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Tuesday, January 31, 2012
Eli Manning has turned 'aw, shucks' into an art form

By Kate Fagan

A few months ago at a family get-together, we spent the better part of an hour discussing Grantland's anointment of New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning as the NFL's "most eligible non-bachelor."

It wasn't exactly a scientific study -- basically, two women in Grantland's office unhesitatingly chose Manning when asked which NFL QB they would marry -- but we still wanted to deconstruct the argument ourselves: Manning over poster boy Tom Brady? Manning over celebrity-dater Tony Romo? Manning over every other quarterback on every other NFL team?

Yes, yes and yes.

But while our argument in favor of Manning began with off-the-field qualities (he loves hugs from his mom, he married his college sweetheart, he'd never forget the milk), we quickly began comparing how these same qualities translate to his on-the-field performance. As heartwarming as it is to hear about Manning's love for his mother's home cooking, we cared more about how that sensitivity might translate to victories on the field.

Kevin Boothe
Kevin Boothe's strong play helped the Giants in their run to the Super Bowl last season.

A lot of hard-core fans and analysts like to talk about a quarterback's football IQ, but Manning seems to win with his EQ, his emotional quotient -- his superior reactions when the game becomes less about X's and O's and more about gut feel.

I was reminded of my family debate during Tuesday's media day at Super Bowl XLVI. Manning was sitting at his podium, fielding questions as adeptly as his shy personality allows. Someone asked him which actor should play him if his life were made into a movie. (Manning is getting better in this kind of spotlight, but you still get the sense he prefers life on the field, where his game can answer the toughest questions.)

"I'd have to look at height and throwing motion," Manning said, admitting he thought a movie of his life was unlikely. "Maybe James Van Der Beek; he's done a football movie before."

Then, Manning discussed the potential height of his imaginary alter-ego, pointing out that a lot of these guys are shorter in real life than you might imagine. "I'd have to have a casting call and have them play catch with me for a little bit," he concluded.

But here's the thing: Nothing about Manning, or the way he plays, seems suitable for Hollywood. Can we picture Brady's life becoming a movie? Yes, and probably a very lucrative one. But a movie about Manning? No, not really, because -- and this goes back to his EQ -- he's totally unscripted. Brady's movie would end with a perfect spiral hitting his receiver's numbers, while Manning's would end with him scrambling away from a sack, twisting awkwardly and shoveling the football sideways as if it were a broken Frisbee. Manning is comfortable, familiar, a cozy pair of sweats; Brady is a fitted Italian suit.

Something about the way Manning does things, even when he's doing something like winning a Super Bowl, makes him down to earth and tangible. He's never suave, just earnest. His passes seem less untouchably perfect and more just-barely completed.

Even the way he approaches his teammates is subtle. As the Giants boarded their plane to Indianapolis on Monday, Manning caught up with rookie fullback Henry Hynoski and invited him to dinner at Indy's legendary steakhouse, St. Elmo. As Hynoski retold the story at media day, his eyes lit up.

"It just goes to show you how he likes to get the team camaraderie going," Hynoski said. "He's just a great team leader and awesome guy. He's the best. He's not full of himself. He's not cocky. He's just an awesome, awesome guy."

Added running back D.J. Ware, who also ate steak on Manning's dime: "Eli wanted to take everybody out this time, show everybody a good time and let everybody bond a little bit."

Guard Kevin Boothe said he didn't peek at the bill, but he knows it was substantial because Manning invited the entire offense. Boothe is used to Manning coming through in the clutch.

"It's just that I guess, when time is short, he realizes he has to step his game up even more," Boothe said. "It's just like an extra gear that kicks in, and it kind of goes through the team. We feel confident whenever we have a chance at the end of the game because we know we're going to get his best."

When Manning makes a play at game's end, he often reacts as if he has surprised even himself. He looks shocked, pumps both fists and runs toward an offensive lineman for an awkward moment.

"Guys make fun of him, but I don't make fun of him," Boothe said. "I think guys kind of give him a hard time, but that's just his enthusiasm coming out. It's not scripted, and isn't that always the best way?"

Manning is the league's most-marriable signal-caller for essentially the same reasons he's a successful quarterback: because of his EQ, because he's turned "aw, shucks" into an art form.

Kate Fagan is a columnist for espnW. You can follow her on Twitter @katefagan3.