A look back: Eli made history, drama 10 years ago
It was 10 years ago that quarterback Eli Manning was selected as the top pick in the NFL Draft. (The actual date was April 24, 2014, but the draft just started Thursday). He had already become the career passing leader at Ole Miss and had just led the Rebels to a win in the Cotton Bowl.
Manning was at the center of all the draft talk and as the day for his name to be called got closer and closer, the chatter really focused on whether he really would 1) not show up at the draft and 2) play for the San Diego Chargers.
Yes, we all know that Manning has played his entire career with the New York Giants, but some of you may not remember that they didn’t have the top pick that year. That belonged to the Chargers and general manager A.J. Smith, who was set on drafting a quarterback to follow in the footsteps of Drew Brees, who ironically suffered a torn labrum at the end of the 2005 season that led him to Manning’s hometown team, the New Orleans Saints.
Archie Manning had been helping his son prepare for the draft, and dealing with the reality that he was going to be a Charger. At the time, San Diego had a great running back in LaDainian Tomlison, who had rushed for over 3,000 yards in the two years prior. Brees was there to start, allowing Eli a chance to sit back and learn everything he needed to be a success.
Veteran Marty Schottenheimer had been named head coach the year before and while the Chargers were 4-12 in 2003, he was the only coach of the four teams that had a realistic shot of drafting Eli that wasn’t heading into his first year. (The Giants had just hired Tom Coughlin as head coach after a year away from football. They too were 4-12 in 2003).
It seemed like the Chargers were getting better, on the verge of being a playoff team in a short time, at least to me, and with the great weather of Southern California serving as a backdrop, it was a little hard for me to completely understand why Archie wouldn’t like the idea of Eli playing with the Chargers.
Ten years ago, the draft was held over the weekend, on a Saturday and Sunday, not like it is now over three days and starting on a Thursday. It was also held back then in the theater at Madison Square Garden instead of Radio City Music Hall.
Eli and his family were in New York a few days ahead of the draft, just like a lot of the top players who are invited to attend are. I arrived with my wife Wednesday night because there were things to cover on Thursday like a media luncheon at Chelsea Piers with all the other first-round picks. Iowa’s Robert Gallery, Pittsburgh’s Larry Fitzgerald and Miami’s Kellen Winslow were all there, but the focus was on Eli and the ravenous New York media was set on tripping him up, looking for that quote that proclaimed he wouldn’t attend the draft or hold up the Chargers’ jersey.
There hasn’t been a point where I’ve felt like Eli Manning couldn’t handle the pressure. He had always been great doing interviews at Ole Miss. He obviously excelled with defenders in his face, but it was at the draft that weekend where I saw all his grooming, and his own poise take over. He didn’t break, he never disrespected his family or the NFL. Eli was calm, cool and collected, just like he has been in the pocket for the past decade.
When Saturday morning arrived, it was off to MSG and the anticipation of seeing Eli become a Charger. He was going to show, listen for his name and then have a press conference. I was in the photo well, below the podium, when he walked across the stage. Archie and his mom, Olivia, joined him. He put on the San Diego Chargers’ cap, held the No. 1 jersey and stood for his picture. Looking at it on the back of the camera wasn’t an option back then since it wasn’t digital, but there was no smile.
His press conference followed and Eli made it clear that playing for the Chargers wasn’t even close to a guarantee. He talked about returning to Ole Miss and getting an advanced degree. The big payday wasn’t needed for him, not with his family, and with the ability to re-enter the draft the next year an option, signing a contract wasn’t happening.
Eli’s time at the podium ended and as he was being escorted out, he was still surrounded by a bevy of reporters. Of course I was right there, wanting to make sure I didn’t miss anything.
The draft had continued on through the press conference and was still taking up time on ESPN when Eli was just about to exit the building. That’s when I heard this voice, the voice of a kid. Somehow, a 10- or 11-year-old child had worked his way close enough to the contingent that also included Eli’s agent, Tom Condon. I can still hear his voice, and how his proclamation of “the Giants traded for Eli, the Giants traded for Eli” just stopped things on a dime.
That entire mass, that was headed out the door, just stopped. Everyone paused, not long mind you, but just long enough to let what had happened sink in. Then, just as fast as Eli was exiting, he was moving back inside the theater to hold another press conference. He had become a Giant, garnered in a trade with the Chargers that sent N.C. State quarterback Phillip Rivers, and a few other picks, out West.
In a matter of minutes, Eli’s face had gone from a frown to a smile as wide as Manhattan. Being a Giant was a much better prospect for him.
Come to find out a little while later that Charlie Conerly’s wife, Perian, had written a letter to New York owner Wellington Mara, expressing her desire to see another Rebel play for the Giants. (Charlie led the Giants to three NFL titles in the 1950s). While the Giants really liked Ben Roethlisberger, when they didn’t have to give up standout defensive end Osi Umenyiora to get Eli in the trade, everything was set. The move ultimately paid off with two Super Bowl wins. The deal literally re-vitalized the Giants as a franchise and Eli, well, he’s much more popular now than he would have been because of playing, and winning, in New York as opposed to San Diego.
John Davis is the Oxford Citizen sports editor. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Follow him on Twitter at @oxfordcitizenjd.