Commentary

10 things to know about Eli Manning

Behind the laid-back exterior, he's a driven, confident, karaoke-singing prankster

Originally Published: February 3, 2012
By Jeffri Chadiha | ESPN.com

There is an undeniable irony in the way this Super Bowl week has played out so far, at least for New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning.

Sunday's game between his team and the New England Patriots should be the only event making news, but another matter has captivated the media's attention: the future of Manning's older brother, Peyton, the Indianapolis Colts quarterback. As much as people have followed the hype of this game, they've been easily seduced by speculation about what the Colts will do with a Pro Bowl-caliber player who missed the entire season.

It seemed likely that Eli's game in his brother's backyard would lead to some predictable storylines. But nobody could've imagined Peyton would steal the show with his overwhelming presence.

[+] EnlargeArchie Manning, Peyton Manning, Cooper Manning, Eli Manning
AP Photo/Darron CummingsEli Manning always has been a bit overshadowed in his famous family, which includes his father, Archie, and brothers Peyton and Cooper (left to right).

How familiar this all seems. Peyton always has been the biggest star of the Manning brothers -- including oldest brother, Cooper, a star high school receiver in his own right. Eli has had to fight his way out of that shadow. Peyton has been more accessible, more comfortable with his own stardom. Eli has been more elusive and reclusive. We know he's gifted in his own right. We just don't know much else beyond that, largely because he doesn't allow others to see him as easily as Peyton does.

It's not a knock on Eli. It's just who he is. But digging deeper into his life reveals some qualities that have gone unnoticed in a city that scrutinizes its celebrities like no other. A few days ago, Liz Merrill gave you 12 things you didn't know about Tom Brady. Now here are 10 things you didn't know about Eli:

HE HAS A GIFT FOR KARAOKE

There was a time when Peyton was known to show up in Nashville nightclubs to sing a number or two onstage with notable country music stars. Eli does his crooning in a different way -- through the power of karaoke. Manning is low-key when he's standing in front of a podium at a news conference, but when he's holding a microphone and the music starts blaring from a computerized sound machine, he's an entirely different animal.

The man also apparently has no limits to his versatility. He can do pop music, '80s hits and his fair share of classic rock. One night he found himself doing a surprisingly impressive rendition of a Johnny Cash song, a performance that was even more eye-opening because -- as with other tunes -- Eli didn't need to follow the words on the video screen. "It's amazing that in a world filled with camera phones that Eli Manning hasn't been caught singing karaoke in some New York nightspots," one former teammate said. "Mark Sanchez gets caught all the time. But the thing that is really wild about Eli is that he's actually a good singer."

HE'S ALWAYS MADE THOSE AROUND HIM BETTER

Former Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi once told a story about scouting Manning during Manning's senior season at Ole Miss. What Accorsi remembered most about the Rebels' 24-20 win at Auburn that day wasn't Manning's overall numbers, although he threw for 218 yards and two touchdowns. It was the way Manning operated with such an ordinary supporting cast. Only three other starters on that team were selected in the NFL draft a few months later. Manning overcame a mediocre start to rally his team with an 80-yard fourth-quarter drive that gave Ole Miss a key victory in what would be a 10-win season.

Accorsi could see that one of Manning's greatest strengths didn't always seem obvious: He can carry a team whenever necessary. This season, Manning's presence has certainly helped the development of Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz. To hear Cruz tell it, he learned plenty from Manning in offseason workouts the quarterback organized during the lockout, and he's gleaned just as much during Manning's receivers meetings at the end of every practice week. Said Giants general manager Jerry Reese: "I've said this lot of times since Eli has been with us -- one of the most attractive things that we liked about him was making players around him better since his days at Ole Miss. That's definitely the case here with Victor Cruz."

HE HAS A PRETTY GOOD SENSE OF HUMOR

[+] EnlargeLawrence Tynes
Chris Faytok/The Star-Ledger/US PresswireOh, sure, they made nice a big win, but Eli Manning and kicker Lawrence Tynes once had a spirited prank rivalry.

You wouldn't know it from his docile public persona, but Manning is downright devilish about pulling pranks. Some of his favorites include putting invisible dye in the gloves or helmet of an unsuspecting teammate. He also has dumped a player's clothes into the cold tub before dropping them into a freezer and returning them to the player's locker before practice ends. He loves to come back on a teammate when he's had a prank pulled on him.

