The third and youngest son of Archie and Olivia Manning – the college and NFL icon and his homecoming queen – Eli is as angular, authentic, respectful and athletically imposing as his brothers, Cooper, the former Ole Miss wide receiver, and Peyton, the Pro Bowl quarterback of the Colts.
It is quite a clan, in many ways football's first family, so impressive Ole Miss Chancellor Robert Khayat once described them as "The DiMaggios of the NFL."
But Eli Manning, the first pick of the 2004 NFL Draft and focal point of the Giants' future, refuses to take himself or his sport so seriously that it totally defines who he is.
"He'll have his own life," said David Morris, Eli Manning's backup and road roommate at Mississippi for most of their four years (1999-2002) together. "When there's time to have a good time, he'll have one. When we were away from football we never even talked about it. It was like, 'let's go see what's happening on sorority row.' "
As Manning's career at Ole Miss progressed – he became the starter as a sophomore in 2001 – so did his playfulness and it was his Rebels teammates who often fell victim to his unique brand of humor. His relationship with Morris, once cool, now especially close, provides the clearest view of the evolution of Manning's personality.
"We loved to play pranks on each other and, of course, Eli started it," Morris said. "He's always the instigator, one of those guys who is really sneaky. For example, once the team was done with pre-game meetings we'd get a snack, sandwiches or something. The university gave us all these nice warm-up suits that we'd wear to games. Once when I put my hands in the pockets there were a handful of pickles in them. Of course, I knew it was Eli. I'm thinking, 'Well, at least he could have put it in a bag or something.' Then I go to put on my dress shoes and there's salami stuffed inside them.
"You get him back and he'll get you back double. But I tried. I put a whole cold cut spread in the pocket of his football notebook. You never look in those things and it must have been it for three weeks before he began to pick up the smell. I just started to laugh. And it [the pranks] eventually got much worse. But we can't really go there."
The willingness to let loose has been an acquired skill for Eli, although those who know him say he is distinctly different than Peyton, the sometimes much-too-serious tactician, whose fervent study skills have helped turn him into a superstar. Eli's serious-mindedness apparently comes with a curfew. But it wasn't until recently that the inherently laidback Eli – nicknamed Easy – really began to discover who he was.
"I think Eli has always been a little quieter than Peyton, maybe a little more laidback," Archie Manning said. "But Eli has come out a lot in the last year or two. People tell me at Ole Miss about a kind of change in his personality in his senior year."
Much like his maturity on the field, his personality off it, hardly brash or overbearing to begin with, has refined incrementally since an embarrassing arrest for public drunkenness as a college freshman.
"It was the best thing that could have happened to him," Archie Manning said at the time. "It taught him that he couldn't do stuff like that and not have it reported. It embarrassed him."
But now that Manning has found his comfort level, the perfect balance between work and recreation, his father considers it an attribute that will help his son deal with the issues he must face as he attempts to hang his star in a cynical city.
"Peyton has always been the take-charge guy," Archie Manning said. "He never blinks at anything. But all your children are different. And I would say Eli begun to close the gap in that he's being a little more forceful and talkative than he used to be."
When Morris first met Eli Manning it didn't seem like there was much hope that their relationship would flourish.
"When Eli first came to Mississippi, I didn't like him and he didn't like me," Morris said. "They threw us in a room together and I'm thinking, 'Oh, gosh, here's this Manning boy.' We were competing for the same spot and he probably didn't know what to make of me. There was a lot of tension. We'd just sit there sometimes. But as time passed we grew to like each other very much. We figured it out."
What helped bridge the gap was Eli Manning's predisposition for hard work and humility. Unlike many children who resent being offspring of famous parents, the Manning boys have always understood its benefits. There may be some frat boy in Eli, but it's the Manning in him his family hopes calms whatever tension has been created in the Giants locker room by the release of popular veteran quarterback Kerry Collins.
"I tell guys – and Eli knows this – don't be wearing your letter jacket or your bowl game gear to NFL practices," Peyton Manning said. "The college game is over. It's what have you done for me lately. And it starts from the moment they call your name."
Said Archie: "Does Eli have an idea what he's getting into? Yeah, I think he does. I don't think anyone can totally comprehend the situation until he jumps right into the middle of it. I don't know what kind of disposition it requires. But he's a pretty level-headed guy and he knows what got him to this point. That was hard work. And he won't stop now. You have to roll up your sleeves and let it happen."
