Eli's exposure to that intensity came secondhand. Born under a bad star—Archie's Saints had just finished 1--15 when he was born in January 1981—Eli didn't, like Cooper and Peyton, witness Archie missing the playoffs season after torturous season. Trailing his brothers by seven and five years, respectively, he wasn't part of their loud, often bloody fraternal battles over basketball or checkers or life. When his parents would try to take him to his brothers' endless baseball tournaments, Eli would ask for a babysitter and stay home. "I often thought sports weren't going to be his thing," says Archie. "And that was fine."
Math came easy. Eventually, sports did too. But when, early in school at Isidore Newman in New Orleans, Eli struggled with reading, he grew terrified of being called on—for any reason—and became withdrawn. Classmates would taunt him. When Olivia visited his first-grade class, a teacher cajoled, "Eli, introduce your mom!" But the boy could barely get the words out.
He transferred to a smaller school, St. George's Episcopal, with a specialized reading program. There he learned to start studying on Monday for a Friday test, so he'd never be surprised. "I wanted to get better," Eli says. "I wanted to be able to do it, so I wouldn't be embarrassed. Once I understood the rules it finally clicked, and eventually I was an honor roll student. I proved to myself that if you work hard at something it can become better. And I've taken that approach to everything I've tried."
The experience left scars too. Manning, an academic All-America at Ole Miss, is still not the best speller. (His wife, Abby, proofreads every note he writes.) And that reserve stuck. When Cooper, Peyton and Archie jabbered away at the dinner table, Eli and Olivia would sit and listen. They became close when Archie traveled, sharing lunches and shopping at antique stores. Olivia says he's "always been kind of a mama's boy" and very much like her own mother, a calm, deceptively tough presence who, one day in the male-dominated universe of 1940s Philadelphia, Miss., decided to become the town's first female pilot. If Peyton was the family's inevitable star, the one falling asleep listening to tapes of his dad's old games, Eli kept his ambitions banked. He never asked Archie about his playing days.
"If Peyton wasn't a football player, I can assure you he would be the CEO of some company and be super successful," says Cooper, a partner at a New Orleans energy consulting firm. "He wants it. It's important to him. It is who he is. Failing is not an option—or not trying, at least." And Eli? Cooper shakes his head. "I have no idea what he would be doing."
Archie still considers his youngest child something of a mystery. But no one can make fun of someone who doesn't seem to care. "I do get upset; I do get frustrated," says Eli. "I just try not to show it. I don't want to give anybody the satisfaction of seeing me in that state.
"It's not that I'm easygoing, relaxed, don't have a care. I do. I care so much. I just don't show it to outside people. Ask my wife how much I care and what it's like after a loss. The reason she roots so hard for the Giants is that she wants to have a good week—she wants on Sunday night, Monday night and Tuesday to have some smiles and laughs around the house."
He cared, all right. When it came time for high school, Eli's parents told him that he didn't have to go back to Newman—the academically rigorous scene of his humiliation and the place where Cooper and Peyton had become football kings. "I'm going to Newman," he said. Eli played quarterback, pretty much matching Peyton yard for yard, touchdown for touchdown. At one point during Eli's junior year, Peyton returned from Tennessee, and the two squared off in a backyard game of one-on-one basketball. "I was up one and I slipped by him and dunked on him to win the game," Eli remembers. "He does not like that story. But it was a pretty fun moment for me."
Olivia says that Peyton "never got over" that first loss to his little brother, but the loser says she exaggerates. "If it makes Eli feel better to embellish a bit, I'm all for it," Peyton says. "I'm all for being a good older brother."
Everyone agrees that had it been Cooper (whose football career ended in high school after a diagnosis of spinal stenosis) with two Super Bowl rings to Peyton's one, things would've been, as Cooper says, "icier" between the two. But in college, Peyton—now with four NFL MVP awards to Eli's none, and more than twice the career touchdown passes—was telling people, "You think I'm good? Wait till you see my little brother." His dad always said the one way for his sons to disappoint him was to not get along. A five-year age gap made getting along easier.