Still ‘Easy'

It's simple to get Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning to talk, but it's difficult to get him to talk very much about himself. To many, that's the mark of a true champion.

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In a day and age of professional sports when it seems 99 percent of the participants crave the spotlight and personal attention, former Ole Miss Quarterback Eli Manning, now a two-time Super Bowl champion with the New York Giants, doesn't seem to want a lot of the limelight.

Interviewing him is like having a conversation with your best friend, relaxed and natural. He's a man comfortable in his own skin, as the commercial says. That is, until you try to get him to talk about himself. Then, it becomes more difficult.

Anything he says about himself is very measured as to not come across as anything but a total team player and a man grateful for the opportunities he has worked hard for and earned.

Eli will discuss his wide receivers, his offensive line, his wide receivers, his coaches, his 11-month old daughter Ava or just about anything, and do so with grace and patience, but getting him to talk about Eli Manning can be tedious.

Eli sat down with me recently at an Oxford restaurant and quickly dismissed the notion that his second NFL Championship was any type of validation for him personally.

"I'm not trying to validate anything or prove to anyone anything," Eli stated. "I'm all about working hard, competing and trying to get better every day and every year. Just being a part of a championship is the important thing, doing my part so my teammates, my coaches and the Giants' organization can win. There are no bigger reasons than that.

Eli Manning
Associated Press

"It's not about proving someone wrong or proving I deserved to be the first pick in the draft of any of those things that are sometimes written. It's just about winning championships and being a part of that."

To be able to say, "we were the best this year" is what drives Manning. Nothing more, nothing less. To accomplish that goal, a lot of things have to fall in place, according to Eli.

"The NFL is a lot different from college in that it's such a long season and so many things happen during the course of a year," he explained. "You can go through stretches where a few key people might be injured or you just aren't playing your best football, but if you are committed to the ultimate goal, you can weather those times and come out on top.

"We had the same scenario in 2007 as we did this year. We were banged up midway through the year, we got healthy and we came into the playoffs hot. We had to win three of our last four games just to get into the playoffs and we were able to do that. We went into the playoffs feeling very confident."

The Giants' playoff run was nothing short of remarkable, with a win over Atlanta, a victory over the defending World Champion Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field and then a grueling victory over San Francisco on their home turf in the NFC Championship game before meeting, and beating, the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.

"We got the momentum to make that run by beating Dallas twice and the Jets late in the regular season. Even though we had lost to Green Bay and San Francisco before that, we felt good that we could beat them if we got another shot at them," Manning recalled. "To have that kind of confidence as a team is a very good feeling because you know that is what it is going to take. Everyone has to be on the same page and have the same mindset and confidence to succeed in the NFL because everyone is good."

Eli maintains the closeness on the Giants' squad is what gave them the edge and the ability to accomplish the ultimate goal.

"The dynamic is different because we are older and we have families and a lot going on, but at the same time, we are together longer during the day than in college, so you develop close relationships during the work day from 7 a.m. until 4 p.m.," he noted. "We meet together, we eat together, we practice together, so you develop a closeness.

"There are guys who have been there my whole career. We've grown up together and been in a lot of battles together. We foster those kinds of relationships with our young guys as well. We're close and we don't have any questions about each other. Coach (Tom) Coughlin has also been instrumental in that development because he knows we are going to be prepared and that's his thing – being prepared. Not being prepared is a dagger in his back, so we all make sure we are prepared."

The mark of a good, maybe great, team is the trust factor.

"I know everyone in our locker room is going to fight and scratch, they are going to be prepared, they are going to know their assignment and they are going to perform," he continued. "There's a peace of mind that comes with that. We all know we have each other's back."

Eli Manning
Associated Press

In 2007, Eli was the quarterback, but he didn't really consider himself a leader, per say.

"We had Michael Strahan, Amani Toomer and some others who were the leaders. It wasn't until 2009, maybe, that I started taking more of a leadership role. When we started getting some younger guys in and I was more of a veteran, I knew I had to speed up the leadership process," said Manning.

"I started holding my own meetings, talking to guys on the side and getting guys up to speed in the offense who were new to it. It just kind of took off from there."

Eli's personality is more laid back than in your face, but he has proven to be an effective leader with his own methods.

"I never talk down to guys or get on to them," he stated. "I'm just trying to get them another catch or another touchdown. All I'm about is being successful and it's certainly not a power deal. I think they respect that and get that about me. They know all I want to do is win and that I am going to do everything I can to accomplish that goal."

So how did the youngest of the Manning clan get to the point in his career where he looks as relaxed as if he were on a Sunday stroll in Central Park?

"Being in the same offense my whole career has been big for me. There are so many little things and so many concepts that are just natural to me now that weren't my first two or three years," Eli noted. "Coach (Kevin) Gilbride knows what I like, what routes I throw well. I know what he likes. We have adjusted to each other and are on the same page. We communicate very well and those things are important for his peace of mind and mine.

"We run things hundreds, if not thousands, of times in practice and when the ball is snapped in a game, you know the coverage, you know the routes, you know where you are going with the ball, you trust the guys around you and you aren't thinking any more. It's natural and your movements are fluid."

Did Manning ever envision this type of success in his pro career when he was slinging TDs at a record pace at Ole Miss? Even with his pedigree, the answer is no.

"When I got to Ole Miss, I had no aspirations other than being a college football player. That was it," Manning said. "At that stage, you don't know if you have what it takes. All you can do is compete hard, work hard in the weight room, learn the offense, earn the respect of your teammates and see what happens. I tried to play to the best of my ability and let things fall where they may. I was also blessed to have a great teacher in Coach (David) Cutcliffe, who I am still close with.

"My goal was to be a great college player. It was not about getting to the next level, it was about conquering where you are at that time. When I did get to the NFL, I didn't know if we would ever win a title. Peyton (Manning) had been an MVP and had been in the league eight years at a very high level and hadn't won one at the time. My Dad never won one. I knew it was tough, so all I could do was attack the NFL the same way I did at Ole Miss. Work hard, compete and be the best I could be. Hopefully, that would be good enough. In the end, though, it's not about me, it's about being on a great team and having those special, almost magical, moments with a group of guys driven to the same goal."

Manning and family, after the Super Bowl
Associated Press

After eight seasons and two championships, Eli still believes he has room to grow and improve.

"I still feel young, healthy and strong," he said. "I understand things now and have great young talent around me. I want to keep improving for them. I really feel I am getting into the stretch in my career, the next six or seven years, where I will be getting stronger and better.

"This should be the time when I am playing my best football and if I stay healthy, I feel confident I can do that. I'm going to work hard to accomplish that."

Eli has also taken on a relatively new role, husband to wife Abby and dad to daughter Ava, roles he cherishes.

"Parenthood has been fun and a joy. I have gotten to spend a lot of quality time with my family and that means everything to me. Watching Ava grow is so special to me," Manning said. "Right now, back in Oxford, where I can spend a lot of time with my girls is what it's all about."

Oxford has become a safe haven, so to speak, for Eli and his young family. Although his celebrity is well-known and celebrated in this community, he can go grab lunch or go out on the town without being mobbed.

In the time it took for this interview, he was approached only once and obligingly consented to a photo with an admiring fan.

"Oxford is where we choose to spend our offseason for a reason," he closed. "We are very comfortable here."

Eli can be Eli, away from the spotlight.

One gets the feeling that's the way he likes it.

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