Eli Manning, Unmasked

Sally Jenkins

Published: Monday, Jan. 30 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

(c) 2012, The Washington Post

Eli Manning is beginning to resemble one of those baby-face gangsters from the old movies. Kid looks cute from a distance but up close it turns out he's got stubble on his chin and robbery in his eye, and when the adults aren't watching he pulls out a cigar and bag of loot.

You've got to wonder at the buried toughness inside this boyish-looking character, who chooses to live in Hoboken instead of a comfortable suburb. On the surface he seems to be "just a sweet child," as his father, Archie, describes him. Yet here he is in his second Super Bowl, and all that niceness increasingly looks like a mask for something implacably ambitious.

It's time we reappraise Manning, and instead of studying his back-to-school snapshot of a face for a clue to his personality, perhaps we should study a freeze frame from late in the New York Giants' rain-and-blood soaked NFC championship overtime victory over the San Francisco 49ers on Jan. 22. Manning is struggling up from the turf to call a timeout. His jersey has been ripped from his shoulder pad, his chinstrap has been pushed up around his flattened nose, and he is covered in blasts of mud.

Apparently, Manning likes it that way. Since 2007, he is 7-1 in the postseason, with an NFL-record five wins on the road, many of them in brutal weather. The 49ers sacked him six times in the mud, and when he was asked if he got hit too much, he smiled and said, "That's just part of the deal." Obviously, we have badly misunderstood him as the easygoing member of his family. "Do you not see what he's doing on the football field?" Giants running back Brandon Jacobs demanded.

Ever since Manning arrived in New York in 2004, he has been portrayed as a mild and hapless younger brother. Critics said he lacked some essential genetic fire compared to Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts, five years his elder. He was too compliant, too complacent. All of that was wrong. The blandness now looks canny, a stubborn refusal to get distracted from his sense of self and maturation schedule.

"I always heard 'em say Eli doesn't care," Archie said. "Eli cares. But Eli doesn't worry. He just doesn't worry."

He doesn't worry about legacy, or some record book duel with his brother, or Tom Brady of the New England Patriots. Asked if would get any help from Peyton Sunday in Indianapolis, Eli stared a reporter down and said tonelessly, "He was very helpful in getting me some tickets to the game."

Here's the interesting thing about Eli: He has never ducked and run from the Manning name. If anything, he has taken it on. Picture this: a 5-year-old Eli, constantly teased and towed by 12-year-old Cooper and 10-year-old Peyton across the playing fields of their New Orleans home town, where his father was the quarterback for the Saints. "We were going to a jillion games, and here's the five-year-old getting dragged along to the park," Archie said. In one week, Eli had to sit through 17 different games starring Cooper and Peyton, Archie remembered. He feared Eli would grow up to hate contests of any kind. He told his wife, Olivia: "This child will never do sports. It's going to turn him off."

Instead, Archie and Olivia detected in the quietest child a brewing, if unspoken, drive and distaste for failure. A loss in a state tournament hurt him as badly as anyone in the family. "He's calm and it's not outward and he doesn't holler and scream," said Archie. "But it was there. I could sense it."

When he reached college age, Eli could easily have escaped his lineage by getting out of the Southeast. What did he do? He went to his old man's alma mater, Ole Miss, and met Hamlet's Ghost head on. He chased some of Peyton's records at Tennessee, too. "He didn't shy away from it a bit," said former Ole Miss coach David Cutcliffe, who is now at Duke.

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