Eli Manning Always Chose New York

Eli Manning Always Chose New York

Huddled in the stands during the waning moments of the Giants’ regular season finale last month, as the last seconds ticked off in yet another disastrous Giants season — the team’s sixth losing campaign in seven years — Giants fans sought succor in a memory.

They began to chant, “Thank-you, E-li. Thank-you, E-li.”

On the sideline, where he uncomfortably paced as a backup, Eli Manning turned his eyes to the stands, smiled faintly and raised a hand in tribute, a scene that symbolized the mix of pride and melancholy accompanying the end of Manning’s career, a retirement which will be made official Friday.

During 16 seasons as an N.F.L. quarterback, the most visible and pressure-packed position in American sports, Manning, a scion of football royalty, had a historic career reviving the storied N.F.L. franchise with two Super Bowl upset victories over the imperial New England Patriots. Manning, 39, entered the league in 2004 shrouded by the shadow of his accomplished older brother Peyton, who was considered the modern era’s quintessential N.F.L. quarterback.

Like an archetypical little brother, though, Eli carved a different path. While Peyton was hyper-efficient on the field and won two Super Bowls of his own, Eli was known for goofy expressions and graceless missteps but also for his steely-eyed resolve in the game’s most tense moments. The younger Manning not only set dozens of records, he had a superior postseason record than his brother, never lost a Super Bowl or conference championship game (Peyton lost two Super Bowls and one conference championship game) and was celebrated for his poise on football’s biggest stages.

As the winner of the Most Valuable Player Award in the Super Bowls following the 2007 and 2011 seasons, the soft-spoken, normally inconspicuous Manning instantly became a national personality — in part because celebrity was in such contrast to his aw-shucks demeanor. Soon, Manning was dancing and singing in prominent television commercials with his telegenic brother and hosting “Saturday Night Live,” where he mocked his own gawkiness.

But beginning in 2013, the Giants and Manning began a long decline. Manning’s record as a starter in his final seven seasons was 39-60, with the Giants qualifying for the playoffs only once in that span. Manning, typically reliable, threw a career-high (and league-leading) 27 interceptions in 2013, and fumbled 53 times from that year on. At MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, where the Giants play home games and where Manning had long been feted by raucous crowds, he was booed with increasing frequency.

Manning’s relationship with fans, both nationwide and in the New York area, was complicated. When he was briefly benched in 2017, the reaction across the country could have been summed up in four words: What took so long?

Giants fans, however, took Manning’s demotion as a personal insult to the legacy of their glory years. Their outcry was so vociferous that Manning was restored as the starter and the team’s coach, Bob McAdoo, and general manager, Jerry Reese, were fired. Manning may have been born in New Orleans and educated at the University of Mississippi, but New Yorkers claimed him as one of their own.

Last year, the Giants finally acknowledged that Manning, the face of the franchise, nonetheless had to be replaced. Daniel Jones, from Duke University, was drafted in the first round and took over for Manning after just two games, both lopsided Giants losses.

“It happens to everyone,” Manning, in the last year of his Giants contract, said. “No one gets to play forever.”

As the season played out, there was speculation that Manning might choose to sign a free-agent contract with another team next season. Those closest to Manning knew that was unlikely.

Years earlier, Archie Manning, an all-American quarterback at Mississippi, had said of his youngest son: “The thing you have to understand is that Eli really loves being the Giants quarterback. It’s how he sees himself.”

The day after 2019 season ended, Manning said he would take time to weigh his future. But in the last month, he settled into a different routine, one that included coaching at some of his four children’s youth sports events. Manning, who is active in multiple charities, grew more comfortable with life as a father, husband and volunteer in suburban northern New Jersey. The grind of 12-hour days studying film, memorizing game plans, practicing on weekdays and playing a violent game on Sundays started to feel less appealing.

At a time when N.F.L. careers are increasingly becoming shorter, with worries about brain trauma caused by concussions and multiple blows to the head leading to early retirements, Manning, by contrast, was an ironman. His streak of 210 consecutive starts is third most by a quarterback.

Tom Coughlin, the Giants’ old-school coach from 2004 to 2015, comprehended the rarity of Manning’s durability, especially in the modern game.

“It’s almost impossible today to be able to do that,” Coughlin said in a statement Wednesday.

Manning leaves as the leader in every significant Giants career passing record. His 57,023 passing yards are the seventh most in N.F.L. history as are his 366 touchdown passes. In 12 postseason games, of which the Giants won eight, Manning threw for 18 touchdown passes and was intercepted nine times.

In the Giants’ second-to-last home game last month, because of an injury to Jones, Manning got to start a final game at MetLife Stadium.

Turning back the clock, Manning threw two touchdowns and the Giants ended a franchise-record nine-game losing streak with a victory over Miami. Near the game’s end, Manning was removed from the field to a standing ovation from the crowd, a roar that continued for about 90 seconds as Manning, standing alone near the bench, appeared to rub tears from his eyes.

In the locker room afterward, when asked if he had indeed been crying, Manning mostly stayed in character, shrugging his shoulders as he gave reporters his usual aw-shucks grin.

“You know, maybe, maybe,” he said hurriedly grabbing the duffel bag at his feet and dashing out a side door.

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