When Eli manning returned to his posh New York City hotel room late last Saturday afternoon, he was still hungry for NFL draft talk. This was fairly remarkable considering the Mississippi quarterback had just completed one of the wildest rides in draft history—declaring in the run-up to selection day that he wouldn't play for the San Diego Chargers if they took him with the No. 1 pick, hearing them select him anyway, getting booed mercilessly by the draftniks at the Theater at Madison Square Garden and then anxiously going through the motions until the Chargers traded him to the first day's selections before meeting his family for dinner. So he sat on the edge of his bed New York Giants an hour later. Yet he still and turned on the television just in time wanted to catch up on the rest of the first to see the Giants make guard Chris Snee of Boston College their second-round pick.
"I admit I got a little worried at times, but I'm glad things worked out quickly," said a relaxed Manning. "I didn't want to sit out a season. I wanted to play." It's uncertain how quickly Manning will get that chance—the Giants, who finished 4-12 in 2003, still must figure out what to do with Kerry Collins, 31, their starter for the last five years—but what this draft flap showed is that though Manning may look as fresh-faced as your paperboy, he has a toughness that he'll need to play quarterback in the Big Apple.
Manning's father, Archie, says Eli is "going into a hornet's nest" for young passers, and the buzzing began almost immediately after the Giants sent their choice with the No. 4 pick, North Carolina State quarterback Philip Rivers, to San Diego along with a third-rounder this year and their first-and fifth-round picks in next year's draft. Critics crowed that the Giants gave up too much to get Manning, but New York general manager Ernie Accorsi called such talk laughable, declaring that he had landed a rare talent for a team that averaged only 15.2 points a game last season.
In four seasons at Ole Miss, Manning completed 60.8% of his passes, set 45 Rebels records and impressed scouts with his size (6'4", 218 pounds), arm strength, athleticism and intangibles. "He elevates the play of the people around him," Accorsi says. "The majority of the teams Mississippi plays in the SEC have far better talent, but Mississippi still won 10 games [last season]. He makes people better."
Expectations are high, but there is good reason to believe Manning can live up to them. He has the genes, of course—Archie played for 14 years in the NFL; brother Peyton was the league's co-MVP last season with the Indianapolis Colts—and he'll be working with Giants offensive coordinator John Hufnagel, who was an Indianapolis assistant with Peyton in 2001. The Giants' offense has big-play capability with running back Tiki Barber, wide receiver Amani Toomer and tight end Jeremy Shockey, but as the drafting of Snee confirmed, they know they need help along the offensive line. New York allowed 44 sacks last season.
There was no doubt among the 3,000 fans who attended a draft-day party at Giants Stadium, where Manning made an appearance in the middle of the afternoon. Standing on a stage in one end zone, with fans chanting, "E-li! E-li! E-li!" he put on a blue Giants jersey bearing his name and .the number 10. The scene moved his relatives and friends. "It felt good to see Eli and our whole family happy," said Archie. "This situation took a toll on everybody."
Though Eli says he was prepared to deal with the backlash from his decision to shun San Diego—"I knew I'd take a lot of heat once that got out," he says—he couldn't have imagined how venomous the situation would become.
A week and a half before the draft, Manning told his agent, Tom Condon, to inform the Chargers that he wasn't interested in playing for them. Manning wouldn't make his reasons public, but he could not have been impressed with the club's personnel (shaky offensive line, dearth of playmaking receivers and the league's 27th-ranked defense) and its long squabble with the city over the Qualcomm Stadium lease and a proposed new stadium. Last November the Chargers filed suit against the city, claiming they had met a contractual requirement that enables them to renegotiate the lease or relocate the franchise. "The stadium situation is difficult there," said Condon. "They've threatened to move to Los Angeles. It just didn't look like a great fit for Eli."
Still, Condon, who also represents San Diego coach Marty Schottenheimer, didn't expect that Eli's request would explode in the media. " San Diego had told me they had three players they were comfortable with as their first pick," he said on Saturday, "and they also said they were going to entertain trades. When I told them about [Eli's decision], I thought we were eliminating one of their three candidates and still leaving them with plenty of options."
The Chargers thought otherwise. Schottenheimer, general manager A.J. Smith and team president Dean Spanos all met with Archie in hopes that he might persuade Eli to reconsider. When that didn't work, Smith leaked word of Eli's decision to the media on the Wednesday before the draft, claiming that Archie wanted his son to play for the Giants. (Archie denies saying anything about an interest in New York. Funny, though, how 17 days before the draft, Eli filmed a TV spot for Reebok in which he's seen with a Chargers cap in one hand and a Giants cap in the other.) When Eli arrived in New York for several predraft appearances on Thursday, he stirred the media further by saying that if San Diego picked him, he would be willing to sit out the season and re-enter the draft next year.