By Les Carpenter
Monday, February 4, 2008
GLENDALE, Ariz. He took the same walk as his older brother last year, down the concrete corridor of a Super Bowl stadium, the lights following, the blaze of photo flashes and hands clapping, reaching to touch him, hold him, feel anything that the winning brings. Then Eli Manning came around the corner on the night of the greatest upset in Super Bowl history and into the arms of his father and mother, Archie and Olivia.
There is still so much of a kid in him that doesn't exist in the rest of them -- the pragmatic father, the glowing mother and the brother who can sell anything from satellite television to energy drinks. Eli laughed on the night he and the New York Giants beat the New England Patriots, 17-14, and turned 18-0 into 18-1. He said little. His father wondered how he felt. His mother wondered if he could sing the verses to "New York, New York."
And little Eli Manning, now all grown up, laughed nervously and shook his head. He ducked his head shyly and moved toward the comfort of the New York Giants' locker room, away from the spectacle. Away from the glare.
A few feet down the tunnel beneath University of Phoenix Stadium, Tom Brady walked the same path, one he had taken three times before. Only this time the lights were out, the corridor was dark. At first it was hard to tell that this was really him in his dark suit, pulling a suitcase behind him.
He bore the look of the shocked, much the way he made another Super Bowl hero quarterback named Kurt Warner stare in disbelief in a locker room beneath the stands of the New Orleans Superdome on the night six years ago when an unknown backup quarterback from Michigan pulled one the greatest upsets in the history of the Super Bowl.
Gone from Brady was the sneer, the carefree way he seemed to walk, with face glowing and hair just right. He still looked the part of the perfect quarterback, with just the right suit. But with the lights out Tom Brady also looked something he hasn't appeared in a long, long time: ordinary.
It was as if he knew something had been passed Sunday night, the evening that was supposed to be his coronation as the best quarterback of all time. It happens so fast. Just as he took destiny from Warner, this kid brother of his biggest quarterbacking rival, Peyton Manning, seized it from him.
And here in a darkness that Brady had never known in his other Super Bowls, he didn't know what to do. So he kept walking.
"This isn't something any of us prepare for," he would later say.
Really he did what he was supposed to. Even though the Giants came at him with a fury even greater than the one they brought just a month before in the final game of the season, sacking him five times, he came through when it mattered most. The stadium clock wound down on Super Bowl XLII, and with the Giants clutching to a 10-7 lead, Brady moved the Patriots with the same great precision just as he did that night against the Rams.
Then when he dropped a pass into the arms of Randy Moss in the south end zone of the stadium it seemed he had come through once again, no longer the darling but rather a prince of an evil empire.
At least until Eli Manning, the kid brother, pulled himself from the clutches of several New England defensive players, on a broken play ironically called "phantom" twisted, contorted and heaved a pass in the direction of a forgotten wide receiver named David Tyree who somehow leapt above two Patriots and pinned the ball against his helmet as he tumbled to the ground.
Just under a minute remained in the Super Bowl and in a matter of seconds Manning would throw a pass into the back corner of the end zone, into the hands of Plaxico Burress -- the one who caused so much duress by predicting this victory -- and the Patriots were done.
Up in a stadium box, Archie Manning watched and he clapped the way he clapped last year for Peyton in the rain in Miami. But Archie Manning also does not do superlatives well. So even as everyone else swirled around him Sunday night offering handshakes and raving about the amazing comeback led by his son in the greatest upset ever, he calmly took their congratulations and thanked them for their interest.
"It's not his forte, but it's what he has to do," Archie Manning finally said when pressed on his youngest son's mad scramble and throw. Then he tried to turn this to the Patriots, saying that one of New England's "greatest traits" is the ability of its quarterback to come hard at a team when everything is down and the scoreboard is against him. He meant Brady even though he wouldn't use the name But the reality was this is the very thing Eli Manning did Sunday night. He took the touchdown that was supposed to break the Giants and anoint the Patriots as greatest ever and broke them. He did it in less than two minutes. On the night that was going to make Brady the quarterback for the ages, he snatched the game away as only Brady, it once seemed, could do.
Later, Giants center Shaun O'Hara sat at a stand in an interview tent they set up here and said of Eli: "He's always being compared to someone else -- his father, his brother, or Phil Simms. I think Eli built a platform for himself tonight."
Outside the stadium, a winter storm loomed. Rain was on the way, ready to douse the valley in clouds and gloom. And it was into that uncertain murkiness that Tom Brady walked on the evening that was supposed to be his. Somewhere down the hall Eli Manning celebrated, little brother no more.
Instead, now the winner in the biggest upset of them all.