. 23 -- He is talking. New York Giants tight end Mark Bavaro speaks. That is about as frequent as a sighting of Halley's comet.

And like the comet's passing, when that rarity happens, it is truly a remarkable thing. After not speaking to the media all season -- as is the case every season -- Bavaro has opened up this week as he prepares to face the Buffalo Bills' rough-and-tumble defense in the Super Bowl.

On the surface, Bavaro, 27, sometimes appears cold and hardened, matching an on-field persona as one of the toughest players in the NFL. But today Bavaro showed a different side: He discussed how he went to an anti-abortion rally two years ago and lay on the ground until police carried his 245-pound frame off to jail. He talked of his deep religious beliefs, and made some of the strongest on-the-record statements about war in the Persian Gulf of any NFL player.

Bavaro is important to the Giants and at the same time something of a curiosity to some of them, but a well-liked curiosity. Fullback Maurice Carthon, whose locker is right next to Bavaro's, said he rarely speaks to the tight end. But it's not because Bavaro isn't friendly, it's because he is so private a person.

"He really hasn't talked that much this year," said Carthon, one of the chattiest players on the team. "Because basically he is always getting treatment and getting ready for practice."

"I think everybody is a private person," Bavaro said. "I don't think you would like to share your life freely with strangers.

"The big question is, and what I've learned through the years is, what to share and what not to share with people. What to keep private and what to let go publicly. Who to talk to and who not to talk to. I've learned through the years who's who."

He is quiet, but vital to the Giants' interests, especially in the playoffs. It is in postseason that Bavaro works his best magic. Consider this: The last four regular season games Bavaro had six catches for 68 yards. In the two playoff games, he has eight for 79.

And Bavaro has played fairly well this season despite injuries, fighting through them to miss only one game because of a sprained ankle. He continues to fight chronic knee pain, and has overcome an operation on his ligaments last season and another surgical procedure during training camp.

The pain he has endured this season has only enhanced his near mythical status among fellow Giants as a guy who, if a concrete block fell on him at the 50-yard line, would somehow stumble forward for the first down. Remember the Monday night game against the San Francisco 49ers during the Giants' 1986 Super Bowl drive? When he caught an 11-yard pass and dragged four 49ers 20 yards?

"He's the toughest guy on our team," said offensive tackle Jumbo Elliott, who at 6 feet 7, 305 pounds knows a little bit about tough.

"I think everyone on the team respects the kind of guy he is," Carthon said. "He's a tough guy. He's played in a lot of pain this year and still in the playoffs he's had some really good days."

Bavaro responded to a recent published report that quoted his father, Anthony Bavaro; General Manager George Young, and former Giant Phil McConkey as saying they felt Bavaro might retire at the end of this season, what with all the injury problems he's had.

"I don't plan on retiring until I have to," Bavaro said. "Nobody knows my situation. Nobody knows if it's good or bad. I'm not saying if it's good or bad. I'm just trying to do the best I can and help my team.

" . . . I've been playing football since I was in fourth grade. My life has evolved around football. Right now it's my most marketable skill."

For someone who keeps to himself as much as he does, what Bavaro did in 1989 may have come as a surprise to some.

Bavaro went to an anti-abortion rally in New Jersey, then protested outside a Manhattan abortion clinic with about 1,000 people, including his parish priest. The demonstration was peaceful, with protesters lying down outside the clinic. Bavaro was arrested and then immediately released.

"I went to the clinic and made my feelings known," said Bavaro, who is Catholic, attended Notre Dame, is married and has two young children. "There's not much else to say. I'm not a public person. It's a conviction. People have to know all the facts."

Bavaro also expressed some hesitations about playing the Super Bowl. He is one of the few players -- and for that matter coaches -- who when asked about the war showed deep emotion about it. San Francisco Coach George Seifert, for example, said last week he didn't want to discuss the war because it was a distraction to his team.

"Personally, I prefer not to have celebration at a time of war," Bavaro said. "Once war is declared I think we should close the ranks and we should support our troops and the president. We should spend our time and energy getting prepared for war."

Asked if he thought the game should not be played, Bavaro said: "I'm not saying anything. I'm just going to do my job. That's what I get paid to do.

"Every day you wake up and you see bloody people on the front page and {prisoners of war} on TV. Then you kind of wonder how important is this game, how important is football. But it's almost like you don't want to cancel it because there is so much riding on it in terms of the community. It's important to a lot of people.

"But you almost get the feeling {the NFL} wants to play the game and get it over with. Get down to more serious business."