Saturday, September 26, 2020

Eli Retires and a Memorable Era Ends

By Jeff Roberson Contributing Writer

It seems like I was usually on the road somewhere when news broke about Eli Manning back in his high school and post-college years.

Eli Manning vs. Houston Texans
Eli Manning drops pack to pass in a 2010 games against the Houston Texans.
I was headed to visit some friends in Indianapolis when I heard he’d chosen Ole Miss. It was no big surprise that he wasn’t following Peyton’s route. He was going where the rest of his family had gone, including oldest brother Cooper.

The word always was that Peyton picked Tennessee because of football. Eli picked Ole Miss because even if there was no football, he wanted to go where he could enjoy college the most.

Eli was happy at Ole Miss and Ole Miss was happy about that.

When Eli was drafted in the spring of 2004, I was in Georgia. Ole Miss was playing baseball and I was covering the series. After things cleared up that day and the New York Giants were his team, I tried to go to a mall and get a cap representative of the Big Apple’s NFC team. But I never made it. I had not one flat tire but two on my car (another story for another day), and then had to get to another baseball game in Athens.

So I never did get that Giants cap. But along with Eli’s dad’s old team, the Saints, I now had two NFL teams to root for.

A few years before, I had been in New Orleans to cover Peyton’s announcement when he chose Tennessee. One of the things I recall from that trip was when Peyton’s high school head coach, Tony Reginelli, told us to tell Ole Miss fans to accept this loss and move on, that his younger brother down in junior high might even be better than Peyton.

Now the Mannings from two generations no longer play football. That they remain such an integral part of Ole Miss, Oxford, and Mississippi is special. Like Eli and Abby’s commitment to Batson Children’s Hospital at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. So many people, especially children, have benefitted many times over because of the generosity of the Mannings.

There are many things I’ll remember about Eli the football player, especially from his college years. They weren’t all good days. The Rebels won only seven games in any season he started until his senior year when they won 10. It was a magical season that could have been so much more with a win against Nick Saban’s LSU squad in Oxford.

I stood on the photo deck of the press box at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium before the game. Two representatives from the Maxwell Award, which goes to the nation’s top college football player each season, were standing next to me. Their wives were with them as well. All were from Philadelphia – Pennsylvania, not Mississippi.

The two men had already been to Oxford for a game that season. They wanted their wives to experience a football gameday at this special place.

The day ended in a close win for LSU. But nobody in attendance, no matter which team they supported, would ever forget that Saturday afternoon in Oxford.

After the season, Eli won the Maxwell and should have won the Heisman. Had the Rebels beaten LSU that day, maybe he would have.

It was in Florida earlier in that campaign that Eli and the company saved their season. Already 2-2, a loss would surely send the Rebels home reeling. But a late comeback, mastered by Eli, was the win the Rebels needed to propel them to the 10-win season.

A thrilling 31-28 Cotton Bowl win in Dallas against Oklahoma State wrapped up his collegiate career.

For his varsity seasons, there was always a one-player press conference after the regular press conferences on Mondays to start the gameweeks and after the games on Saturdays. Everyone had questions for Eli, and he patiently answered them as long as we asked them.

Then he headed for the pros and became the second Rebel quarterback to charm the nation’s largest and most media-savvy city. Charlie Conerly of Clarksdale was the toast of the town during his years with the Giants and left a lasting legacy in the city that never sleeps. So did Eli.

I’ve been a little surprised through the years that the New York media and Giants fans were as good to Eli as they were, treated him with as much respect as they seemed to do. But that’s a testament to not only Eli the two-time Super Bowl MVP but also Eli the man.

Eli turned out to be the quarterback everyone said he would be, even as far back as when Coach Reginelli told us at Newman School that the eighth-grader might end up being better than his older brother, the one headed to Tennessee.

There’s really no need to compare the two greats. Eli’s hall of fame legacy stands alone. Surely it’s only a matter of years before Canton, Ohio, calls for No. 10 to come on up. Nothing less would be fitting for one of the greatest Rebels and legendary Giants of them all.