This is one part of a series on the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2023. The Induction Celebration in Natchitoches is July 27-29, with information and tickets available at LaSportsHall.com or by calling 318-238-4255. The Lincoln Parish Journal is a proud supporter of the LSHOF.
By TED LEWIS, Written for the LSWA
It couldn’t have been easy being the guy they called Easy.
Consider the accomplishments of his father and brothers that Eli Manning was challenged to live up to on the way to his own considerable football stardom:
By the time he was a freshman at Newman, older brothers Cooper and Peyton had been highly recruited stars for the Greenies. And as if to put more pressure on Eli, Peyton wrote in his yearbook, “Watch out, world. This one is going to be the best one.”
By the time Eli got to Ole Miss, Peyton had been an All-America and Heisman Trophy runner-up at Tennessee then the first pick in the 1998 NFL draft. That’s not to mention Eli chose to play at the school where his father, Archie, was a living legend. The school speed limit was his number – 18.
By the time of the 2004 draft where Eli matched his brother by being the No. 1 pick, Peyton was coming off the first of his unmatched five NFL MVP seasons.
Eli even had to follow Peyton’s hosting gig on Saturday Night Live, still considered the best-ever by an athlete.
Plus, Eli would spend the entirety of his 16-year NFL career in the media pressure cooker of the Big Apple.
He cooly handled it all, though — becoming the career passing leader for his high school, college and NFL teams, the last where he was the longest tenured player in the 98-year history of the New York Giants and quarterbacked Big Blue to two unlikely Super Bowl championships with two MVP performances, one more than Peyton’s total.
Not bad for someone whose parents questioned whether he had the competitive inclination to follow the route of his father and older brothers.
“It took me a little while before I was comfortable with the idea that maybe I didn’t have to match my family, or at least didn’t have to do it exactly the same way,” Eli said. “I loved playing football, I loved my teammates and I loved the commitment and preparation it took.
“It was never about keeping up with my family.”
Or, as his mother, Olivia, put it more succinctly, “Eli was always a little different from the others.
“He was quieter and calmer and kind of hard to rattle. Eli just rolled along.”
And now, Eli has rolled into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, joining Archie and Peyton in Natchitoches and making the Mannings the only father-brother combination among the hall’s 479 inductees. The Class of 2023 Induction Celebration is July 27-29 in Natchitoches, with tickets and information available at LaSportsHall.com or by calling 318-238-4255.
“He more than deserves it,” said Peyton, five years Eli’s senior, who was inducted in 2019.
“More than anything else, Eli developed his own identity at every step along the way.
“He was tough-minded, durable, and always took accountability throughout his career. I’m honored to be in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame with him.”
Added Archie, who was inducted in 1988, “Eli had the right disposition to handle everything that came his way.
“He was always low-key, quiet and humble. Eli just didn’t worry about things.”
Well, not always.
When he was a senior at Newman and the Greenies were playing a Thursday night game, Eli made an urgent pregame call from the locker room to his mother asking her to be sure to tape Seinfeld.
Years later, when Jerry Seinfeld heard the story, he sent Eli an autographed DVD set of the entire series. Such are the benefits of celebrity in New York.
Of course, there is a burden as well.
Although Eli famously never read what was written about him (Olivia would alert him when there was something she knew he would be called on to respond to), he acknowledges that the notorious media pressure in New York is a very real thing.
“Early on, it was difficult for me because everything in New York is overanalyzed,” Eli said. “You have to learn pretty quickly not to listen to it.”
Eli replaced Kurt Warner as the Giants’ starter just past midway through the 2004 season when the team was 5-4. He proceeded to lose his first six starts, not getting a victory until the season finale against the Dallas Cowboys.
During that skid, Eli received advice from Yankees’ great Derek Jeter.
“He told me that New York was the greatest place to be if you were winning and the toughest if you were losing,” Eli said. “The best thing to do is to keep your head down, keep grinding and don’t let it get to you.
“So I stayed polite with everybody, remembered names, didn’t hold grudges and just erased from my memory anything bad said about me.”
Beyond that, Eli took it upon himself to talk to the media on Mondays after losses, instead of waiting until later in the week like most other NFL quarterbacks. When the Giants won, though, Eli would let his teammates reflect on the victory the next day.
“He never had to be ‘Broadway Eli,’ ” said Cooper, whose own promising football career was cut short after high school because of a spinal condition. “Eli had always done a good job of staying in his own lane, so whatever criticism or praise came his way, he didn’t let it show.
