Wearing a clear poncho over a white Alabama jersey, the fan shouted to those around him in Section B of Ole Miss’ Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. “Let’s see if the great Eli Manning can play in the rain today! Let’s see if his hands are big enough to throw a wet football! Let’s see if the hype is real!”
Turned out, Eli could play in the rain just fine: Ole Miss 27, Alabama 24. In just his fifth start for the Rebels — Oct. 13, 2001 — he led his team from 10 points down in the final 10 minutes.
Turned out, as a member of the NFL’s New York Giants, he could play just fine in a minus-23 wind chill at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field, too, and in the relentless winds of his home stadium in New Jersey.
Turned out, he played his best when it mattered most — in the playoffs.
While leading the Giants to two Super Bowl victories — and earning two Super Bowl MVP awards — Eli defeated peers Tony Romo, Jeff Garcia, Brett Favre, Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers, Alex Smith and Tom Brady (twice).
Archie and Olivia Manning’s baby boy had the guts and confidence to follow his father’s legendary footsteps to Oxford and finish third in the Heisman voting his senior season, just like his dad.
He had the grit and toughness to start 210 consecutive NFL games, third-most among quarterbacks in league history. Let it be known that an injury didn’t end the streak, but, instead, a bone-headed decision by his head coach, who has since been fired.
His benching angered teammates, present and past. This is the Eli Manning they knew: If the Giants lost on Sunday, Eli would stand in front of his locker on Monday and take all the “why” questions from the New York media. But when the team won, Eli steered clear of interviews the next day, allowing his teammates to enjoy the friendly spotlight.
Who does that in the self-centered, look-at-me NFL?
That’s what the league is losing today, what all of us who love football are losing: Eli Manning is retiring after 16 seasons with the Giants.
It is hard to believe he has played his final football game. But he is 39, wealthy and in good health for a guy who has been sacked 411 times and hit many more.
When the Giants turned to the younger, faster Daniel Jones as the starter this season, Eli found the role of backup “boring.” Another team would have likely offered him a starting job in 2020.
But this wasn’t just about Eli. It was about his wife, Abby, their three daughters and son.
It seems only a blink ago that Eli was a senior at Newman High School in New Orleans and set to announce his college choice. He had narrowed it to Texas, Virginia and Ole Miss.
Just as they had with their other sons, Cooper and Peyton, Eli’s parents allowed him to make the decision.
When Olivia arrived home from the grocery store on the day Eli would share his decision, she asked: “So where are you going to school?”
“He looked at me sort of puzzled,” Olivia told me in a phone interview that afternoon. “He said, ‘Ole Miss, mom. What are we eating tonight?’
“That’s Eli for you. No big deal. No big fuss.”
He’ always wanted to be “one of the guys” and his sense of humor has allowed him to do so. At Ole Miss, players could hardly wait until Saturday morning of a game to find out the pranks Eli and backup quarterback David Morris pulled on one another the night before at the team hotel.
Sometime, the road trip roommates would resort to simple annoyances — layering the toilet seat with shampoo, for instance. Other times, they plotted for the long haul.
Morris once packed a hidden pocket on Eli’s travel bag with slices of meat. For weeks, Eli kept complaining that “something stinks.” Eventually, Morris told him to check that pocket.
“When he unzipped it,” Morris said, “there were ants and maggots and everything else you could think of in there.”
Eli appreciated Morris’ ingenuity — and quickly planned his next attack.
Eli and Morris told me these stories while I worked on a long profile of Eli prior to his junior season for Jackson’s daily newspaper. And to show you that Eli viewed himself as just one of the guys, get this: He phoned me and left a message, asking that I please not include the part about the Friday night pranks.
“I don’t want the coaches thinking I’m not taking the games seriously,” he said.
I called him back and assured him the coaches wouldn’t think that, and then I called Archie and told him about Eli’s request.
“Archie, he sounded like a third-team guard who was worried he might never get in a game if the coaches find out,” I said.
We both laughed. I kept the prank part in.
The jokes continued with the Giants. His most famous prank was to hack into a teammate’s phone and change the language to Chinese — an annoyance worth a few laughs that helped break the tension of long, grueling seasons.
Working on that profile allowed me to see Eli in a way I never had before.
