You could always count on Eli Manning

Eli Manning, rookie backup, had made a commitment in 2004. He would watch Kurt Warner play quarterback for the Giants, and the following night he would ride with his friend, Greg Leder, from the Meadowlands to Manhasset to appear at an art show for special-needs children.

But when that night arrived, Manning was no longer sitting behind Warner. It was cold and rainy and all sorts of miserable, and Manning had gotten pummeled the day before. Leder and his sister Peggy, the registered art therapist who was running the event, figured there was no shot that Eli the starter would honor the promise made by Eli the backup.

Yet Manning showed up, because Manning was raised to show up. He talked strategy with his college coach, David Cutcliffe, on the ride over, before checking his football life at the door in Long Island. Fully engaged and wearing a wide smile, Manning spent more than an hour with the children, including some who had drawn pictures of Eli to give to him. The gathered parents would never forget the looks on their kids’ faces while in the quarterback’s presence.

Seventeen years later, at halftime of Sunday’s Giants-Falcons game at MetLife Stadium, Manning won’t be getting his jersey No. 10 retired only because he twice beat the league’s all-time greatest quarterback (Tom Brady) and coach (Bill Belichick) in Super Bowls that dented the Patriots’ dynasty. Manning will also be honored for carrying himself with grace and dignity, and for embracing all the responsibilities that come with being the quarterback and captain of the New York Giants.

“As a fan, you knew you would never wake up and find that Eli had let you down,” said Leder, a Garden City bond broker. “You’re lucky when you find someone to put a ‘C’ on his chest, and you can put your head on the pillow at night knowing the guy has the organization at the forefront of everything he does.”

Kurt Warner and Eli Manning in 2004
N.Y. Post: Charles Wenzelberg

Eli has come a long way, baby. On his arrival in New York, Manning, who grew up in New Orleans and played his college ball at Mississippi, had no clue how to navigate his way around the big city. Eli’s father, Archie, and older brother, Cooper, whose wife had attended college with Leder, told the Long Islander, “Keep an eye on our boy,” and Leder became one of Eli’s most trusted friends. The bond broker introduced the overwhelmed quarterback to Manhattan and coached him through his confusion.

“There’s an East Side and a West Side and some numbers in between,” Leder told him. “If you can count, you’ll figure it out.”

Manning was supposed to spend his first year learning from Warner — whose agent, Mark Bartelstein, had reached an agreement with Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi that the veteran would play the entire season. Tom Coughlin had other ideas, and with the Giants at 5-4 and still in the playoff mix, the coach turned to the No. 1-overall pick, who had been acquired by Accorsi in a draft-day trade with the Chargers.

Manning was serviceable enough in his first start, against Atlanta, for Michael Vick to assure him afterward, “You’re going to be just like your brother in due time.” That brother was Peyton, then with the Colts. The following week, however, Eli was sacked five times and intercepted twice by the Eagles, who forced him to misfire on 15 of his 21 passes. Manning was only a bit better in his third start against Washington before traveling to Baltimore to face Ray Lewis and the Ravens’ defense.

Eli’s parents were preparing to watch in their New Orleans home.

“This is going to be really hard, isn’t it?” his mom, Olivia, asked her husband.

“I’m going to tell you how hard it’s going to be,” Archie responded. “I’m going upstairs to get in bed and try to fall asleep. If anything really good happens, you come wake me up.”

Olivia never woke him up. Eli fumbled, was intercepted twice, completed 4 of 18 attempts for 27 yards, and posted a 0.0 quarterback rating before Coughlin mercifully benched him. That was the first and last time Archie ever slept through one of his son’s games.

From the time he started slinging the ball in high school, at Isidore Newman, Eli had never tried to be Peyton. The Tennessee Volunteers had wanted Peyton’s kid brother badly, but before they could kick their recruiting efforts into high gear, Eli told them, “I don’t care how many good players you have. I am not following Peyton to Tennessee.” He was OK with following his father to Ole Miss.

