EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Eli Manning always drank beer on the team bus. It was a Broadway Joe kind of thing to do, and a fact that might run counter to an image Manning spent absolutely no time crafting. But win, lose or draw, Manning would find someone on the road to buy him a six-pack or 12-pack that he would carry to the back of the bus, on ice, and share with some veterans as they discussed the game on the ride to the airport.
Even then, Manning's consistency stunned his New York Giants teammates. "It was unbelievable," said Lawrence Tynes, the kicker who won two championships with the quarterback. "He had a guy in every f---ing stadium in the league to get him that beer."
Manning will miss those bus rides as much as he will miss anything else after he dresses Sunday for the final time as a Giant, and likely for the final time as an NFL player. He will not miss the constant dissection of his public personality, or lack thereof, and the fascination with what has been a near-perfect marriage between the world's loudest marketplace and a quiet child of the South who spent his career projecting that oblivious vibe he wore as clearly as his jersey No. 10.
By design, it seemed, Manning carried himself like a tourist hopelessly lost in the middle of Times Square. On his first couple of trips into Manhattan with his Long Island-born-and-bred friend, Greg Leder, "Eli looked at me like, 'I'm not sure I'll ever figure out how to get around this place,'" Leder said. "I said, 'It's pretty easy, Eli. There's an East Side and a West Side and some numbers in between. If you can count, you'll figure it out.'"
Of course, Manning figured out New York better than any championship athlete of his generation not named Derek Jeter or Mariano Rivera. He was a lot smarter and tougher than he ever wanted to look, and he quickly understood that making it big in the big city meant following the Jeter/Rivera model of winning multiple titles, staying clear of controversy and showing up every day to work.
Maybe the Ole Miss star knew something before the 2004 draft that few others did. Peyton's kid brother did not want the San Diego Chargers to take him with the first overall pick even though his laid-back disposition appeared to match up with that laid-back town. Manning never adequately explained what he had against San Diego, but his agent, Tom Condon, had serious intel on the franchise (he represented Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer, quarterback Drew Brees and running back LaDainian Tomlinson), and his father, Archie, grew up a Giants fan in Mississippi because his own dad loved former Ole Miss quarterback Charlie Conerly, who won a title with the Giants in 1956.
Ernie Accorsi, the Giants' general manager in 2004, fell hard for Manning as a prospect and pushed his San Diego counterpart A.J. Smith to trade the No. 1 pick for the fourth pick and some extras, not including Smith's desired pass-rushing target, Osi Umenyiora. A couple of nights before the draft, Manning went out with Leder, who had attended college with Ellen, the wife of Eli's oldest brother, Cooper. Leder had been assigned by Cooper and Ellen to shepherd Eli around town, and after eating at Smith & Wollensky, the pair ended up at a bar where some talking heads on TV were discussing Manning's desire to play in New York. A bouncer turned to Leder -- thinking he was Eli's agent -- and said, "You've got to get this done somehow, someway."
"We're working on it, buddy," Leder responded.
Smith drafted Manning, Accorsi drafted Philip Rivers, and then the Giants shipped Rivers and three picks west for their guy. Eli was blitzed by media and fans early in his career for his dazed, sleepy-eyed expressions and hangdog-ish body language, for not showing Peyton-like fire when things went awry. Tiki Barber questioned his leadership style. Even the offensive coordinator, Kevin Gilbride, ripped Manning in a practice for allegedly not caring enough that the defense was dominating his unit. (Eli shot Gilbride an intense look that most definitely said otherwise.)
For a while there Archie Manning, who had his prime wasted by the hapless New Orleans Saints, wondered whether Eli or the coach, Tom Coughlin, would get run out of town first. Accorsi would occasionally eat dinner with his son in Manning's adopted town, Hoboken, New Jersey, and stare at the building that housed Eli's 3,555-square-foot condo and think, "That poor guy, he probably can't even go out. And I'm the one that put him here."
Everybody was worried about Eli. Everybody except Eli. "I never doubted myself," he would say. "I never lost confidence. I love being in New York. ... I knew it was the right place. It just takes time."
Manning made his first real stand after he injured his throwing shoulder in the 2007 opener, and after it was reported he might miss a month while recovering. He promised friends he would play through the pain, and sure enough, he buckled up his chin strap and started the following Sunday. Ten weeks later, Manning somehow threw three pick-sixes and four interceptions in all against Minnesota in an effort that compelled the retired Accorsi to flee the building in the middle of the game. Before the man who had acquired Eli could get to his car, a fan shouted at him, "Hey, thanks for leaving us with this mess."
Eli recovered to nearly beat the 15-0 Patriots at the end of the regular season, and then to finish off the 18-0 Patriots at the end of the postseason. To celebrate his Super Bowl XLII triumph later that week, Manning joined a small handful of teammates and friends and their wives at one of the city's most iconic restaurants, Rao's, in East Harlem. Eli's chair happened to be wedged up against one occupied by Yogi Berra.
"Mr. Berra," Manning said, "when you win a championship in New York, they really know how to take care of you."
