Photo: Eli Manning speaks at a Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame news conference Friday afternoon in Natchitoches. Credit: Chris Reich/NSU Photographic Services
Written by Jason Pugh
NATCHITOCHES – Perhaps the most famous reluctant center in football had the stage to himself Friday afternoon at the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.
A second-generation Hall of Famer in his home state, Eli Manning made a name for himself under center first at New Orleans’ Isidore Newman High School then Ole Miss and during a 16-year NFL career with the New York Giants. However, his first football position – unofficially – was “permanent center.”
“Our house was where a lot of kids were coming on Saturdays and Sundays,” he said. “My pals. Cooper’s pals. Peyton’s pals. There were a lot of pickup games in the front yard. Of course, my brothers wouldn’t let me play with them being five years and seven years younger. I was the permanent center for a long time. I can still snap a ball to this day. It never had to come to use in any way, but it’s a hidden talent.
“That’s how it was. We were outside playing sports. That’s what we loved to do. I think my dad, he thought sports played an important role in life lessons. Hard work, discipline, teamwork, dealing with bosses, dealing with success – all those things.”
The youngest of the three Manning boys, Eli handled every challenge thrown at him – on and off the field. In some ways, the baby of arguably Louisiana’s first family of football carried the biggest burden.
After Peyton, five years Eli’s senior, chose to go to Tennessee, it was up to Eli to keep the family tradition of attending Ole Miss alive. While Archie maintained a hands-off advisory role when it came to his sons’ recruitment, the family ties and the addition of a familiar face extended the Manning legacy in Oxford.
“I figured if I didn’t go to Ole Miss, my parents wouldn’t be allowed back in the state of Mississippi, where they’re from,” Eli said, drawing one of numerous rounds of chuckles from the assembled crowd. “I better do that. In all seriousness, my dad – to his credit – never got involved. He was there to answer questions, but it was never, ‘Hey, you have to go to this place.’ Never to a certain school. I was probably headed to Texas, too. Mack Brown was there, and he recruited me hard. Then David Cutcliffe left Tennessee and became the head coach at Ole Miss in December of my senior year (of high school). I knew David from his time as Peyton’s offensive coordinator at Tennessee. I went to Tennessee football camps. I had a great relationship with him. When he became a head coach, he started recruiting me. We sat down for a long time, and he was a big reason I went to Ole Miss.”
While in Oxford, Eli etched his name all over the Rebels’ record books, setting or tying 45 school records during his five years at his parents’ alma mater.
Despite playing in the toughest conference in college football – one Manning said prepared him for the NFL – it was away from the field where Eli had a shadow looming over him – that of his oldest brother, Cooper, who had come to Oxford as a wide receiver before a spinal injury ended his playing career.
That didn’t stop the oldest Manning son from becoming a campus legend.
“A lot of people would say, ‘Was there a lot of pressure following in your dad’s footsteps at Ole Miss?’” Eli said. “It was more pressure trying to follow in Coop’s footsteps at Ole Miss. He’s a social legend. He was there eight years and is not a doctor. He’s not a doctor by any means. I didn’t get to do a lot of things he got to, but I did have to have a talk with him eventually.”
As Eli’s star shone brighter and brighter, his physical similarities to his brother led to some cases of mistaken identity.
“My sophomore or junior year, I’m the starting quarterback,” Eli said. “Friday nights, we’d stay in a hotel outside of campus, and Coop would be in town. We looked somewhat alike, and he’d be at the bar smoking a cigarette and having a drink. A guy would walk up and say, ‘Eli, what are you doing? We’ve got a big game tomorrow.’ Coop would just say, ‘Ah, we have Kentucky tomorrow. No big deal.’ I was getting a bad reputation. I had to tell Coop to calm down.”
Eli’s career did not cool after a senior year in which he won the Maxwell Award and the Johnny Unitas Award, setting him up to be the No. 1 overall NFL Draft pick, which San Diego used on him despite his polite ask of the Chargers not to do so.
After a 40-minute career as a Charger, Eli landed in New York where he matched Peyton with a pair of Super Bowl championships, authoring one of the most memorable plays in Super Bowl history when he connected on a desperation heave that David Tyree snagged against his helmet. In true Manning fashion, Eli launched into a one-of-a-kind description of Super Bowl XLII’s signature moment – one that set up the Giants’ upset of the then 18-0 New England Patriots.
“We had a couple of secret plays we hadn’t run all year,” he said. “We didn’t think they’d work when (coach Tom Coughlin) said, ‘Offensive line, don’t block anybody. Eli run around and throw it to David Tyree’s helmet, and he’ll catch it one-handed.’ We practiced it all year, and it never worked. We called it at the right time, and we finally executed it.”
While Friday’s 30-minute news conference was vintage Manning – filled with self-deprecating humor and one-liners that drew guffaws – so was Eli’s career, the same one that began as a “permanent center” in the front yard of a New Orleans house. It will come to fruition Saturday night at the induction ceremony at the Natchitoches Events Center where Eli will join Archie and Peyton. Eli and Archie will be the fourth father-son duo inducted in the state’s athletic shrine, joining Bert and Dub Jones (football), Glenn “Slats” and Billy Hardin (track and field) and, of course, Archie and Peyton.
“This is a great honor, going into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame,” Eli said. “Playing sports in Louisiana at all levels prepared me very well for college and on down the road, because the level of athletics in Louisiana is so good at all levels. It’s an honor to be here in Natchitoches and go into the Hall of Fame with my dad and brother, who have been inducted already.”