Hundreds of women jumped to their feet. They yelled, screamed and applauded. Cameras flashed and everyone leaned this way or that to catch an early glimpse.
Eli Manning was back in town. It had been several years since he'd gotten a reception like this one on this campus.
"Thanks," he told more than 400 women assembled for the seventh annual Ole Miss Ladies Football Forum. "It's good to be back."
Eli never got to practice as an Ole Miss Rebel in the massive structure known as the IPF. It was being built during his senior season of 2003. But Saturday, the floor was all his as he took center stage once again at Ole Miss.
"I'm always happy to be back in Oxford," he said, as the attentive crowd sat on the edge of their seats and applauded his every statement. "It's good to get back to Mississippi when I can."
That's actually fairly often, or at least in the offseason and again when there's an open date for the New York Giants so that he might get down for a game here.
"As I've gotten older, I've lost some contact with the players," said Eli, who was at Ole Miss for five seasons (1999-2003). "Last year I still knew some of the guys. Patrick Willis was a freshman when I was a senior. I've talked to the team and I root for them and watch every game I can. Coach O (Ed Orgeron) has been very kind and nice to me. I support the team and Ole Miss in everything they're doing."
As for the Ladies Football Forum, the Mannings are no strangers to the event. Eli's mother, Olivia, the former Homecoming Queen at Ole Miss back when she and Eli's father, Archie, were in college, was featured at one of the earlier forums.
"My mom spoke here a few years ago, and I'm sure she did a better job than I'm doing," Eli said, as once again the ladies applauded, this time in recognition of the only "woman" in the immediate Manning household, joining Archie along with sons Cooper, Peyton, and, of course, Eli.
Cooper and Peyton have added wives to the Manning family, and now Eli will do the same. One of the hot topics at the forum Saturday was the fact that Eli became engaged a couple of months ago to his Ole Miss girlfriend, Abby McGrew of Franklin, Tenn., who was with him today at the forum.
In typical Eli fashion, he downplayed the whole thing.
"Just very simply in Hoboken, New Jersey," he said of how he proposed, "so no great story."
While this day was mostly about Eli and Ole Miss, he is the Giants quarterback, and that fact didn't go unnoticed. He says as he enters his fourth season of pro football, he's learned some things.
"The more experience you get, the more games you play, the more practices you go through, being around the same personnel in the same offense each year, you just get more comfortable," he said. "You learn more how to make big plays and how to get out of bad situations. When you have the play called against their defense and you run it and have no place to go, what decision are you going to make? The key is to not make things worse, to find a way to eliminate those.
"I feel good about the team. We had a great offseason, a great mini-camp, good energy and a good attitude. I'm looking forward to the season getting started."
As for the negatives that might surround him concerning his play, especially from so much media attention and an intense fan base, Eli said he just tries to keep it all in perspective.
"I just don't worry about it that much," he said. "My job is to prepare and try to play well and try to find ways to win for the Giants. That's what I try to do. I just keep working and trying to improve."
Eli was asked many questions by the ladies, including:
"What was your one favorite play while at Ole Miss?"
He said it was the pass he threw to Lorenzo Townsend on third and 5 at the Rebel 40 as he hit Townsend running full stride to the Auburn 12; a play which set up the winning touchdown in that 24-20 UM road victory during the 10-3 Cotton Bowl season of 2003.
"Are you making sure Cooper's sons get Ole Miss stuff and not too much Tennessee stuff from Peyton?"
Eli said he is indeed making sure that's the case.
One lady said she lives in Indianapolis and has Colts season tickets.
"But I'll be in Chicago when you play the Bears this season," she told Eli.
Eli had a few stories of his own. Like the one about an elementary school student who sent him a letter written as only a grade-schooler could write.
"He said we were supposed to pick out heroes, and everybody else picked Peyton. But I picked you. I think you will be a better quarterback than Peyton."
Said Eli, "I made sure to send that one on to Peyton," as the forum ladies roared their approval.
Then he added there was a humbling P.S.
"Can you get Peyton's autograph for me?" the child wrote.
"Broke my heart," said Eli.
This day actually was also about children and helping ones in need.
Saturday night in Jackson, Eli joins brother Cooper and father Archie in a fund-raiser for the Eli Manning Childrens Clinics at the Blair E. Batson Hospital for Children at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. The event includes a Grid Iron Chef competition, pitting father against son with celebrity chef Aaron Sanchez from New York City coaching Eli and Emeril Lagasse's Director of Culinary Operations, Chris Wilson, from New Orleans as Archie's coach. Cooper conducts a live auction featuring once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for sports outings with the Mannings.
"It's a fun day," said the New Orleans native of being in Oxford and Jackson. "I always look for an excuse or a reason to come back to Oxford and to Mississippi. This gave me a reason to get back here."
And a whole lot of Ole Miss ladies good reason to cheer.
Eli highlights Ladies Football Forum
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