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A Fond Farewell to Eli Manning, an Iconic Football Artist

Manning’s goodbye to the game was of a piece with how his whole career unfolded: mostly unexceptional, a little awkward, lifted briefly to legendary status by casually owning Tom Brady, same as it ever was

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Eli Manning’s farewell on Friday morning took place inside the New York Giants’ practice facility because the room that the organization typically uses for these sorts of press conferences would have been too small. The chunky, white folding chairs all lined up for the audience, as well as the be-ribboned children yawning and fidgeting in them from the front row, made Manning’s retirement feel a bit like a wedding. The weepy red faces and the bittersweet remarks from emotional men were a reminder that it was more of a memorial service. Michael Strahan and Plaxico Burress were in the house; Mark Herzlich rocked a great Mohawk; Archie Manning resembled Joe Biden; Bob Papa’s soothing, staccato voice boomed out from a highlights montage.

Earlier in the day, Peyton Manning had gone on the radio with ESPN’s Golic and Wingo Show and told stories of Eli (recently!) giving him an atomic wedgie so bad that “my shoulders were leveraged in the corner and I couldn’t get out” and about how sometimes, hours before his own football games, Peyton would be worked into a “full sweat” watching Giants games and getting mad at Eli-related comments made by the likes of Joe Buck. This sort of chaotic (and highly relatable) energy was absent from the press conference itself, which was just big enough to merit a little special production built around it by ESPN, but just niche enough to air on ESPN2.

Eli Manning, a two-time Super Bowl MVP who finished his career seventh in all-time NFL passing yards, sat with his family while Giants co-owner John Mara announced that no other New York Giant will ever wear no. 10 again. The quarterback’s face was twisted into what looked like a frown but was really one of those trying-not-to-cry smiles. Then he got up and stood in front of a backdrop that had the words “Hackensack Meridian Health” and “Quest Diagnostics” displayed in a repeating pattern. “This sport has very few real farewells,” he said. His own farewell had definitely gotten extremely “real” in the way that people sometimes use the word real to describe a person who has stubbornly persevered, for better and worse, through some truly iffy times. The end began years ago when then-Giants head coach Ben McAdoo benched Manning for … Geno Smith? … and ended the quarterback’s somehow underrated 210-game starting streak. (I wrote an emotional goodbye to both Manning and Mike Francesa at the time; some things never change.) It continued when the Giants drafted Manning’s heir apparent (and apparent clone) Daniel Jones last spring, and then made the decision to start him this fall. Manning said that while he had thought about trying to play longer, he had no regrets about deciding to go out as a Giant; that he knew it was the right call. He quoted Wellington Mara, the late former team co-owner, who sometimes said: Once a Giant, always a Giant. Manning added his own element to it: “For me,” he said, “it’s only a Giant.”

During a Q&A segment (in which one question began, “Thanks for the class in elegance,” and others were: “Where did that intestinal fortitude come from?” and “What does clutch mean to you, and why were you able to be that?”), Manning was made aware that Tom Brady, who has won six Super Bowls but who also lost a pair to the Giants in Super Bowls XLII and XLVI, had written a congratulatory tweet in which he mentioned wishing that Manning had not won those two titles.

”I’ve been around Tom and I know how competitive he is,” Manning said, affably. “We joke around about this a little bit. … But it’s not real funny to him.” And so, in the end, Manning’s goodbye to the game was of a piece with how his whole career unfolded: mostly unexceptional, a little awkward, lifted briefly to iconic status by casually owning Tom Brady, same as it ever was.

I was actually underwhelmed by the video montage the Giants played on Friday morning. It had a promising beginning: footage from Manning’s press conference after the 2004 draft, where he was taken first overall by the San Diego Chargers before publicly rejecting them and being traded to the Giants. Manning is wearing a big ol’ suit and a loud Giants hat and a doofy grin.

“I like the organization,” he says about the Giants, “so I think it’ll be a good place, and I think things will work out here.” They sure did, as the video went on to prove. It showed Eli somehow dodging and weaving his way out of trouble before unleashing that throw to David Tyree in February 2008. It featured him connecting with Mario Manningham juuuust inside the sideline four years later in his second Super Bowl appearance.

Great stuff, but there was almost no footage of the artist as a young man, despite the Manning family having plenty of it at the ready! Which is disappointing, because to watch Eli Manning as a child play football with his older brothers with the exact same chill, athletic unflappability that he would heroically display two decades later is to witness the immutability of the human soul. (I also always love seeing Peyton as a supremely bossy child.) And the video had no ode to the two outstanding, outlandish NFC championship games that Eli won en route to his Super Bowls, the first one in negative-umpteen degrees in Green Bay against the Gunslinger—this can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube, by the way, I recently found out—or the one four years later, also on the road, in San Francisco, in which Manning was sacked six times, otherwise knocked down another 12, and still threw for 316 yards and two touchdowns and punched his ticket to the Big Rematch.