“And as time went on, when folks realized that Eli wasn’t going to change, they learned to like him for what he was and appreciated how he stayed consistent, never complained and was a great teammate.”
Maybe that’s why Eli was able to spend his entire career with one team, something that many of the greats – including Peyton – didn’t, for various reasons.
And when he did choose to retire after the 2019 season, Giants owner John Mara announced that no one would ever wear Eli’s No. 10 again.
“That’s such a great honor,” Eli said. “Guys would go to other teams, and they’d tell me, ‘It’s just not the same here.’
“The Giants are an organization where you’re treated well and there is a total commitment to football and building a winning team. That doesn’t mean you’re going to win every year, but you’re always going to do things the right way.”
Eli’s love of all things Giants led to what Archie calls him becoming a “Jersey boy,” settling with his family — wife Abby and their four children — in Summitt, New Jersey where he remains an ambassador for the Giants and an active participant in charitable and community activities, including being a fan at his kids’ hockey, lacrosse and softball games.
Son Chuck, the only boy, will begin flag football next year when he turns five, and, Eli says “He likes to sling it.” So there could be yet another quarterback in the family.
And while Eli may not be a ubiquitous pitchman like Peyton, he has a good share of endorsements, including a current one for Corona beer with Snoop Dog. Compared to Peyton’s current ad for baked beans, how cool is that?
And there’s the Manningcast, ESPN’s alternate look at Monday Night Football featuring Eli and Peyton from their dens, commenting on the game, welcoming guests and generally having a good time ribbing each other.
Eli recently jabbed Peyton about his brother’s legendary game preparation, noting that Peyton usually tapes 45 minutes worth of pregame voice memos to Eli’s eight. And when Peyton recently won a sports Emmy, Eli commented, “I didn’t know you could win one for just telling when coaches should call time out.”
All of that activity doesn’t leave a lot of time for Eli to come home to Louisiana. But he is a charter participant in the Manning Passing Academy, a connection that goes back to his being one of the original campers in 1996 before his sophomore year at Newman.Eli had earlier realized that family name or not, quarterback was his best position, especially since he regarded himself too small or unathletic to play anywhere else.
It was more than that, though.
“There can’t be many feelings in sports better than being under center and knowing you’ve checked to the perfect play because you know exactly what the other team is doing,” Eli said.
“Sometimes you know the outcome of the play before the ball is snapped because of the preparation and commitment you’ve done. I just liked having the ball in my hands.”
Since getting an offer from then-Ole Miss coach Billy Brewer when he was in the fifth grade, the notion that Eli could be quarterback on a par with Peyton was taking place, even though Archie and Olivia had taken great pains for none of their sons to feel pressured into being anything they didn’t want to be.
That was especially true for Eli, whom Olivia — who admittedly had been hoping for a girl — doted on, even taking him antiquing on Magazine Street.
“Mom and I were always close,” Eli said. “I was probably more comfortable hanging out with her than just about anything else.”
Olivia had been the homecoming queen at Ole Miss, and while she would have been happy to see Eli commit to Texas and Mack Brown, she was thrilled when her youngest son made her the first to know he was going to be a Rebel.
During Eli’s years at Ole Miss Archie and Olivia were enthusiastic football parents, including hosting postgame parties for the players in the Grove.
“I think Eli was afraid I was going to move up there,” Olivia said. “But It was a great time for everybody.”
After his college career ended with an MVP performance in the Cotton Bowl (and being a National Football Foundation Scholar-Athlete, something else Peyton didn’t achieve), it appeared that the San Diego Chargers would take Eli with the first pick in the draft.
But after hearing some things about how players had been treated by the Chargers, Eli expressed a preference to go to the Giants, whose general manager, Ernie Accorsi, felt that he had the ability to surpass Peyton.
Amid un-Manninglike controversy, a draft day trade was made (after the Chargers took Eli anyway), San Diego wound up with Phillip Rivers and three picks and Eli’s long, happy association with the Giants had begun, topped by those two Super Bowl titles.
Eli acknowledges it’s been a good ride.
“I grew up with a wonderful family and friends,” he said. “And now I’m living my second chapter in a terrific place to raise my family and doing things that are important to me while getting time to play a little golf.”
So maybe it wasn’t that much of a burden being Eli Manning.
Like another very famous former resident of New Jersey, Eli did it his way.