A few years ago, Manning and Giants kicker Lawrence Tynes had a prank rivalry going through training camp. Manning thought it was time to hit Tynes where it hurt. Because kickers were notorious for leaving the team buildings early after practice -- they didn't have as many daily scheduled meetings as others -- Manning enlisted a couple of teammates to park their cars so they boxed Tynes' vehicle in. When Tynes went to his car thinking that he was headed for a nice meal and a return to his room, he had to sit there for at least another hour until Manning emerged with a big grin.

"Like most people, he wants to enjoy what he is doing," said Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride. "When the opportunity presents itself, he has always enjoyed a prank being played, especially when he is the one committing it. Now the players love it when it is reversed and he is the recipient of it. It is a good give and take."

HE'S ALWAYS BEEN COMFORTABLE IN TIGHT SITUATIONS

Frank Gendusa coached all three Mannings at Isidore Newman School in New Orleans, and it didn't take long for him to see Eli was as gifted as his older brothers Cooper and Peyton, who played receiver and quarterback, respectively. Manning was only in his freshman year when Gendusa had to turn to him in a pinch. Newman's starting quarterback was suspended for a game midway through that season. Manning was the next-most talented signal-caller on the roster, so Gendusa gave him the job of leading a team that historically ranked among the best in Louisiana.

Manning did the same things that Giants fans have come to expect. He displayed moxie. He completed tough throws and gained the confidence of his older teammates. When the game ended in another Newman victory, Manning didn't act as though he'd arrived. He just kept working at his craft until he finished his career with just 100 yards fewer than Peyton had produced five years earlier.

So the fourth-quarter success he's enjoyed this year -- he's been more efficient and successful than any other quarterback at the end of games -- shouldn't be a surprise. Manning seemed to be born to handle such moments. "Eli told everybody at the beginning of the season that he's a leader," Giants defensive tackle Chris Canty said. "And he's proven that with his performance."

HIS STUBBORNNESS AFFECTED BEN ROETHLISBERGER

Most people remember the controversy in the 2004 NFL draft, when Manning -- along with his father, Archie -- basically told the San Diego Chargers he wouldn't play for them if they used the first overall pick to select him. What was less documented before this week is how nervous the Giants had been about making the deal that brought him to New York. The Chargers eventually drafted Manning and dealt him to the Giants in exchange for quarterback Philip Rivers and two draft picks. But to hear Giants co-owner John Mara tell it this week, the process behind that transaction was anything but simple.

Said Mara: "I remember the night before the draft, I don't know how many phone conversations I had with Ernie [Accorsi] asking him, 'Did [Chargers general manager] A.J. [Smith] call yet?' And there wasn't [an answer]. A.J. played it pretty cool, and there wasn't any communication the night before, until I think we were on the clock. So it really did go down to the wire. Our backup plan was Ben Roethlisberger, so either way we felt like we were in good shape, but we had our hearts set on Eli at the time."

When that deal was sealed, Archie Manning spoke briefly with Hall of Fame tight end Kellen Winslow, whose own son, Kellen Winslow, was the sixth overall pick in that year's draft. Winslow's advice to Archie as the two fathers waited for their sons to finish answering media questions moments after being drafted: "I would've done the same thing if it was my kid."

HE HAS A BIG HEART

[+] EnlargeDavid Diehl, Eli Manning, Pat Browne Jr.
Ray Tamarra/Getty ImagesEli Manning supports Guiding Eyes for the Blind, which provides guide dogs for the blind as well as autistic children. Patrick Browne Jr. (right) is a longtime family friend; teammate David Diehl (left) attended a 2007 fundraiser.

Manning has spent the past five years hosting a golf tournament in Westchester County, N.Y., that raises money for Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a nonprofit organization that provides guide dogs for the blind as well as autistic children. Manning became involved in the event because of his relationship with Patrick Browne Jr., a longtime family friend. Browne played golf with Eli when Eli was a kid growing up in New Orleans. Browne lost his sight nearly 50 years ago, so he plays without the benefit of sight.

Browne remains a proficient golfer -- he has won the Guiding Eyes tournament 21 times -- despite the loss of his vision. Manning, even as a young man, admired Browne as an athlete and did not view him as limited. When Manning has hosted the golf tournament, he has played with a blindfold and used the same golf coaches as Browne and his fellow blind players. During his time with the tournament, Manning also has helped raise awareness for the organization.

The tournament enjoyed its biggest audience in 2007, when Manning succeeded Ken Venturi as the host. Last season, it enjoyed its biggest profit, generating more than $600,000. (Guiding Eyes receives no government assistance.) "Eli really has that Southern charm and chivalry," said Guiding Eyes spokesperson Michelle Brier. "He's always sincerely interested in how our golfers live independent lives."

