EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Before the world would learn his fate, Eli Manning disclosed his decision to his inner circle of football brothers — four or five close friends and former teammates who, at one time, donned Giants blue alongside him.
Hakeem Nicks saw the text message pop up in their group chat Wednesday morning.
Fifteen minutes later, the news broke on TV: Manning was retiring from the NFL.
“I said, 'That was respect,’” Nicks told Yahoo Sports with a smile. “He told his main guys first.”
For 16 seasons, Manning had been the personification of class, the consummate professional, the ultimate teammate and, eventually, a champion. So, when it came time for him to officially say goodbye to the game, so many felt compelled to show up for him.
On an unseasonably warm January afternoon, dozens of former and current Giants players, coaches, executives and staffers congregated inside the indoor fieldhouse — the only space large enough to accommodate the crush of cameras and overflow of media on hand to witness Manning’s emotional farewell.
His former head coach, Tom Coughlin, was in attendance. As were Giants greats, like Harry Carson and Phil Simms, and former teammates, like Nicks, Michael Strahan, Amani Toomer, David Tyree, Brandon Jacobs, Shaun O’Hara, David Diehl and Mark Herzlich. A former Giants public-relations director flew almost 500 miles early Friday morning to be on hand for what turned into a family reunion. A family reunion that was made complete by the presence of the man who orchestrated the controversial trade that brought Manning to the Giants’ doorstep 16 years ago: former general manager Ernie Accorsi.
Manning’s eyes welled with tears as he and his family, including his parents, Archie and Olivia, wife, Abby, and their four small children, watched a video montage tracing the beginnings of his career.
During this past season, the embattled quarterback made it clear that he still had plenty left to give the game even if the Giants had moved on from the idea of him being their starter. But as he addressed the audience, with the two Super Bowl trophies he helped deliver positioned to his left, Manning insisted it was, indeed, time to walk away.
He sniffled as he spoke but remained composed as he condensed nearly 20 years of memories into a speech that lasted only minutes.
“For most of my life, people have called me ‘Easy.’ Believe me, this is nothing easy about today,” Manning said, in closing. “Wellington Mara always said, ‘Once a Giant, Always a Giant.’ For me, it's ‘Only a Giant.’”
No other Giant will ever wear Manning’s No. 10 again, a tearful John Mara pledged, adding that Manning will be inducted into their Ring of Honor next season.
What seemed like a gamble in 2004, was the sure bet all along.
The kid from Ole Miss, who was written off after some errant passes and subpar games in his rookie season, is now on the list of greatest players in franchise history.
Accorsi “never wavered” when it came to his belief in Manning. And Friday’s turnout, along with those two Lombardi Trophies prominently displayed, were further proof that Accorsi's instincts were right all along. Even if his hometown paper in Hershey, Pennsylvania, The Patriot-News, felt differently after the Giants agreed to a trade with the San Diego Chargers for Manning.
“My best friend called me and said, ‘The headline of the paper is: ‘Accorsi puts his future on the line with the Manning trade,’” he recalled with a chuckle. “I said, ‘I’m 64 years old, I don’t have a future.’ ... I never had a problem rolling the dice if I had to. All you can ask for in this business is to have a conviction. If you have a conviction, and you don’t go with it, then it’s your fault.”
On a day when Manning relived the highlights of his career and thanked those who made it all possible, members of the Giants fraternity reflected on how he had changed them and why their presence in New Jersey was non-negotiable.
“I knew I had to be here,” said Nicks, a member of the Super Bowl XLVI team that defeated the New England Patriots. The former receiver took the last flight out of Charlotte, North Carolina, on Thursday night. “For one, he’s a good friend of mine. And, shoot, without him, I wouldn’t even have this Super Bowl ring on my finger.”
Jacobs, who earned both Super Bowl rings alongside Manning, originally was supposed to be in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on Friday. Instead, he booked a plane ticket from Atlanta and flew into New Jersey at midnight. “He’s a brother to me and I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity” said the former running back. “It wasn’t even debatable.”
They arrived in droves, eager to offer their warm wishes and their support — not only for the final chapter in the Book of Eli, but also his chances of being inducted into the Hall of Fame.
“That’s subjective,” Accorsi said of the voting process. “What’s not subjective? The two trophies. That’s a fact.”
“He will go down as one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history of all time,” said Plaxico Burress, who caught the game-winning touchdown in the Giants’ Super Bowl XLII victory over the previously unbeaten Patriots. “He’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer in my book. To be able to come to this city and this market, and go through the criticisms and all of the things he had to fight through on a week-to-week basis. … Nobody got it worst than he did when things weren’t going well, and he never wavered.”
The debate over Manning’s merits will rage on for another five years, but there’s one future Hall of Famer who knows just how clutch the Giants quarterback was in his prime: Tom Brady.
“Congratulations on your retirement, and a great career Eli!” the Patriots quarterback tweeted. “Not going to lie though, I wish you hadn’t won any Super Bowls.”
The framed No. 10 jersey positioned on the stage evoked somewhat somber vibes of a funeral. But while the casket may have closed on Manning’s playing days, there’s no limit to what he could do in the future. The 39-year-old isn't sure what the future holds, but he’s eager to spend time with his family and be an assistant coach for his daughter Ava's third-grade basketball team. Those who know him best can see Manning in a variety of roles.
A senior adviser in the Giants personnel department.
Even an actor.
“He can do so many things with his brother [Peyton],” said Harry Carson. “They can be like a tag-team doing commercials. Put them in the GEICO commercials.”
Asked what Manning’s next chapter might look like, Burress joked: “Well, he’s not a model, so he won’t be doing that. I don’t know how much acting he’s going to be doing, either. He just said to me on the stage, ‘Now we can play some golf,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I’ve been waiting to whup your ass for a long time now, so c’mon let’s go for it.’
"You know, he’ll probably be on the Pontchartrain or some other lake somewhere fishing, and doing what us retired guys do: raising some kids and just enjoying the rest of your life.”
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