We met him as Peyton Manning’s baby brother, and all they had in common in the beginning was that royal football last name. But suddenly it is 14 years and two Super Bowl championships later, and Eli Manning is three days from his 37th birthday, and when he walks off the MetLife Stadium field into the tunnel that leads to the locker room eight hours before the start of a New Year, it is not etched in stone that we see him again in his beloved blue jersey with the white 10.
New general manager Dave Gettleman has left the door open for Manning to be the 2018 starter, and John Mara sure is doing his darndest to keep it open, but who knows what the postseason summit between Manning and the decision-makers will bring?
Manning has given no inclination that he would be in any way inclined to serve as a mentor to Davis Webb or to one of the prize college quarterbacks (Josh Rosen, Sam Darnold) that Gettleman should draft with the prized second pick if he loves either or both.
“I want to play,” Manning reiterated. “That’s my goal. That’s what I want to do.”
I said to him: “You also want to retire a Giant, don’t you?”
He smiled and said: “That’d be ideal as well.”
He tries to beat the Redskins now, the merciless end to a winter of his discontent, to the worst football season of his life, with a loving fan base wondering if it should sing Cold Lang Syne and thank him for the 14 years not knowing for certain whether there will be a 15th.
“I wish all Giants fans a Happy New Year, and I think we’re all hoping next year will be better than this one,” Manning told The Post.
It can’t possibly be worse. But will it be better for him here, or will he ask to find a Happy New Year somewhere else?
In the meantime, The Gentleman Quarterback of the Giants raises a toast to Giants fans.
“I know when we’ve had good games and they praise you, bad games and they have their comments, that’s just part of football,” he said. “But I appreciate all their support, especially this year, maybe more than any, just because you kind of saw their love or their appreciation for me, and it meant a lot during that time.”
That one time when coaching malpractice ended his 210-game Ironman streak and Giants fans had his back. As cruel and as cutthroat as the business is, Manning appears as emotionally prepared as he possibly can be for whatever awaits him. He doesn’t shy away from the persistent inquiries about his future. Same guy every day. Still.
I asked him what kind of New York Giants career he envisioned.
“You hope to kind of leave it better than when you came to it,” he said. “Obviously this year, may not be better, but overall, to add two championships, it’s been a good run.”
A good run that saw him grow up into SuperMann, twice hoisting that Lombardi Trophy and carrying it through the Canyon of Heroes.
“You see other quarterbacks or other players hold it, but until it’s kind of sitting there, and you know you’re about to hold it, is an unbelievable feeling,” Manning said, “just knowing that you and your team were able to put it together, put together that special season, make those plays at critical moments, how tough it was, how many breaks you caught or you made for yourself. But to hold it is an unbelievable sense of joy, pride and accomplishment.”
The prospect of playing on the New York stage didn’t scare him when then-GM Ernie Accorsi made the franchise-altering 2004 draft-day trade with the Chargers.
“I was excited about coming to New York, just because you knew about the history of the teams, the ownership, that they were going to do everything the right way and do whatever they could do to have a good football team, it’s all about football, that’s all that mattered, and they were committed to it, and you saw Coach Coughlin and what kind of coach he was, and all the people associated with the organization,” Manning said.
His first start as a rookie came on Nov. 21, 2004 at Giants Stadium, a 14-10 loss to Michael Vick and the Falcons. It got worse before it got better.
“It was tough, and being in New York and everybody talking, and so you just have to kind of learn how to cope with the ups and downs and deal with it,” Manning said.
He dealt with it wearing a public mask, and with a strength of character and raging Winner Within that belied his easy, aw-shucks demeanor.
“There were definitely times you didn’t enjoy it, you didn’t like it, you could easily get down a little bit,” Manning recalled.
Down but never out.
“I don’t know, I guess that will not to give up, not to quit, not to let it get to you,” Manning said. “Don’t give someone else that satisfaction of seeing you down, or thinking that they were affecting your performance and just wanting, I guess … proving people wrong.”
He proved plenty of people wrong. And one person right.
“We drafted him to win championships,” Accorsi said.
He drafted The Greatest Giants Quarterback Of Them All.
“I have an emotional, professional, a personal attachment to him,” Accorsi said. “It’s probably the most significant acquisition I ever made in 35 years in the NFL. As [college football historian] Beano Cook said to me, ‘You can be on the first civilian spaceship that lands on Mars, but your obit, the first line will be Eli Manning, not that.’ And I’m happy to have that.”
Thank Eli Manning for the memories on Sunday at 1. Just in case you don’t get the chance to thank him for being your champion quarterback again.