I learned that he truly loves the game of football, that his favorite song of all time back then was “Tiny Dancer” by Elton John, that his favorite Ole Miss player of all-time (not counting his dad) was running back Dou Innocent because the fans would chant “Douuuuuuu” after a good run.
I learned that his favorite Bible verse was Psalms 56:4, which reads “I will not fear what flesh can do unto me.”
He chose not to have his photo taken for the story in front of his upstairs apartment on the Oxford town square. He thought readers might view it as showing off.
I saw his competitive side. He was frustrated that one of the team’s best receivers had skipped a summer passing session. “We need you there,” Eli said calmly but firmly the next day. “You can’t miss.”
It seems almost laughable now, but New Yorkers viewed Eli’s calm, even-keeled demeanor as not caring enough during his first couple of seasons. That changed, of course, following the 2007 season and the first Super Bowl run.
Olivia observed that “one minute the fans and the media want him to be fiery, the next they’re calling him Cool Hand Luke.”
I was fortunate to cover Eli’s first Super Bowl win and the week leading up to it in Glendale, Arizona. When I watched him at media day with dozens of writers and broadcasters in front of his podium, it took me back to postgame of the 1999 Egg Bowl in Starkville. Fans from both schools gathered beyond the south end zone to welcome players and get autographs as they exited the dressing room. Eli, a redshirt freshman and the backup to Romaro Miller, walked through the crowd without one soul saying anything to him.
And on Feb. 3, 2008, his life changed forever when the two-touchdown underdog Giants beat the 18-0 New England Patriots. It stands as one of the greatest upsets in sports history.
From that point on, Eli would rarely go unnoticed in New York, the world’s most powerful and influential city.
He would win another Super Bowl four years later, host “Saturday Night Live” and be routinely mentioned along with Derek Jeter on New York sports talk shows as the city’s most iconic sports figures.
One measure of his fame was that he could always get a seat at Rao’s, a 10-table Italian restaurant in East Harlem that is booked months ahead. Others eating there have been known to give him standing ovations when he enters.
His influence as a player at Ole Miss is still being felt. Oxford’s real estate market was kick-started shortly after he committed to Ole Miss. Season tickets sales went from 26,252 the year before he signed to 42,301 in his senior season.
Fans wanted to be part of the program once Eli got there. The results were a 10,000-seat addition that closed in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium’s south end zone, 28 luxury boxes that were sold almost immediately and a state-of-the-art indoor practice facility named the Olivia and Archie Manning Athletics Performance Center.
Quite a road traveled for just “one of the guys.”
The hot debate now is whether Eli deserves induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame when he becomes eligible five years from now.
The critics harp on his regular-season record — 117-117. They say his statistics are good but not dominant.
They say two Super Bowl victories do not make one a Hall of Fame member.
Hogwash, I say.
Only six people have thrown for more yards (57,023) and more touchdowns (366) than Eli.
If you want stats, here are some to consider.
In the eight games during his two Super Bowl playoff runs — all played on the road except for one — Eli threw for 2,073 yards, 15 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. The opposing quarterbacks threw for 1,845 yards, 11 touchdowns and 8 interceptions. Clearly, Eli was dominant in those stretches.
Can anyone name me a Hall of Fame wide receiver that Eli had the pleasure of throwing to during his 16 seasons? A Hall of Fame running back to help ease the offensive load?
Yeah, me neither.
And since when are Super Bowl titles devalued?
I suggest someone ask Tom Brady and Bill Belichick if he’s Hall of Fame worthy.
But Eli has earned the honor that counts most in humanitarian circles, the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, which goes to players who make a difference in their communities.
While working on the profile story, Eli shared with me that it amazed him to see so many kids wearing his No. 10 Ole Miss jersey to games.
Even babies in strollers donned his jersey. “That’s what gets me,” Eli said. “The little baby jerseys.”
Those who know him best say Eli is still a kid at heart and connects with them on a special level. That is why he and Abby have helped raise millions for Batson Children’s Hospital in Jackson.
The Eli Manning Children’s Clinic opened in 2009. And in 2016, Eli and Abby pledged $1 million to the hospital’s $100 million capital campaign to fund an expansion and update the neonatal intensive care unit.
While he most likely won’t play another football game, the wins — in the form of saving children’s lives — will continue.
Eli Manning will never be “just one of the guys.”
He’s a step above.