EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY – JANUARY 24: Eli Manning of the New York Giants poses with the Vince … [+]
It was a send-off like no other the Giants organization has ever given.
Then again, considering the player involved—quarterback Eli Manning—it was only fitting.
This was their long-time leader and face of the franchise for 16 seasons and the man who rewarded then-general manager Ernie Accorsi’s faith to engineer the blockbuster draft-day trade with the San Diego Chargers, whose general manager at the time, A.J. Smith, was someone with whom Accorsi had little familiarity, to acquire the baby-faced Manning for a small haul.
It would take four years before Manning led the Giants to the top of the mountain, but not before team patriarch Wellington Mara, in what would be the final game he saw before passing away from cancer and who hadn’t entirely been on board with the trade out of loyalty to incumbent Kerry Collins, saw all he needed to see.
“The last game of the 2004 season in Eli’s rookie year, he took the team down the field at the end of the game in the closing seconds to beat Dallas,” said team president John Mara, Wellington’s son, who got choked up as he shared the memory.
“It was the last game my father ever saw, and I can remember walking to the locker room with him afterward and him saying to me, “I think we found our guy.” And how right he was.”
Manning, whose No. 10 jersey will be retired and who will be inducted into the team’s Ring of Honor in 2020, not only rewarded the Giants’ faith in him football-wise, he became one of the most iconic faces of the franchise.
And yet he was also a man who did things the only way he knew how to—the Eli Way.
“It’s impossible to explain the satisfaction, actually the joy, I’ve experienced being a Giant,” Manning said during a ten-minute speech inside of the team’s field house.
“From the very first moment, I did it my way. I couldn’t be someone other than who I am. Undoubtedly, I would have made the fans, the media, even the front office more comfortable if I was a more ‘rah-rah guy,’ but that’s not me.
“Ultimately, I truly believed my teammates and the fans learned to appreciate that. They knew what they got was pure, unadulterated Eli.”
Manning was never much of a yeller or a screamer or a cheerleader for that matter. While he acknowledged that people might have appreciated him a little more had he adopted that personality, it would have been unnatural and against everything he believed in.
“I’m naturally a quiet guy, but I work hard, and I try to earn respect from my teammates through my dedication and my hard work,” he said.
“If I tried to be a ‘rah-rah’ or yelling at people, you know, it wouldn’t be natural. It would be awkward. It would be fake, and that would be sniffed out, and it would come back to haunt me, I think.”
His way wasn’t always easy for the man nicknamed “Easy E,” but once Manning set his mind to making something work, he saw it through.
“There were difficult times in the early years,” he admitted. “You’re struggling as a player sometimes, and you’re not winning as many games, and you’re dealing with the New York media, and they are harping on you about different things. I think that’s the time when you kind of test it, and you say, I have to stay true and know that the hard work, the dedication, the commitment; you rely on your values and know they will get you through those times. When you do that, you see the progress, and you see little steps of getting better, and improvement verifies it.”
So too did some advice Manning said he received from Yankees icon Derek Jeter, who this week was voted to baseball’s Hall of Fame.
“He called me my rookie year when we were starting, lost a few games, and he just talked to me about that (saying) it would get easier and stay the course,” Manning said.
“We’ve had a good relationship over the years. Seen him at several things and stayed in touch somewhat. After that, it was someone who I watched closely and how he conducted himself, how he dealt with the media, how he dealt with fans and how he worked hard and how he stayed humble in all circumstances after so many championships that he’s won. He was on top of the world. You know, I took a lot of notes from how he handled New York, so he’s been a great role model for me all these years.”
Manning, who said he couldn’t envision himself in another team’s uniform, isn’t sure what’s next. But he did say he hasn’t ruled out taking on a role within the organization which Mara revealed earlier in the month during a radio interview with WFAN he would be glad to offer the two-time Super Bowl MVP.
“You know, I look forward to a little downtime,” Manning said. “I look forward to spending time with my family, coaching (oldest daughter) Ava’s third-grade basketball team, and just being involved with my kids and (wife) Abby and getting to do some things that I’ve missed out on because of this job and the dedication I gave to it. I think I’m going to take some time and enjoy it and then figure out what my next steps are.”
Whatever he does decide to do next, Manning is proud of the legacy he built with the Giants.
“Wellington Mara always said, “Once a Giant, always a Giant,’” he said. “For me, it’s ‘Only a Giant.’”