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For the Mannings, it's another chapter in a pro football saga that began in New Orleans, where Archie was the Saints' starting quarterback for all but one season from 1971 through '81, hanging tough for lousy teams. "Every single year, we had hope, and then we'd lose," Olivia recalls. "The best we ever did was 8--8. I wasn't as nervous for him as I am for the boys--it's different when it's your children--but I should've been, because he was running for his life."
At home the Mannings made a point of not pushing their sons into sports--Let's be normal was their mantra--but Cooper and Peyton were so competitive that they immediately gravitated toward Archie's world. With Eli, it was different. "He got dragged to so many [of his brothers'] games when he was little," Archie says, "we thought he'd rebel against sports." Often, when faced with a Saturday or Sunday of spectatorship, Eli would beg his mother, "Get me a babysitter." Sometimes he and Olivia would browse through antique shops on Magazine Street while Archie took the older boys to their games.
While Peyton seemed born to be a quarterback, Eli came off like a budding tax auditor who happened to be a gifted athlete. "Eli would come home from one of his baseball games and not say a word, and you'd ask him how it went," says Cooper, an institutional broker for an energy research firm and a married father of three. "He'd say, 'Good,' and not much more. We'd later find out from my mom that he'd hit a game-winning homer in the bottom of the ninth. If it was Peyton in the same situation, he'd barge through the front door and yell, 'Dinger, baby!'"
If Eli was reserved by nature, he became even more so, his parents believe, as he struggled to learn to read. The same person who would later score an exceptional 39 out of 50 on the Wonderlic, the intelligence test used by NFL teams to evaluate prospects, was on the verge of having to repeat the first grade. Instead, Olivia and Archie switched him from Isidore Newman, the elite private school the older boys attended, to St. George's, a smaller school known for its reading resource center. "He was getting ribbed by some of his friends, and he worked very, very hard to overcome his problem," Olivia remembers. "He wanted so badly to make it back to Newman, and after the seventh grade he tested back in."
Eli's football success at Newman--he threw for at least 2,000 yards and 20 touchdowns in each of his three seasons as a starter--caught his parents by surprise. When he got to Ole Miss, where decades earlier his father's heroics had inspired ballads (Cooper, a talented receiver, was set to play for the Rebels before a spinal condition ended his career), his teammates initially viewed him as an aloof child of privilege. Saints halfback Deuce McAllister, who was the team's star during Manning's first two years in Oxford, recalls, "We saw him driving an SUV and looking so nonintense, and we'd say, 'Eli, do you even care about football?' I mean, we understood his brother had just signed a $100 million contract and his father had deep pockets, but we thought, A lot of people would kill to be in your position, and look how you're approaching this. It was obvious why they called him Big Easy."
As it turns out, Big Easy and the Big Apple may be an ideal fit. Eli's even-keeled demeanor serves him well in a city of tabloid-fueled fan overreaction and on a team with animated and headstrong standouts such as tight end Jeremy Shockey, wideout Plaxico Burress and halfback Tiki Barber. After replacing Kurt Warner midway through his rookie season in 2004, Manning remained unruffled even as defenses exploited his inexperience. Then in Week 3 of last season, in a spirited Sunday-night road game against the San Diego Chargers--the team that had picked Manning at No. 1 before he forced a draft-day trade to the Giants--he stepped into a stadium where bitter fans were giving new meaning to the phrase hang ten. Recalls Giants center Shaun O'Hara, "We all thought, If Eli's going to crack under pressure, this is going to be the game. Instead, he blew us away."
Manning kept his poise and played well in a 45--23 loss, setting the stage for a seven-game stretch in which his clutch play yielded five wins. But over New York's final six games--including the playoff defeat, in which he admits forcing some second-half throws--Manning had 10 interceptions and only four touchdown passes; he wound up with a 52.8 completion percentage for the regular season.
Manning believes he can connect on 60% this season by improving his footwork and more effectively using his outlet receivers. In his defense, he has taken on more than any other young NFL quarterback of recent vintage not named Manning. If the Steelers' handling of Ben Roethlisberger during his first two seasons represented one extreme--keep it simple, avoid big mistakes and when in doubt check the plays scribbled on your wristband-- Giants coach Tom Coughlin took the opposite approach. In addition to running a sophisticated attack, Manning even points out the middle linebacker (the key to an offense's orientation) and makes pass-protection calls at the line of scrimmage, responsibilities that many teams assign to the center.
Coughlin thinks that Manning is smart enough to handle those tasks, and that the long-term dividends will offset any short-term hiccups. But, at times, Manning has appeared overloaded. Says one offensive player who was with New York in '05, "They have him thinking so much at the line, I don't even know how he gets through his reads. How can you not play stiff?"
The answer, the Giants hope, lies in the Manning genes: Peyton doesn't play stiff, so ultimately Eli won't either. As much as Eli likes to poke fun at his big brother's seriousness, down to a spot-on imitation of Peyton's gesticulations at the line of scrimmage, there's no doubting who his role model is. Fullback Jim Finn, who spent his first three years with the Colts before joining New York in 2003, remembers one Indy practice that Eli, during a break between semesters at Ole Miss, watched from atop the portable tower used for videotaping. "I don't think the coaches or anyone else knew he was there," Finn says. "He was up there 30 minutes before practice started, just watching everything Peyton did." (Eli's admiration for his older brother extends to off-the-field endeavors, such as the PeyBack Foundation's Hurricane Katrina relief effort last September, when the two Mannings passed out supplies at shelters in Baton Rouge.)