The old catcher congratulated the young quarterback on his first title, and then said, "Just so you know, you have nine more to go." Manning was floored by the fact that Berra had won 10 World Series rings with the Yankees. "Five in a row, too," Berra told him. At the end of the night Manning, Berra, Giants center Shaun O'Hara and restaurant owner Frank Pellegrino were locked arm in arm while singing "New York, New York" before a rollicking packed house.
Leder was taking it all in from his table, watching Eli and thinking about that innocent child of a Southern sheriff played by Ron Howard on "The Andy Griffith Show" in the 1960s.
"That's when I knew Opie from Mayberry was going to do just fine in NYC," Leder said.
Manning became a two-time Super Bowl MVP four years later, again at New England's expense, yet it was the grit he showed in his two overtime conference championship games that some close to him remember most. In sub-Arctic conditions in Green Bay, Giants trainer Ronnie Barnes told Manning he was risking the use of his right hand, beyond that January 2008 game, if he didn't wear a glove; Eli still refused to wear one and handled the same conditions that freezer-burned Coughlin's face better than Brett Favre did. In January 2012, Manning threw for 316 yards and two touchdowns at San Francisco while absorbing a vicious pounding that inspired the wife of offensive line coach Pat Flaherty to call her spouse and ask why he tried to get his quarterback killed.
Eli made 210 consecutive regular-season starts for a reason. His trainer at Ole Miss, Tim Mullins, said that Manning was one of the toughest players the Rebels ever suited up, and that he had played through a knee injury the school kept quiet. When it appeared in 2009 that Manning might go to the Giants' bench with plantar fasciitis, Mullins told him to wear cowboy boots to stabilize his foot and reduce pain whenever he could. "If something isn't broken," the trainer said, "Eli's mentality is that he's going to be out there."
His durability was matched by his relentlessly consistent approach. Eli cried when Coughlin was forced out in 2015, and again when Ben McAdoo benched him in 2017, and he had stunned himself, his teammates and about 20,000 fans at a Giants Stadium pep rally after Super Bowl XLII when he dramatically waved his arms to the sky in demand of more crowd noise. "I don't know what came over me," Manning said as he left the ceremony. But over 16 seasons on the job, he rarely showed emotion in good times or in bad.
His father knew Eli truly didn't read daily stories about his team, unlike the hyperaware Peyton, and so he would call his youngest son when a crisis was brewing. "There were a couple of things that Odell [Beckham Jr.] had to say, and I had to say, 'Eli, Odell said this,' and he didn't know," Archie said. "I just didn't want him to be embarrassed when he was asked about it. Once I had to call him and say, 'Eli, you need to know that Tiki [Barber] just blew up Coach Coughlin.' He just said, 'OK.'"
Archie said he never heard Eli utter a bad word -- even in their most private conversations -- about a teammate, a coach or a media member, a claim supported by a wide circle of Eli loyalists. Manning was all but forced to publicly fire back on Barber in 2007, but outside of that, O'Hara said, "Eli might need a bottle a wine to vent a bit about a receiver running the wrong route. It was very rare."
Giants coaches and officials universally admired the franchise quarterback's ability to build trust with his teammates. Behind closed locker-room doors, Eli was a master prankster, changing teammates' phone settings to Mandarin, dipping his offensive linemen's dress shoes in purple paint and applying Icy Hot to Brandon Jacobs' deodorant stick. One of his regular victims, Zak DeOssie, the last fellow member of the 2007 title team before his career likely ended last month on injured reserve, said Manning used his grace and humility more than his sense of humor to bond with younger Giants.
"There is an age gap in the locker room," DeOssie said, "and it's not easy for a 38-year-old to connect with a 22-year-old. Eli always took the time to talk with players at any position, no matter their age. It was amazing to see how friendly he was with everyone."
Like Jeter, who called Manning to offer support during his rookie struggles in 2004, Eli remained available and professional with the media while saying nothing of substance. He wouldn't even confirm for his own father whether he named his fourth child and only son, Charlie, after Conerly. "Typical Eli," Archie said. Also typical of Eli was his policy of talking to reporters on Mondays after losses, so he could shoulder the blame, but not on Mondays after victories, so his teammates could enjoy their fair share of credit.
Around his home in Summit, New Jersey, or around his mansion in the Hamptons, or around his favorite Manhattan haunts, Manning was almost always willing to sign autographs for fans, even the most intrusive ones who interrupted his dinner. He sometimes declined requests for pictures when he was out, according to one friend, because he tired of his photos contributing to the social media wave of goofy Eli faces.
Manning burned to be a champion, not a celebrity. Cooper Manning recalled meeting Eli in Midtown in 2008 -- maybe it was at the corner of 54th and Madison -- and finding him dressed in jeans and a collared shirt, standing alone and unbothered, and thinking about how much his brother loved just blending in.
One night Cooper was eating dinner at Campagnola on the East Side when James Caan pushed through the door. "He walked right to the middle of the dining room, made sure everyone saw him, and then just walked out," Cooper said. "I thought, 'Eli would never do that in his wildest dreams.'"
