Years ago, nobody could predict Eli Manning would be what he is today - the coolest customer on the football planet, but a couple saw glimpses early on.

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Bear with my feeble mind, because time and dates get cluttered easily for me these days, but about 25 years ago, right before an Ole Miss home football game, a hand tapped me on the shoulder on the sidelines.

I turned around and there was Archie Manning, my all-time favorite Rebel, and along with Pistol Pete Maravich, my all-time sports hero period.

Archie had been a supporter of The Ole Miss Spirit when it first came on the scene, but I really didn't know him personally at the time.

"Hey, Chuck, I need a favor," he said calmly.

A little awestruck, I managed to get out "sure" before I even knew what it was.

"I got my boys some sideline passes. If you would, please keep an eye on them and make sure they don't get in the way," he asked.

Standing behind him were two towhead, gangly kids - Cooper and Peyton, who looked like they had just won the lottery, but also had a bit of boyish mischief in their eyes.

"Hey, where's Eli?" I asked him.

"He's not that interested. He's with Olivia," Archie said as he turned to Cooper and Peyton. "Do what Chuck says."

The boys did nothing wrong that day, but you could tell they were all boys and you could tell football was in their blood.

Flash forward to Peyton's recruitment, after Cooper had his Ole Miss career stopped short by a spine issue. Archie called me out of the blue while he was in Oxford one day and asked me to supper.

Eli Manning
Associated Press

We talked a long time about Peyton and his upcoming decision. Archie had an inkling Peyton was tuning in with then Tennessee Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks Coach David Cutcliffe, but I think he held out hope Peyton would follow in his footsteps at Ole Miss.

Alas, it was not to be, but during that meal, Archie's eyes lit back up when he started talking about his youngest son, Eli.

"He's probably the best athlete of all my boys," he said that night. "He's very laid back, very calm and doesn't let much get to him. Peyton is wound up a lot tighter, but both are extremely competitive in their own way."

When Cutcliffe became the head coach at Ole Miss, and seeing the success Cut had with Peyton, it seemed like a formality Eli would become a Rebel, but during his recruitment, Eli didn't let on too much until he had made a final decision. It was Ole Miss and the natural order of things was returned to the Rebel athletic nation.

After urging Cut to redshirt "E," Archie got out of the way. There was no "Daddy syndrome" with the patriarch of the Manning family. Butting in with coaches isn't his style.

Eli patiently waited his turn and learned Cut's offense. A redshirt year was followed by a year of backing up then-starter Romaro Miller, which suited Archie just fine, even though he still stayed out of the conversation. He wanted Eli to be completely ready when he took control of the Rebel offense.

Eli's first start as the Rebel quarterback, I was standing next to then-Loyalty Foundation Director George Smith, a very good QB coach in his own right.

The Rebs were playing Murray State and had them totally outclassed, so it was hard for a novice like me to get a gauge on how good this kid was really going to be, but the usually-reserved Smith was on the sidelines going bonkers after about three passes.

"Soak it all in, Chuck, you are watching greatness in the making," said George.

Come on, George, three passes and you are telling me this?

"Wait and see," he said, calming down slightly.

I didn't have to wait long to learn all I needed to know.

That same year, the Rebels were playing Alabama in a tight game that eventually went the Rebs' way. In the second quarter, two Bama defenders high-lowed him and buckled Eli's knee.

My heart sank and my stomach went into my throat. It looked awful.

At halftime, I waited outside the locker room for a prognosis. Cutcliffe came out and was white as a ghost. The doctors came out looking mortified.

Super Bowl MVP on Sunday, in Disney World on Monday
Associated Press

Archie exited and I grabbed his arm. "What's the word?"

"Man, nothing but a meniscus. Slap a brace on it and let's go," he said.

Eli never batted an eye. They braced him up and he played on.

As I was watching the game with the 49ers two weeks ago, and watched him get battered over and over, I had no worries. I had seen his toughness years before against the Tide. I had seen his toughness a few years later in the first Giants' Super Bowl run when he beat Green Bay in almost unbearable Wisconsin cold.

All the while, the "quiet Manning" was readying himself for more heroics with a demeanor that belies the modern look-at-me athletes of today.

As it was in college, it's all about the team with him, but Stevie Wonder could see that without Eli, his teams - at Ole Miss and at New York - just would not be the same. Through the years, and especially this year, his heroics have gone from slight surprise to expected. Eli is now considered one of the great clutch performers in the game, if not ever.

He's set records for fourth-quarter comebacks and not even Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw, Tom Brady or any multiple Super Bowl champion has brought his team from behind with long drives twice in football's showcase contest.

It just isn't done, unless you are Eli Manning.

It's official now.

In my 34 years of being blessed to cover big time football, I have seen two passes that left me speechless.

The first one was a beautifully-thrown spiral against Memphis in 2003 that Ole Miss WR Taye Biddle dropped.

The other was Sunday to Mario Manningham.

The "window" to throw in for both was no bigger than a Krystal's cheeseburger. They had to be perfect. Not almost perfect, but perfect.

Eli Manning threw them both.

I wrote a long time ago, the day after Peyton decided to sign with Tennessee, before he had ever stepped foot on a college campus, that he would end up being a Hall of Fame QB in the NFL and would set all kinds of records. I'm not patting myself on the back about that, it's just that you can sense greatness when you see it.

In the end, Peyton may end up being the second-best Manning brother, a debate already shaping up and I'm sure will ensue when both have hung up their cleats.

Eli Manning
Associated Press

I didn't sense greatness with Eli as quickly as Archie did with his youngest son and I almost scoffed - glad I didn't - at George Smith when he predicted greatness for Easy after three college passes.

But I have since become a believer and yesterday certainly put an exclamation point on that belief.

The cool thing about all this is the platitudes and praise that will be heaped on Eli in the coming months and years will not change him.

He'll still be laid back. He'll still be unassuming. He'll still defer credit to his teammates. He'll still count among his best friends all the people he got to know at Ole Miss and New Orleans as a prep star.

And his first priority will not be football, but being a good Dad to his daughter Ava.

In the scheme of things, I know this will sound trite, but how proud am I Eli Manning is a Rebel and always will be?


And if he ever wants me to babysit his kids on the sidelines of an Ole Miss game, I would be honored.

Not because he is a clutch football player, but because he's a clutch human being who just happens to own two Super Bowl rings and MVPs.

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