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"Every day the fans call in and ask, 'What the hell's the matter with Eli?'" says Esiason. "And I say, 'There's nothing the matter with Eli. That's who he is.' He's better suited for this than any of us idiots are."
In Manning's press conference following the win over the Packers three weeks ago, two unusual things happened. The first occurred when he was asked about Adam Merchant, a 15-year-old cancer patient and Giants fan whom the Make-a-Wish Foundation had arranged to attend the game and who had given the team an impromptu pep talk. "We've had a number of kids, and it's pretty, uh, special," Manning said, and suddenly his eyes were tearing, his voice breaking, and for a moment it seemed like he might well lose it. Over the last five years he has raised nearly $3 million for children's clinics in Jackson, Miss. He was thinking, he says, of his own daughter, Ava, a healthy soon-to-be-two-year-old.
"This was his last wish; it's sad," Manning says of Adam. "This is what he wanted to do—come to a Giants practice, come to a game—and we gave him a great day. It just makes you happy anytime you can impact someone's life, especially someone who's had a tough life. I think about him and his parents, just seeing him smiling, seeing him happy."
The second occurred when Manning was asked about breaking Simms's franchise record. Into the mike he called it "an honor" and left it at that. But he had to fight himself. This was a piñata just begging to be whacked. Manning even had a zinger prepared: "Well, I don't know if Phil Simms was an elite quarterback anyway, so I don't know if it's that big of a deal." Instead he held his tongue.
"I wanted to get a laugh, but I didn't know if that would make another ordeal, so I passed," he says. "I was very close to saying that, just to get payback or whatever. I guess I took the high road...."
That his tone is more regretful than self-regarding is no surprise. Eli loves payback. His pranks, ranging from merely annoying to elaborate, are legendary constructs. Once at Ole Miss he startled Morris by mooning him, spanking himself and yelping, "How you like me now!?" But that was only the setup. Eli left the room knowing that Morris would respond in kind, so he asked a janitor to go check on him. Eli howled as the horrified man ("Oh, my dear God!") scampered away.
"Golf trips, you don't go to sleep before Eli," warns his dad, Archie Manning. Drink a few beers and conk out? If you're lucky, he'll change your cellphone language to Chinese. If you're not? "He will mark ... you ... up," says Archie. "The one thing Peyton and Eli have on 'em is a Sharpie—and you can't get that stuff off. He'll do somebody's face, and you get up the next morning to play golf, go to breakfast? Or you're out, and he'll do your calves, all colors. You can't get it off!"
Eli delights in ratcheting things up a notch. Mess with his car keys, as one Giants coach did at training camp? Your bike will end up in the netting 50 feet above the gym floor. Stick a live frog in his sock, as O'Hara once did? Manning'll pay the ball boys to cover your Hummer in Silly String. When Morris told the tale at Manning's 2007 wedding rehearsal dinner of a particular performance by Eli at a Tuscaloosa bar, the quarterback retaliated with an exaggerated telling of the mooning story at Morris's own rehearsal dinner, inserting a dead squirrel into the tale. "He's witty," says Morris. "And he's going to get you back."
New York, of course, sees none of that. Manning's weekly sessions before the cameras and microphones are hilarious exercises in dullness. Two weeks ago, in the run-up to that Monday-night showdown with Washington, reporters fanned out in a semicircle in front of his locker. Manning stood and answered each question ("We've got to go in there and find a way to win.... We've got five games left.... This is an important one because it's the next one...."), but he appeared to be taking a perverse pride in finding, Bull Durham--like, the most groan-worthy clichés. "That's all by design, not by default," says O'Hara. "Eli's smart. He's playing chess while everybody's playing checkers."
Indeed, the most interesting part of the exercise was the way Manning's eyes kept scanning the crowd, left to right, never focusing on one face, as if he were reading a defense before the snap. His left eye, in fact, tracks just a degree or two behind the right, leaving the odd impression that he's able to take in the whole panorama at once—a useless tool unless your job involves avoiding unseen tacklers. This scanning calls to mind something his high school coach, Frank Gendusa, said about a play that always stuck with him. "Eli looked like he'd be sacked; this guy swung him around and [Eli] threw a little sidearm pass to the running back. I don't know how, sometimes, they see people," Gendusa said. "It's an uncanny knack good quarterbacks have—but he has it."