Manning's regular-guy act played well in the market. Family and friends sometimes teased Eli, from New Orleans, and his wife, Abby, from Nashville, about how perfectly they have fit into the city's culture and New Jersey suburbia, about how they never return to Oxford, Mississippi, anymore. Archie called his son a "Jersey boy," and others called him a "city slicker." Cooper joked with his brother that he'll soon have a Jersey accent and that his children will all end up at Rutgers.
Eli responded to it all with his trademark aw-shucks shrug. His no-trade clause meant the world to him. He cherished the only job he has ever wanted until he lost it to the rookie, Daniel Jones, an Eli clone with upgraded athleticism. Manning thought he would get eight games this season to prove he could still win, but his third and final Giants coach, Pat Shurmur, made the switch at 0-2. As much as he hated his role with the second string, Manning still mentored Jones, still did all the things that made him one of the league's most respected figures.
Eli still remained heavily invested in his Tackle Kids Cancer program, and still handed out $2,000 checks to Giants staffers for the holidays, and still honored the power of his reach as a decorated athlete. Leder, a 50-year-old executive in the financial industry described as Eli's third big brother and first consigliere, has an 11-year-old relative with cerebral palsy who recently faced surgery, a Manning fan named Owen with an affection for people who assure him they have his back. Eli didn't just make Owen a video of support last month, during his time on the bench. He made sure to close his message by saying, "I just want you to know one thing: I've got your back."
These are the reasons everyone desperately wanted Eli to have that one last winning moment he got in MetLife Stadium two Sundays ago, courtesy of Jones' ankle injury. Manning earned his standing ovations and his final victory with his parents, family and friends in attendance. Shurmur pulled him in the closing minutes, and soon enough Eli was near tears as he waved and nodded and thumbs-upped the cheering, chanting crowd. Accorsi said the look of relief and joy on the quarterback's face matched Manning's expression when he stopped by the GM's Giants Stadium office in the immediate wake of his first career victory, over Dallas, to close the 2004 season.
On his way off the MetLife field, Manning stopped in the tunnel to greet his wife and children and to pose for pictures that will serve as future proof to 10-month-old Charlie of what his old man meant to the game. "Hall of Fame, baby," one fan yelled as Eli held Charlie in his arms, the cameras flashing around them. "First ballot, baby."
In the locker room, Manning executed his last prank as a starter, taking Shurmur's game ball and punctuating his team-centric speech by saying, "I'll see you all Wednesday," forcing his coach to give his players an unplanned day off. The NFL might have had the last laugh, however, as a note posted at Manning's locker informed Eli that he'd been randomly selected to report to the bathroom to provide a urine sample for a doping test. Seriously.
After Manning left his postgame news conference and headed for the exit, his daughters ran up to him for hugs, and onlookers clapped for him and patted him on the back. It was a sharp departure from the Monday night scene after the loss to Dallas in November, when Manning was completely ignored in the hallways while making the purposeful walk from the locker room (no news conference for him) to his car with his head down, all but trying to fade to black.
Someone sent Manning's father a highlight video of his final first-string day as a Giant, and Archie grew emotional when he watched it in his office. He said Eli is perfectly healthy, and capable of playing for another team next year. This isn't quite like Peyton's farewell at Super Bowl 50, where the boys' mother, Olivia, told two reporters on the field that she absolutely wanted Peyton to retire.
Could Eli land with another franchise, such as, say, Peyton's old Indianapolis Colts? Will he choose to retire after failing to win a postseason game over the past eight seasons? Will he end up in Canton either way?
Time will answer all of the above. Meanwhile, Manning has clearly decided to enjoy his possible endgame, and to worry less about concealing the playful side of his personality from public view. He celebrated Jones' five-touchdown performance against Washington on Sunday by going out to dance, throw napkins in the air (yep, napkins) and play drinking games with his replacement at a bar in Hoboken, the very town where the GM who had drafted him feared a struggling young Eli would hide in his condo.
Manning, Jones party it up after Giants' win
Eli Manning and Daniel Jones show off some dance moves and play a game of flip cup after the Giants' win against the Redskins.
Now Eli will dress as a Giant for the last time Sunday against Philadelphia, and then leave all of New York's burdens for Jones, Sam Darnold and Gerrit Cole to carry forward. They would all be wise to follow the Manning model.
"He's the most consistent human being I've ever played with," Lawrence Tynes said. "If you can build a player to handle playing quarterback in New York, you would build an Eli."
Said another former teammate, Shaun O'Hara: "I never heard him say, 'Man, I was slinging it today.' Or, 'Did you see that throw to [David] Tyree or to [Mario] Manningham?' He never once bragged about any throw, any play or any game."
The night after his victory over the Dolphins, Eli dined with friends at Campagnola -- the same place where his brother Cooper saw James Caan act the part of a big movie star. An elderly customer spotted Manning, and then turned to a nearby stranger, Leder, who was about to dine with the quarterback.
"That right there is the classiest, most dependable sports figure to ever play in the tri-state area," the elderly man said.
In the end, Elisha Nelson Manning might ask, who needs a third Super Bowl title when you can put that trophy in your case?