“The bigger the stakes, the calmer and the cooler he was,” Peyton Manning said.
What stands out about Eli on the day of his retirement, what will define him most over time, is that singular self-possession, his relaxed quietude under pressure. He was singularly great in the final minutes of Super Bowl XLII in Glendale, Ariz., when he wrested out of the grasp of the New England Patriots and stayed upright on the game-winning drive. He was equally, inimitably composed whether he was in the zero-degree cold in Green Bay or in the chilly dregs of a wrecked season.
It’s a remarkable achievement really, the individuality that No. 10 won for himself given that family jerseys of old No. 8 and No. 18 always were being waved at his head. The doubts Eli put to rest over the years with his two Super Bowl MVP awards and his longevity seem laughable now, but they were real once: He was just Peyton’s imminent bust of a kid brother; he played the game more out of obligation than inclination; he was too mild, lacking some essential genetic fire. As it turned out, he was just modest.
Yes, modest. People too often mistake it for weakness. Really, there isn’t a stronger internal quality.
It’s a tribute, you suppose, to the superb guiding touch of Olivia Manning and the collective sensibility in a family that resolutely rejected golden-child legendizing for a distinctive self-deprecating humor.
“I’ve never once heard Eli talk about the Super Bowl, not unless somebody forces it out of him,” Peyton said. “He won’t do it, not unless somebody is going to say, ‘Hey, how’d you get out of that pile?’ ”
When he completed just four passes in a rookie-year disaster against the Baltimore Ravens, the local commentators brayed he was an epic fail. He just kept his mouth shut and his shoulders down and stayed within himself. In 2014, despite two Super Bowl MVP awards, the calls came again to dump him. Even New York Mets legend Dwight Gooden tweeted, “Pull him.” Let’s just say New Yorkers love their heroes more complicatedly than homeowners in Denver or Indianapolis, and no one experienced that complexity more than Eli Manning.
When you asked whether it bothered him, he just said, “Nope.”
“From the very first moment, I did it my way,” Eli said at his news conference Friday. “I couldn’t be someone other than who I am.”
His teammates, he said, “knew what they got was pure, unadulterated Eli.”
He was the same self-effacing easy goer in his great period, the middle years from 2007 to 2012. In that stretch, he went 7-1 in the postseason and won five road playoff games, many of them in brutal weather. Back then his father, Archie, probably said the truest thing about him: “I always heard ’em say Eli doesn’t care. Eli cares. But Eli doesn’t worry. He just doesn’t worry.”
Everyone else in the family worried. When Eli reached that first Super Bowl in the 2007 season, Peyton worried to the point that he wondered whether he should even watch it. He thought he might be a jinx because Eli had lost the last game he had attended in person. He suggested maybe he should stay home.
“I don’t think I should come, because the last time I came it was a tough day for you,” Peyton said.
“I hate to burst your bubble,” Eli said, “but you don’t have that much power over me to make me have a bad game. Personally, I’d like it if you’d be there.”
The same deadpanner then went out against the undefeated New England Patriots and drove his underdog team to the 17-14 victory in the final minute. What really stood out to Peyton, more than the self-willed scramble and heave to David Tyree, was the touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress four plays later, with 35 seconds left.
“Most people would’ve been hyperventilating,” Peyton said, “And if he doesn’t make the throw to Burress to win, it’s all for naught.”
Eli threw 15 touchdown passes to just two interceptions in his two Super Bowl runs, and not one of them was unpressured. At one point in 2011, his line graded dead last in the league in pass blocking. Yet he led that team to an upset of the 15-1 Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field and then on to the NFC title in the mud against the San Francisco 49ers. In the latter game, he absorbed six punishing sacks and 29 more quarterback pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. Again, the older brother was watching tensely.
“The team is literally pulverizing your little brother out there,” Peyton said. “They were taking turns. I mean, they practically got bored: ‘You go hit him now.’ He just kept getting up and getting up and getting up and getting up.”
Asked afterward whether he got hit too much, Eli just smiled and said, “That’s just part of the deal.”
From then on, the toughness became ever more apparent. He made 234 starts, including 210 straight, third most in league history. He had seven seasons of 4,000 of more yards passing. And he never missed a game because of an injury — no matter how much it hurt.
There was a separated shoulder in 2007. After the 2013 season, he needed ankle surgery. Then came the far harder years, with roster troubles and coaching changes. And more injuries. He took all the blame without complaint, never mentioned the ailments.
“He’s old school,” Peyton said, “And he gets it from my dad: ‘Nobody needs to know how hurt you are or what’s wrong with you.’ In this day and age, players are tweeting their MRIs. . . . He had a foot; he had an ankle; he had a shoulder. Nobody else would’ve been playing with those injuries, I’m telling you. I just know it was bad. And you didn’t hear a word of it.”
They kept the love and respect mostly private during their careers, preferring not to put it on public view. It was too deep for words anyway. When Eli was benched for rookie Daniel Jones this season, Peyton was so sick at heart he couldn’t even talk about it. But Thursday after Eli’s retirement announcement came a flood of words and stories and with them the right mix of laughter and resignation. Which is when you realized how much Eli had left unsaid about himself — and how much his brother wanted to say it for him.
Stories such as the one about Eli’s first NFL start in 2004, which so excited Peyton that he commandeered a cop car to see it.
Eli and the Giants had a late kickoff against Atlanta, while Peyton and the Indianapolis Colts were whipping the Chicago Bears in an early game. When Coach Tony Dungy pulled the Colts’ starters with a big lead in the fourth quarter, Peyton was frantic to get off the field and to a TV. He tried to order a car service from the sideline — while the Colts were still playing. He pulled a team staffer aside and said, “I got to get to a restaurant with a TV.” The staffer couldn’t find him a car, so after the clock expired, while Dungy was still in the shower, Peyton seized the police escort for the team bus.
“We did a ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ to the restaurant, and I got to see his first start,” Peyton said.
He didn’t miss another one if he could help it. His favorite Indianapolis steakhouse, St. Elmo, actually installed a TV in a private room for him just so he could watch his brother play after his home games. It was a ritual, along with their Sunday night phone conversations, which became intimate mind melds.
“We basically could describe the plays on the phone and see them in our heads at the same time,” Peyton said. “Some people have to have a chalkboard or a video, but he would say: ‘I can see it. I got it.’ ”
Through it all, Peyton marveled like the rest of the audience at Eli’s unique demeanor, the cloaked toughness, the calm acceptance of all varieties of pressure, the total lack of vanity or thin-skinnedness. Eli dealt with situations that “would have driven me crazy,” Peyton said.
Eli told reporters Friday, “I don’t have a single regret.”
The debate will now commence about whether Eli belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He surely does — and almost surely will never lobby for it. He’s one of five multiple Super Bowl MVP winners, joining Terry Bradshaw, Bart Starr, Tom Brady and Joe Montana.
Maybe the most important thing to say about Eli Manning’s career is that he played the game with an inner peace, secure in who he is. Overstriving sports parents who want to create healthy, long-lived champions should take note of that. Just as they should take note of the graceful way he is moving on.
He chose the least conspicuous time slot for his farewell — the Friday of a busy week in his sport, before the Pro Bowl and the launch of Super Bowl week, when the national media are busy elsewhere and he was sure to get a light turnout and the briefest attention. It was, Peyton observed: “Classic Eli. . . . It’s fitting.”
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.