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"In high school [Peyton] would come back when I was in spring practice and make my dad film my drops, and we'd watch it that night," Eli recalls. "He'd tell me, 'This is what we're learning at Tennessee: On your three-step, make that second step real short and quick to get the ball out.' When I was in college and he was in the NFL, he'd come to spring football and watch our practices and we'd do drills. He wanted me to have success. Everything he learned, he wanted to come back and teach me."
And a pattern was set. Eli, placid demeanor and all, kept putting himself in pressure-cooker situations where failure would surely bring the humiliation he once feared. He could've played college ball anywhere, but he chose Ole Miss, where his father was revered and where the speed limit is still set at 18 mph—Archie's uniform number—to this day. His one speed bump, a public-drunkenness arrest midway through freshman year, left Eli "as embarrassed as I've ever been," he says. The phone call home was brutal, but he vowed to fully dedicate himself to football. Months later the phone rang again in the Manning home. Eli had finally read up on Archie's legendary career in Oxford.
"Dad?" Eli said. "You know, your numbers weren't very good."
It's hard to remember now, but at one point Eli Manning had that same overwhelmed, lost-tourist-in-Manhattan look worn these days by Jets QB Mark Sanchez. The Giants presented a unified front when they orchestrated the 2004 draft-day deal with San Diego that brought Manning to New York, but for a long time the most powerful voice in the room didn't like the look of things. Wellington Mara, the team's longtime co-owner, was fond of Kerry Collins, who had taken the team to Super Bowl XXXV in 2001. And at 88 he didn't know if he had time to wait for a rookie to pay off.
Especially that rookie. Manning had shattered his father's numbers at Ole Miss, but his first day at minicamp, in 2004, was marked by just one memorable pass: Eli hit a tackling dummy instead of a receiver. Oh, my God, thought John Mara, the team heir who had pushed his father so hard on Eli. This isn't the guy I watched in college. Taking over the starting job from Kurt Warner in Week 11, Manning lost six straight, including a panicky 37--14 meltdown beneath the onslaught of a slavering Ravens defense that resulted in a 0.0 passer rating. (That particular feat had previously occurred just 62 times in NFL history—once, 30 years earlier, by Archie.) A last-minute drive to beat Dallas in the season finale was the lone bright spot. It was the last Giants game Wellington Mara ever attended.
Archie grew up in Drew, Miss., a Giants fan. His father, Buddy, had always loved Ole Miss quarterback Charlie Conerly, and the two followed Conerly's progress when he went on to New York, led the Giants to the 1956 title and was named MVP in '59. Buddy committed suicide just before Archie's junior year in college, and it's one of Archie's great regrets that he couldn't take his dad along with him when he became a star, introducing him to the likes of Conerly and Y.A. Tittle. Eli has always said the decision to force San Diego to trade him to New York on draft day was his alone, but many saw Archie's hand in it. "It was him," Archie insists. "It started with him, and it ended with him."
Still, family and franchise didn't begin to feel justified until the next season, when Manning won his first two games and held up under withering attacks in his first visit to San Diego. The sellout crowd booed and raised hate-filled signs. John Mara heard one Chargers assistant jaw at Eli, "You're going to get yours today." The Giants lost 45--23, but Manning was 24 of 41 with 352 passing yards, all then career highs. When John visited his cancer-stricken father in a Manhattan hospital the next day, he said, "Tough game, Dad, but the quarterback really played well."
"He sure did," Wellington Mara responded. "He really showed me something." A month later the elder Mara was dead.
Fathers and sons. When Peyton broke the NFL's 50-year-old rookie record with 26 touchdown passes in 1998, Archie loved that it was Conerly's mark he broke. And when Eli passed Simms to set the Giants' career record with 200 TD passes late against the Packers in November—his teammates hopping, slapping his back, looking far more excited than Eli—Archie was there at MetLife Stadium. It had seemed to Archie like just another record until the team's alltime list was displayed, with Conerly and Tittle and his own idol, Fran Tarkenton, sitting now below his son. "It was a good night," Archie says. "It's special to see Eli there with those guys."
But then, should anyone be surprised? Soon enough Manning will own nearly every Giants passing record, maybe another Super Bowl ring. "If it's Ping-Pong, Eli's not going to let you win," says Morris. "If it's your serve, he'll turn your head and put a divot in the ball; he will cheat before he lets you win. That's why he's perfect for New York. A lot of people talk about it. Eli lives it."