Ernie saw Eli's 'magic' from the start
Ex-GM Accorsi believed in Manning first -- predicting he'd win more rings than Peyton
INDIANAPOLIS -- The phone rang near midnight in Hershey, Pa., and the man who traded for Eli Manning heard the sweet sound of victory on the line, followed by the voice of John Mara, the owner who had just matched the two Super Bowl titles won by his old man.
"I was a little worried that you might be asleep," Mara told Ernie Accorsi, "but I don't give a s---."
Nobody on the winning side gave a you-know-what in the immediate and delirious wake of Super Bowl XLVI, not when the New York Giants had beaten the New England Patriots much like they had in Super Bowl XLII, when Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers played at halftime before Tom Coughlin and the Heartbreakers finished the job.
Mara was on the Lucas Oil Stadium field with the players, staff and family members, confetti all around them, when he started talking about the decision in 2004 to trade for a prospect named Eli, better known as Peyton's brother and Archie's son.
The Giants held the fourth pick of the draft, and they needed to move up to San Diego's No. 1 spot to assure themselves a shot at the quarterback from Ole Miss. Accorsi, the team's general manager, told Mara he thought Eli had some John Unitas in him, an ability to play big in pressure situations and to elevate inferior talent around him.
"I was a little worried we'd be giving up too much for Eli," Mara said, "especially with Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers in the same draft. But when you've got a conviction on a franchise quarterback, there's no price that's too expensive. And I got sold on Eli by Ernie Accorsi, Tom Coughlin and Jerry Reese."
Accorsi was the one who did the deal. On the phone Monday, after watching Manning win another Super Bowl MVP award, the retired executive recalled sitting in his Giants Stadium office on draft day, with Wellington Mara to his left, Bob Tisch to his right, John Mara seated next to his father and Chris Mara, personnel guy, standing behind him. Reese was in there, too, learning how to be the next GM of the Giants without even knowing it.
The Chargers had already selected an unhappy Manning at No. 1; Eli and Archie had already made it clear they wanted New York, not San Diego. The Giants were on the tick-ticking clock at No. 4, and the team rep on site at the Madison Square Garden theater already had Roethlisberger's name written on a piece of paper, ready to be entered into the record.
Accorsi had been offered a second-round pick from Cleveland to drop to No. 7, where he thought he could still get Big Ben, but Chris Mara told him to calm down and wait on San Diego. Accorsi didn't know Chargers GM A.J. Smith very well, but he did know how badly he wanted the quarterback Smith had taken.
The Giants GM had first recognized an intangible grace in Manning at an Ole Miss-Auburn game in his junior year. Accorsi had been warned by his predecessor, George Young, that a GM should never hand in an official scouting report on a college player, as it might influence lower-level scouts to revise their own evaluations.
Accorsi couldn't help himself. For Eli, he made the only exception of his career.
"Has courage and poise," he wrote. "In my opinion, most of all, he has that quality you can't define. Call it magic. I honestly give this guy a chance to be better than his brother."
But Accorsi wasn't about to initiate contact with Smith, who wanted Osi Umenyiora added to the Giants' offer, a demand Accorsi saw as a deal-breaker. The Giants owners and executives were losing hope and staring at a phone that remained deafeningly silent -- "You could've cut the tension with a knife," Accorsi said -- when suddenly, about halfway through the team's 15-minute window to make their draft choice, Smith called.
The Chargers backed away from Umenyiora and agreed to take a first-round pick in 2005 instead. Accorsi had drafted John Elway in Baltimore, only to have his boss, Bob Irsay, fall for Elway's bluff to play baseball for George Steinbrenner and trade him to Denver. Accorsi wasn't going to lose his man this time around.
"Eli played in the SEC, the toughest conference in America, and he was undermanned in almost every game," Accorsi said. "Peyton had a lot more talent around him at Tennessee; Eli had to carry his team on his back.
"We all thought there was something special about Eli, but we didn't know whether the circumstances would give him the chance to win Super Bowls. That's destiny."
Accorsi was encouraged by Eli's San Diego "homecoming" in 2005, his first season as a full-time starter.
"The fans were merciless," the former GM recalled, "and it started not in the pregame warm-ups but in the pre-pregame warm-ups, when Eli was out there in a gray T-shirt and shorts. He came out and got it viciously, and Eli didn't care. He didn't move to the middle of the field to get away from the stands. He just took it and warmed up, and then he stood right up to it and played a great game."
Manning threw for 352 yards and two touchdowns in that defeat, but lost his first playoff game months later and lost his second the following season, an 8-8 season that nearly got his coach fired.
Accorsi retired, and at the time he wasn't exactly looking like Tom Greenwade, the scout who signed Mickey Mantle for $1,500. In Week 12 of the 2007 season, Manning threw four interceptions against the Minnesota Vikings, three of them returned for touchdowns. Even though he wasn't a Giants executive anymore, Accorsi left in the middle of the game, no longer willing to watch his bonus baby unravel.
On the way to his car, a fan shouted at him, "Hey, thanks for leaving us with this mess." Accorsi lowered his head and kept on walking.
"Before I even made it to the Lincoln Tunnel," he said, "Eli had thrown another interception for a touchdown."
Everyone knows how the story unfolded from there. Manning grew up, got hot in the playoffs, and beat 18-0 Tom Brady in the Super Bowl.
The next fall, Accorsi told a story of a dinner he had with Tony La Russa. The manager of the St. Louis Cardinals was wondering aloud whether Eli would be largely forgotten if he failed to win a second championship, and Accorsi grabbed a napkin, pulled out a pen and wrote that Eli would win more titles than his big brother. La Russa promised to keep the napkin.
On Sunday night, Accorsi was made a prophet. Eli didn't just win his second Super Bowl MVP award at Brady's expense; he won it in Peyton's ballpark.
The payoff was priceless. Manning had been signed to a $97.5 million extension in 2009, and during the postgame ceremonies in Indy, John Mara said this of the transaction:
"There's always buyer's remorse when you give that kind of contract, but I'd say we got a bargain at this point."
Accorsi doesn't have to worry about Eli's agent carrying that quote into a renegotiation; that's Reese's problem now. On Monday, after watching Manning make the throw of his life to Mario Manningham on the winning drive, Accorsi was ready to liken the Giants quarterback to one of his own heroes.
"I think Eli's earned the right to be compared to Unitas," he said.
That's why Mara called his former GM around midnight Sunday. The victorious owner just wanted to thank Accorsi for his conviction, and for leaving the Giants with a parting gift that keeps on giving.
Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." "Sunday Morning With Ian O'Connor" can be heard every Sunday from 9-11 a.m. ET on ESPN New York 1050.