Archie, Eli and Peyton Manning in 2004

When Eli landed with the Giants, Archie advised his boy to forget about Peyton and to emulate Phil Simms. Be tough like Simms, Archie told him. Handle the highs and lows of New York like Simms did. Archie, a helluva player with the lousy New Orleans Saints, had an affinity for Eli’s new team — growing up he’d listened to their games on the radio. Archie’s own father had loved the Giants because he loved their former star quarterback, Charlie Conerly, another guy from Ole Miss. That job — quarterback of the Giants — meant everything to the Manning family.

Eli lost his first six starts before he was finally ready to win an NFL game. On the last night of the season, Jan. 2, 2005, Eli Manning threw for three touchdowns and audibled in the final seconds to a Tiki Barber score that beat Bill Parcells’s Cowboys at Giants Stadium. He then walked upstairs to Accorsi’s office.

“And Eli never came upstairs,” the former GM said. “By just looking at his face you could tell he was relieved.”

Manning left the building and joined Leder and a friends at their tailgate station in the parking lot. They popped open a bottle of champagne and drank to what was the first of Eli’s 125 NFL victories (postseason included). He made it through 16 seasons in New York relatively unscathed, in part because he didn’t read sports columns and he didn’t listen to sports-talk radio.

“So when it was bad, he never knew how bad it was,” his father said, “and when it was good, he didn’t care about that either. Eli didn’t even follow the news coming out about his team. One day I called him and said, ‘Eli, you need to know that Tiki has blown up Coach Coughlin. Just blew him up, and you need to know that because you’re going to get asked about it.’ Tiki blew up Eli too, and he didn’t know about that either.”

At times during the early years, Manning seemed on the brink of being run out of town. Hidden in the back of a packed Giants Stadium elevator one Sunday, Accorsi listened as a season-ticket holders shredded him for sticking them with the overmatched quarterback.

Ernie Acorsi, Eli Manning and Tom Coughlin
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

Manning never buckled as the storm clouds gathered around him. His wife and the mother of his four children, Abby, was known to be a spirited, behind-the-scenes defender of her husband when young Eli was trying to find his way, and when old Eli was fighting to recover his winning touch. (She had some colorful commentary about Ben McAdoo’s fateful 2017 decision to temporarily bench her husband and end his streak of 210 straight regular-season starts). But over the long haul, Eli killed them all with kindness.

“The fans probably condemned Eli at first, and maybe rightfully so,” said his brother, Cooper, whose son, Arch, is the top high school quarterback in America. “But if anything, New Yorkers have a lot of compassion for a comeback story, and for a guy who won’t go away and keeps battling and finally wins the heart.

“They adopted Eli because of his personality, and almost felt obligated to protect him, embrace him, and make him one of their own. To this day Eli can walk into a restaurant and, I don’t know what it is, but just blend in. Some people will notice him, but a lot won’t. … His unassuming nature is charming to New Yorkers. It never dawned on Eli in any way, shape, or form that he is a big deal.”

It still doesn’t.

Eli Manning salsa dances with Victor Cruz at a charity event in 2018.
Anthony J. Causi

Beyond the championships, Manning made his everlasting mark in the greater metropolitan area by being the genuine article, and by taking great pride in his availability and dependability. He spent his career trying to earn the respect of his teammates, and in the process earned the respect of the entire region.

“Eli had a huge connection with the people here because they knew he wasn’t a fraud,” Leder said. “As a Giants fan, you knew 100 percent of the time that Eli would do the right thing. He knew what was expected of him in that job.”

That’s why Manning devoted so much of himself to initiatives such as Tackle Kids Cancer and Guiding Eyes for the Blind, among others. And that’s why on a dreadful night in 2004, as a rookie getting his butt handed to him, he honored a pledge to spend more than an hour with special-needs children and their parents on Long Island.

Eli Manning always showed up. In return, the Giants made sure his jersey number, 10, will never again show up on their side of the ball.

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