It's certainly been difficult for Eli Manning. He played college football at a school where his father (a 1971 first-round draft pick of the Saints) remains a cult hero. The room where Eli usually did his weekly media interviews at Ole Miss is named "The Archie Manning Room." Artifacts of his father's career dominate the interior decoration. But he staunchly plays down whatever grief it may have caused him, probably because it never impeded his play. He's the holder of 45 records at Ole Miss. He threw for 10,119 yards and 81 touchdowns and won both the Maxwell Award and Unitas Golden Arm Award as a senior.
"One of my biggest assets is that I love to play football. I'm very passionate about it. I consider myself a smart player and dealing with pressure is obviously something I'm used to," Eli Manning said. "I've been under the limelight and under the pressure following in the footsteps of Peyton and my Dad. But I'll do everything I can do to succeed and not worry about the pressure. I went to the same college as my father, a place he was considered a hero. I played in the SEC where Peyton had before me [at Tennessee]. A lot of people expected me to do the same things he did before I even stepped foot onto the campus at Ole Miss. So all you can do in that situation is work hard and prepare yourself to be the best you can be and put your team into a situation to win. If I do that, it's really all I can expect from myself."
It's hard to pinpoint exactly what enticed the Giants about Manning, what made them work so hard and pay so much to acquire him from the Chargers on draft day. More likely, it was a combination of all of the above.
"He's more athletic than Peyton," Packers director of college scouting John Dorsey said. "He has better feet. He's just not as cerebral coming to the line. But he makes all the throws. His arm is very alive. He is smart. He's a Manning."
The Giants will sign a veteran quarterback to support and tutor Manning. Although the Giants hope Manning will be ready to play opening day in Philadelphia, they will not force the issue and risk long-term benefits.
"Eli will be ready very shortly," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. "There's a learning curve, a process that everyone has to go through. You will have to pay a certain price. You can look down the line at all the great quarterbacks that have come into this league and everyone has had a certain time for adjustment. This is not an easy league to just walk in to. But his talent and his pedigree, his ability to perform under pressure, it's all there."
On May 7, his NFL career began with his first mini-camp at Giants Stadium. It was not a particularly auspicious day. He fumbled a number of center snaps and fluttered a few passes. But these are small problems the team is certain will be resolved with repetition. Still, with the release of Collins the focus, unfiltered and unrelenting, will now be squarely on Manning although the team continues to insist that Jesse Palmer is the starter.
And the clear disappointment some veteran Giants had for the way Collins was treated will be the first hurdle Manning must clear.
"Do I like them drafting Eli Manning? Yeah," Michael Strahan said. "In the future, I think he will be a phenomenal quarterback, hopefully better than his brother. Do I like them releasing Kerry Collins? No. I'm not saying we don't have an opportunity to win with Eli Manning. But I think it's a little different when you have a rookie. You just hope it's not a situation where we sit back and wait a few years for something to happen, because by that time I seriously doubt I'll be here to enjoy it."
Eli Manning is planning to sooth over the rough spots in the only way he knows how.
"I'm preparing to play right away," Eli Manning said. "I'm going to get into the playbook as soon as possible and learn the offense, try to get my timing down with the receivers and try and earn the respect of my teammates. If I don't play right away it will only make things better in the future. It's a hard thing to jump right into it and be
successful. It's all part of the deal."
Morris, who now lives and works in Alabama, is not worried about his friend's chances. He's certain Manning's lineage is pervasive enough to overwhelm whatever dilemmas he faces.
"You will see what he's all about when he's up at the line of scrimmage and maybe has a toss left called," Morris said. "He'll see something in the defense, change the call and throw a post for a touchdown. It's not as much about his ability to throw a 30-yard laser. It's his consistency. The decisions he makes are solid. He's so good at making
things look easy.
"I guarantee that when Eli gets to camp he will surprise the coaches with how well he understands the offense. What's really incredible is how well he understands football. His understanding of the little things made my jaw drop. You can find better athletes, maybe even with better arms. You will not find anyone with more of a complete package. It's pretty impressive to see.
"And he's the most humble person I know. For someone to be in the situation he's in, to have a brother like Peyton, a father like Archie Manning, to be a No. 1 pick and have all this great stuff coming your way, you would never know it if you saw him out at a party. If you didn't know it was Eli Manning, you wouldn't know it at the end of the night, either. He's the most down the earth person I know and that's a big part of the reason he's done so well in his life."
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