HE HEARS WHAT PEOPLE SAY

Don't let Manning's easygoing personality fool you. He's been in the NFL and New York long enough to remember some of the less flattering comments. It wasn't that long ago that many critics questioned whether Manning was tough enough and talented enough to succeed in such a hard-edged city. (Take note, Mark Sanchez.) One former teammate who played with Manning up to the 2007 season remembers only one private rant during Manning's early years in the league ... and that lasted all of five minutes before he went back to preparing for his next opponent.

Yet when Manning led the Giants to an upset win over the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game during the 2007 season, he revealed just how prickly he can be when pushed too far. When a prominent NFL reporter approached Manning after that game and congratulated him, the writer also mentioned that Manning had taken ample criticism. Manning responded, "That's right. And you were one of the main ones."

HE'S SMARTER THAN YOU THINK

[+] EnlargeEli Manning
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezAt Ole Miss, he impressed his coaches with his intelligence and grasp of the game.

Few people outside football have any idea how bright Manning is at dissecting the game. Duke offensive coordinator Kurt Roper coached him at Ole Miss and swears Manning could see things that few quarterbacks that age could comprehend.

"He has functional intelligence," Roper said. "He can sit in a film room and break down route combinations, pass protections, defensive fronts, and he can do it all in about three seconds. Coaches like to get into the habit of running tape over and over so players understand what you're trying to do. Eli doesn't need that. We get excited about fast-twitch athletes, guys who are really explosive physically. He's what you call a fast-twitch thinker."

As proof, Roper points to Manning's final college game, a 31-28 win over Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl. Roper let Manning run what is known as "freeze" plays, meaning Manning had the opportunity to call whatever he wanted once he reached the line of scrimmage. Manning wound up scorching the Cowboys' defense, completing 22 of 31 passes for 259 yards and two touchdowns.

The Giants see that same brilliance these days. "For us it's no surprise our offense goes how Eli directs it," Giants left tackle David Diehl said. "His understanding and grasp of our offense, his knowledge of things, the way that he's able to recognize blitzes or coverages or different things. When he is watching film, he notices things that the [defensive] line is doing. Not many quarterbacks pay attention."

HIS WAY WORKS, TOO

Manning has been skewered for being too passive, too unemotional and too willing to let bad body language after critical mistakes define him. He's never let those criticisms alter his belief in the way he conducts business. He may not be as fiery as Peyton -- or even Tom Brady -- but his teammates have grown to embrace his dialed-down approach. Gone are the days when former Giants like Tiki Barber would chuckle at Manning's inability to inspire with his locker room speeches. Today's Giants see a quarterback who is cool under pressure and consistently gives them what they need.

"Instead of jumping on receivers when they make mistakes, Eli is more likely to pull them aside on the sideline, explain what they had discussed in practice and tell them what he's expecting from them," said former Giants quarterback and current ESPN analyst Tim Hasselbeck. "When you have a guy who doesn't have a confrontational approach to dealing with things, that's a better way of handling things. One of the reasons he and Kevin Gilbride get along so well is because Eli is the way he is. Kevin can be pretty fiery."

HE'S ALWAYS BEEN AS DRIVEN AS PEYTON

[+] EnlargeEli Manning
AP Photo/Eric GayEli Manning has confidence in his laid-back leadership style.

Eli always has suffered by comparison to Peyton. As his high school coach Gendusa said, "They've always had the same physical characteristics -- tall, good build, good arm -- but their personalities have always been different. Peyton has always been outspoken, the rah-rah guy who would get on people in the locker room. Eli was always very quiet and led by example. But the bottom line is that they both got results."

Gendusa said Eli's competitive nature was most apparent in the little things he did away from the field. When practice ended, Eli was always the one willing to gather up his receivers for at least 30 minutes of extra throwing. When they were lifting weights together, Eli was more than willing to do his required work instead of, as Gendusa put it, "standing in the corner and acting like a quarterback didn't need to do those things." Gendusa also said that Eli's ability to shake off adversity and focus on the task at hand set him apart from most players. "He's never been one to allow outside forces to affect how he plays," Gendusa said. "That's why I always thought he could handle playing in New York."

Added Hasselbeck: "Eli may be private and guarded, but he's always wanted to be the best quarterback he can be. He'd love to be in that conversation with Peyton and Brady, but he also has never let that drive consume him. As great as he wants to be, he's proven that he can still have a life away from the game."

Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.

Jeffri Chadiha, formerly of Sports Illustrated, is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Chadiha first attended Wyoming on a full football scholarship before injuries led him to transfer to Michigan after two years. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication from Michigan in 1993 before pursuing a career in journalism. Chadiha is also a frequent contributor to ESPN TV.