By Billy Watkins
While talking with Eli Manning this week about his recruiting adventures out of Newman High School in New Orleans, he said this: “I was probably on my way to Texas … ”
Let that soak in.
“I was probably on my way to Texas … ”
Yes, Ole Miss fans came ever so close to never seeing Eli in a Rebel uniform. Know this: It wouldn’t have been Eli’s fault.
I will explain shortly, and it will only make Saturday even more special to those who loved watching him play for the same school his legendary dad, Archie, had some 30 years earlier. Yes, the same school where his mom, Olivia, was Homecoming queen.
Ole Miss will retire Eli’s No. 10 Saturday at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium as the No. 12 Rebels (5-1) battle LSU (4-3) at 2:30 p.m. on CBS. Both end zones will be decorated with the name “Manning.”
He is only the third player to have his number retired at Ole Miss. The other two: Archie’s 18 and Chucky Mullins’ 38.
“I love Ole Miss, loved my time there,” said Eli, who is 40. “I’m still a fan. I root for them each week. It’s been great rooting for them this year. They keep it interesting for sure.
“But having my number up there next to my dad’s and Chucky Mullins’, it’ll be an unbelievable feeling.”
Said Archie:“Our entire journey for all of us through Ole Miss has been so special. A lot of nice things have come our way. But when they retire your number, that’s kinda the ultimate to me.
“And a lot of things add to the weekend. Ole Miss is doing so good. They have a quarterback (Matt Corral) playing great.And they’re playing LSU, a longtime arch rival.
Many of Eli’s former teammates will be there, too. Among them: Jesse Mitchell, Justin Wade, Chris Collins, Doug Ziegler, Ronald McClendon, Chris Spencer, Doug Buckles, Von Hutchins, Seth Smith and Bo Hartsfield.
“It was such a great time in my life. I get to be there with my wife (Abby), who I met at Ole Miss, and have our (four) kids there,” he said. “I still remember when they retired my dad’s number, being there as a kid and wearing his jersey that came down to my shoes.
“And I’m really looking forward to seeing my former teammates. I haven’t gotten to see those guys and hang with them as much as I’d like because I was playing (with the New York Giants). I had lost contact with a lot of them, so it’s been great to reconnect with them the past couple of weeks and can’t wait to see them in person.”
Together, they won 24 games overall and 14 in the SEC from 2001 through 2003 with Eli the starting quarterback.
They won two bowl games, two Egg Bowls, beat Alabama twice, and came within one victory in Eli’s final season of reaching the SEC championship game. The 2003 squad was the school’s first in 32 years to win at least 10 games.
Eli finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting. And, of course, he was the No. 1 pick in the 2004 NFL Draft and helped lead the Giants to two Super Bowl titles. He was voted Most Valuable Player in both.
The Giants retired his No. 10 three weeks ago.
And this: He was voted the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year in 2016. Eli and Abby led a fundraising drive — and donated $1 million — at Children’s Hospital in Jackson. Their efforts helped build the Eli Manning Children’s Clinics.
Since retiring following the 2019 season, Eli has never been busier — commercials, his own talk show on the Giants’ YouTube channel, providing alternative commentary, along with brother Peyton, on Monday Night Football telecasts.
Eli handled his recruiting as low key as possible. Archie and Olivia had no inkling where he was leaning.
“You can’t read Eli so we didn’t even try,” Archie said. “He was in seventh grade when Peyton went through the recruiting process. Eli doesn’t say a lot but he alway sits back and observes. Peyton was recruited by about 100 schools and two or three months from signing day was still talking to 40 of them.
“So when it came Eli’s time, he didn’t want much of it. Eli chose his 10 schools right off the bat, then got it down to three (Texas, Virginia and Ole Miss). He said ‘I’m gonna take three visits and make my decision before Christmas.’ Not a lot of people did that back then.”
But something seemed off.
“We knew Eli liked Ole Miss but (head coach) Tommy Tuberville — and I’m not knocking Tommy — wasn’t recruiting him as hard as George Welsh at Virginia and Mack Brown at Texas.”
Arguably the nation’s top recruit, Eli was puzzled and hurt.
“I had always wanted to go to Ole Miss,” Eli said. “ I went to the camps there. Had so many memories there. But you go on some visits and you can tell who really wants you. And Ole Miss just wasn’t one of the schools who was really interested in me.
Tuberville had his eyes set on Newton County’ Allen Tillman, a fine quarterback but not at the level of Eli.
Things changed quickly. Tuberville agreed to become Auburn’s new head coach on Nov. 27, one day after Ole Miss’ final regular-season game, a loss to Mississippi State.
On Dec. 2, the Rebels replaced him with David Cutcliffe, who had been Peyton’s offensive coordinator at Tennessee. Cutcliffe had become a close friend of the entire Manning family.
Soon after signing his contract, Cutcliffe headed to New Orleans to let Eli know he was his No. 1 priority.
“You could tell Coach Cut was on a mission,” Eli said. “He wanted me to come to Ole Miss. I thought he wanted me more than anyone else.”
So thank Auburn for luring Tuberville away in the nick of time. Thank former athletic director Jon Shafer and former Chancellor Robert Khayat for choosing Cutcliffe.
And thank Eli for never flinching at following in father’s footsteps at Ole Miss.
I had a final question for Eli before we hung up.
In his sophomore year, the Rebels whipped LSU 35-24 at Baton Rouge.
With 2:26 remaining in the fourth quarter and leading 28-24, the Rebels faced third and goal at the LSU 5. Eli faked a handoff right, rolled to his left and was pressured. He lofted a pass that appeared headed to a receiver running straight toward the back line of the end zone, but an LSU defensive back provided good coverage. Out of nowhere, tight end Doug Ziegler appeared on a crossing route and made a diving catch for the clinching touchdown.
Many say Eli wasn’t throwing to Ziegler — Peyton leading the claims.
Eli started laughing before I could ever finish the question: “Were you really throwing…..”
“That’s one of the greatest things about playing quarterback,” Eli said. “I was throwing to Ziegler. That’s where I was throwing. I’ll take that to the grave.”