Come on, Big Blue, give the people a happy glimpse at Manning’s surprising turn on Saturday Night Live, in which he donned a spandexy bodysuit and aped Andy Serkis and, separately, killed it in a sketch involving text messages and a “penis-banana”! Or, I don’t know, interview some of the many players in attendance and get us some good stories of Easy E, or talk to a few fans to hear their memories of the quarterback who helped people believe that enough luck can lead to magic. What do people remember?

Here’s what I remember: That first Super Bowl was an unseasonably warm night, and I watched the game from a lawn chair on a friend’s Upper East Side roof deck, the TV jerry-rigged to hang out a window. I called my dad three different times in the fourth quarter; he was more optimistic than I was. When it ended, I could hear car horns honking and people kvelling in the streets below; that rare rumble of shared delight. At the ticker-tape parade, the crumpled paper was knee-deep in places and people in the businesses above Broadway kept throwing more and more. I wore a Jeremy Shockey jersey that was already obsolete. During the next Super Bowl I lived in San Francisco and watched the game at an East Coast expat friend’s apartment, where he had festively taped a little picture of Brady above the can.

None of my stories matter, or are particularly interesting (sorry!), but there are multiple generations of Giants fans who each have their very own, all of them precious and all of them featuring Manning with his two arms raised in the air. The video montage the Giants made for Manning could have shown so much more of that, but I guess it didn’t have to: We’ll always remember it so, so well. If it feels like it all happened forever ago, that’s because it did. If it feels like it all happened only yesterday, that’s because it always will. When he introduced Manning on Friday, John Mara told a story about his father, and the final Giants game he ever saw. It was in January 2005, the last game of Manning’s rookie season, and he had just helped New York come from behind to beat the Cowboys. “I think we found our guy,” Wellington Mara told his son. Giants fans have had plenty of frustrations with their quarterback over the years, and few would argue with the idea that his career maybe could have gracefully come in for the land a little sooner. Still, not even in spite of all of that but partly because of it, Eli Manning will forever be our guy.

So, what now? Now Manning can play more golf, and carry more teensy beach buckets, and romp with his silly baby, and live the life of a retired legend forever cresting on the wave of tri-state goodwill. He will tell some great stories when Peyton makes the Hall of Fame, and he will forever be the subject of a debate over his own chances. When Peyton went on the radio this morning, he finished up a rant on that subject by calming himself down, and the way he calmed himself down was to think of his brother. Rather than continue to fret about things like whether Eli will join him in the Hall, Peyton said, “I’m gonna pull an Eli and live in the present.”

The obligatory Hall of Fame discussion around Eli isn’t new; it’s been going on since well before he even considered retiring. An earlier iteration, “Is Eli elite?,” has made the rounds for a good decade, and the arguments have never changed a bit. During preseason in 2011, ESPN New York radio host Michael Kay asked Manning whether he was on the same level as, say, Brady. “I consider myself in that class,” Manning said. It was the kind of self-confidence that you love to see in your team’s starting quarterback, and also a comment that got him made fun of for weeks. That season, the Giants had the league’s 10th-worst defense and the 13th-worst rushing offense; they also, behind Manning, won that second Super Bowl.

To me, the argument is simple, because my definition of a Hall of Fame is simple. It’s a museum of the most important characters in football history, and sometimes those characters are the unheralded, nerdy ones, and sometimes they’re the blindingly obvious, and sometimes they’re the ones with confusing internal logic. For that reason, all the things people say to hurt Manning’s chances—his regular-season record was a hilariously fitting 117-117, the only category in which he ever led the NFL was interceptions, he never won a playoff game that wasn’t on the road to a Super Bowl—almost make his case stronger to me, in much the same way that the more titles the Patriots win, the funnier it becomes that they could never beat Eli Manning, final boss.

I can’t imagine telling the story of the past 15-ish years of football without the Book of Eli, though he would argue that he was never playing any sort of character at all. “From the very first moment, I did it my way,” Manning said during his retirement press conference, looking out at his former teammates and coaches, and his parents and his wife, and his kids and his kids’ many different backpacks. “I couldn’t be someone other than who I am. Undoubtedly, I would have made the fans, the media, even the front office more comfortable if I was a more ‘rah-rah guy,’ but that’s not me. Ultimately, I choose to believe that my teammates and the fans learned to appreciate that. They knew what they got was pure, unadulterated Eli.” And that stuff will always just hit different, you know?