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Super Bowl 2012: Eli Manning reveals a serious game face behind his baby face

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Eli Manning is beginning to resemble one of those baby-face gangsters from the old movies. Kid looks cute from a distance but up close it turns out he’s got stubble on his chin and robbery in his eye, and when the adults aren’t watching he pulls out a cigar and bag of loot.

You’ve got to wonder at the buried toughness inside this boyish-looking character, who chooses to live in Hoboken instead of a comfortable suburb. On the surface he seems to be “just a sweet child,” as his father Archie describes him. Yet here he is in his second Super Bowl, and all that niceness increasingly looks like a mask for something implacably ambitious.

It’s time we reappraise Manning, and instead of studying his back-to-school snapshot of a face for a clue to his personality, perhaps we should study a freeze frame from late in the New York Giants’ rain-and-blood soaked NFC championship overtime victory over the San Francisco 49ers on Jan. 22. Manning is struggling up from the turf to call a timeout. His jersey has been ripped from his shoulder pad, his chinstrap has been pushed up around his flattened nose, and he is covered in blasts of mud.

Apparently, Manning likes it that way. Since 2007, he is 7-1 in the postseason, with an NFL-record five wins on the road — many of them in brutal weather. The 49ers sacked him six times in the mud, and when he was asked if he got hit too much, he smiled and said, “That’s just part of the deal.” Obviously, we have badly misunderstood him as the easygoing member of his family. “Do you not see what he’s doing on the football field?” Giants running back Brandon Jacobs demanded.

Ever since Manning arrived in New York in 2004, he has been portrayed as a mild and hapless younger brother. Critics said he lacked some essential genetic fire compared to Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts, five years his elder. He was too compliant, too complacent. All of that was wrong. The blandness now looks canny, a stubborn refusal to get distracted from his sense of self and maturation schedule.

“I always heard ’em say Eli doesn’t care,” Archie said. “Eli cares. But Eli doesn’t worry. He just doesn’t worry.”

He doesn’t worry about legacy, or some record book duel with his brother or Tom Brady of the New England Patriots. Asked if would get any help from Peyton on Sunday in Indianapolis, Eli stared a reporter down and said tonelessly, “He was very helpful in getting me some tickets to the game.”

Here’s the interesting thing about Eli: He has never ducked and run from the Manning name. If anything, he has taken it on. Picture this: a 5-year-old Eli, constantly teased and towed by 12-year-old Cooper and 10-year-old Peyton across the playing fields of their New Orleans home town, where his father was the quarterback for the Saints. “We were going to a jillion games, and here’s the five-year-old getting dragged along to the park,” Archie said. In one week, Eli had to sit through 17 different games starring Cooper and Peyton, Archie remembered. He feared Eli would grow up to hate contests of any kind. He told his wife Olivia, “This child will never do sports. It’s going to turn him off.”

Instead, Archie and Olivia detected in the quietest child a brewing — if unspoken — drive and distaste for failure. A loss in a state tournament hurt him as badly as anyone in the family. “He’s calm and it’s not outward and he doesn’t holler and scream,” said Archie. “But it was there. I could sense it.”

When he reached college age, Eli could easily have escaped his lineage by getting out of the Southeast. What did he do? He went to his old man’s alma mater, Ole Miss, and met Hamlet’s Ghost head on. He chased some of Peyton’s records at Tennessee, too. “He didn’t shy away from it a bit,” said former Ole Miss coach David Cutcliffe, who is now at Duke.

As a freshman, Eli was more slightly built than his brother, not as strong yet, so Cutcliffe put him through extra strength training and mat drills. Everyone in the gym watched “to see how he was going to go about his business,” Cutcliffe said. Eli’s looks were deceptive. He was “absolutely tough, courageous, he had no fear,” Cutcliffe said. “But unless you’re with him day to day, he’s not going to display it. There’s just no show.”

Cutcliffe asked Manning, “What do you want out of this? Don’t answer now, because I don’t want lip service. Think about it.” He wanted Manning to consider: Did he merely want to be a starter? Did he want to be all conference, or all-American? Eli thought it over for two days, and came back to Cutcliffe, dead serious. “I want to be the best that ever played here,” he said. He went on to set 45 Ole Miss records. “He stood by what he said,” Cutcliffe said.

The pattern held in New York. Manning had every reason to seek a smaller, less exposing media market when he entered the NFL draft. Instead he rejected the San Diego Chargers for the Giants — and took a city loft in a Hoboken high rise with plate-glass windows.

Which made him all the more visible when he fumbled snaps and missed receivers. After he completed just four passes in a rookie debacle against the Ravens, New Yorkers brayed that he was an epic bust. Some were still calling him a disappointment, despite his 2008 Super Bowl MVP performance, when he threw 25 interceptions last season, though he also had 4,002 yards and 31 touchdown passes, and won 10 games.

Through it all he maintained the same even demeanor. To his critics it seemed like indifference; actually it was “calm under pressure,” offensive lineman David Diehl said. Manning never worried that he didn’t belong in the NFL, and even seemed to thrive on the heat. “I’ve never seen him in a situation where I thought he was insecure,” Archie said. “I don’t think I can ever get it across to people, and Eli doesn’t come out and say it a lot, but he loves playing in New York.”

What outsiders don’t see, friends and teammates say, is the extent to which over the years he has begun to quietly, firmly run the Giants, his attitude permeating them. “Don’t think for a moment he’s not a take-charge individual,” Cutcliffe said. During the offseason lockout, he organized workouts at Hoboken High School. In June he went to Duke for voluntary two-a-days with Cutcliffe. In sweltering Durham heat, Manning, with Hakeem Nicks and Jerrel Jernigan, held his own minicamp.

Manning is not only finally emerging as an “elite” performer, he’s a select one even within that category. No one has been more imperturbable in the face of pressure, on and off the field. He leads the NFL in third-down passing yardage. Asked how, he said, “You have to do your job and keep your eyes down the field and make sure you’re playing smart football and make sure, whether you’re getting hit or you’re getting pressure, [it doesn’t] affect your decision-making and your throws.”

He only gets better the more there is on the line. In this postseason, he’s completed 64 percent of his passes with 11 touchdowns to just one interception. The mild, unflappable body language and lack of expression disguise a predator. Against the Falcons, Manning converted five straight third and longs. Against the 49ers, he threw 58 times without giving the ball away — and then competed a 17-yard scoring pass to Mario Manningham. On third and 15.

A second Super Bowl appearance has exposed Manning once and for all for what he really is: one of the league’s great competitors. He is finally getting his due. But just try telling him so.

“I’m not thinking about that,” he said. “I’m thinking about this team and this opportunity and how proud I am of the guys and what we both have overcome this year and what we have been through. I just never had any doubts and just kept believing.”

For Sally Jenkins’s previous columns go to washingtonpost.com/jenkins.

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