Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning and All-Pro/NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Patrick Willis had a full day for Grove Bowl 2008, but they both said they could not have enjoyed it more.
"It is great to get back to Oxford, it always is," said Manning. "To go through the Walk of Champions was special. I kind of took the lead - I know the coaches usually do, but I just couldn't help myself. I jumped up front. Coach Nutt didn't seem to mind.
"Being here brings back a lot of memories and the same people who supported me here are still supporting me with the New York Giants. It's been a fun day."
Manning said he is excited about what is happening in Ole Miss football.
"I still keep up and watch as many games as I can. I only get to come here for one game during our off week, but I'm always watching or listening on Saturday's," Eli said. "I'm very excited about Coach (Houston) Nutt coming in here. I have met with him a few times and I think he's a great addition to the Ole Miss family.
"He's a guy who understands SEC football and what it takes to win. I think our program is on the rise and it's just a matter of time before we win. We are headed in the right direction now."
Eli has never forgotten his roots. He's a Rebel through and through.
"My 4 1/2 years here were very special. I made a lot of great friends and I appreciated my coaches, teachers, teammates and the student body. The family of Ole Miss is fantastic and I'm proud to be a part of it," he said. "I always look forward to coming back."
Manning also relished the opportunity to talk to the Rebel team.
"The message I wanted to leave was to be accountable. Be accountable to Ole Miss, to your family, friends and home town, to your teammates and to yourself," he continued. "Stay out of trouble, do your school work and be accountable for your actions. It's a great time in your lives. Enjoy every second of it, but remember the harder you work and the more committed you are to your team and the program, the better time you'll have. There's nothing better than winning in the SEC. My memories are great ones. It's a wonderful experience but it takes dedication and work to get there. We have a great coaching staff, so it's just a matter of the guys buying into the effort part. That's what I wanted to impress on them."
Eli is looking forward to the 2008 season and doesn't want to rest on his laurels.
"We stayed together last year until we got it going right and we never lost our confidence. Then, at the end, we got everyone healthy and we were playing our best football," he explained. "We had confidence and momentum and it helped us make a run through the playoffs.
"But what I am telling my teammates now is that we have to become a better team overall. We played four good games at the end of the season, but we didn't have a great season for 16 games. We got hot, but what if you don't get hot? We have to get good enough to win games when we aren't playing our best sometimes. I have to improve as a QB and everyone has to have that feeling. Just because we won one title doesn't mean we can take a year off. It's not like that. I want that feeling again so we have to become a better team. That's my goal and our goal as a team."
Willis was just as humble as Manning.
"The Walk of Champions today was great. I think about Ole Miss and what this place has meant to me every day," said Patrick. "In the pros, after practice, we all talk about our college teams and we get after each other when our teams play each other. That all brings those memories back.
"In the pros, we don't have a Walk of Champions. I miss that."
Patrick said he can already tell the influence of Houston Nutt on the Rebel football team.
"Their body language is so different. They are so excited. There is a whole different vibe around here now and to see that change makes me feel good," Willis noted. "Playing against Coach Nutt's teams at Arkansas, I remember how hard their offensive line came off the ball and how hard they play. They always got after you from start to finish.
"But I told the guys today a coach can only do so much. They have to buy in and do the rest. I think they are going to take his lead and do well."
He said his message to the Rebels was to not be content, to always strive to be better.
"It's not enough to earn a scholarship, do something with it," he noted. "Be prepared, work hard, get better every day. Don't be satisfied with what you did yesterday. It's all about going 100% and making things happen for yourself and for the team. I told them not to wait until they were seniors to turn it on. Four years goes quickly and they need to start young with an attitude of giving it everything they have. Use every day to get better."
Patrick said he expected to do well his rookie season with the 49ers because he prepared himself for that.
"I wasn't going to let my team down. I studied hard and worked hard. I was not worried about the speed of the game. I just wanted to be on top of my game," he said. "If I got 10 tackles, I wanted 20 the next game. I just wanted to play the game to the best of my ability, so it was not a great surprise to me that I made a lot of tackles. That's what I do."
Willis said despite being 5-12 last year, he feels very good about the future of the 49ers.
"I know it sounds strange but I feel really good about our future. I felt us getting better last year and we never gave up. We kept working hard and kept playing hard," he added. "We know we can have better days and we know we are going to keep that attitude."
Not many schools can boast of having the Super Bowl MVP and the Defenisve Rookie of the Year on campus for their spring game.
But it was more, much more, than that. It was the feeling they shared. It was them wanting to be here and them wanting to contribute to the future success of Ole Miss and Ole Miss football.
Eli, P-Willie address the media
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