Eli Manning is many things to football fans, the subject of a list not restricted to the following: Two-time Super Bowl champion. Two-time Super Bowl MVP. The face of the New York Giants for the past generation. Part of a quarterbacking family dynasty. And, if we are being truthful, a strange kind of gridiron paradox: a player who managed to be both an overachiever and an underachiever over the course of 16 seasons.
But given the timing of Manning’s imminent departure from the National Football League, as he steps away from his career at a press conference on Thursday, he is something else entirely.
He is a reminder.
He is a reminder to Patrick Mahomes and to Jimmy Garoppolo and to the key contributors on both sides of the ball next Sunday, when the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers wage battle with everything at stake. The unspoken message is this: take your shot, because your legacy depends on it.
He is a reminder to our sporting souls as to what constitutes success in athletics in this country and how it is measured. Shine when everything is up for grabs, do it with a dash of exhilarating drama, and nostalgic favor will live with you forever.
He is a reminder about how to conduct yourself and to behave with dignity and all the things fans demand from their stars, but more than anything, he is the ultimate example that however we want to paint it and whatever excuses we want to make, winning is what matters.
Football, in its professional guise, is the most unforgiving of all disciplines, proffering precious few opportunities to grasp greatness, and in most cases, precisely zero second chances.
Manning didn’t get a lot of opportunities, yet he maximized them with totality. He has more Super Bowl rings than both Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees and an equal number to his brother, Peyton. He has tasted success on the ultimate, glorious, whole-world-is-watching level that was sadly unknown to Dan Marino and Jim Kelly, to Warren Moon, Fran Tarkenton, Dan Fouts and many other luminaries.
Forgive me for stating the blindingly obvious, but for as long as only one team can win the Vince Lombardi Trophy each year, there will never be enough available glory for all the greats to get what they deserve. Manning helped himself to a slice of that prestigious pie — then went back for a second helping four years later.
Quarterback longevity is reaching previously unthinkable spans of time, yet while Mahomes and Garoppolo likely consider themselves players for both now and the future, there are no guarantees that either will appear again in football’s grandest game.
Manning walks away with a statistically unspectacular record of 117-117 as a starter. Apologies, New York, for placing the Jets and Giants in the same sentence, but Joe Namath didn’t have a winning mark either. Regardless, both will be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame for eternity. Namath already is. Manning will be there once his eligibility comes up, and good luck trying to argue against it.
He didn’t edge toward his Super Bowl triumphs. He came and grabbed them, then the Giants faded back into mediocrity, painfully bad at times, and their fan base could live with it, content enough with that pair of golden modern memories.
Coming close but falling short doesn’t give you a head start the next time. Rodgers’ three previous NFC Championship game hiccups didn’t help him when he tried again to get back to the Super Bowl a week ago, and his brushes with a conference title won’t make him feel any better if he ends his career with just one ring.
Getting your hands on that title is like jumping a chasm rather than crossing a desert; it has to be taken in a single bound.
We assume when we watch Mahomes fling the ball with impunity that this won’t be his last crack, and 49ers fans have similar hope that the current incarnation of their team is built to last. But who knows?
The path to the Super Bowl is hard and unpredictable and fraught enough that if you don’t make the most of it, there may be no next time. It doesn’t matter if your team is young or your roster is banged up or if there is an icon of the sport standing across from you. The time is now … and it is the only time that matters.
That’s what Manning did. He’d heard all the jibes about being the lesser of the NFL brothers, all the doubts about whether he was made of true championship material. And by shutting down the undefeated New England Patriots in 2008 with a hoisted piece of magic that found David Tyree’s fingertips and helmet, he slammed the door on all the critics. Don’t get me wrong; they still shouted, but he had an impenetrable answer.
Then, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis in early 2012, his pinpoint dart to Mario Manningham on the decisive drive got the Giants moving, rolling towards what would be another famed triumph and for himself, the rare air of being a double champion.
There were other throws he missed over the years, hundreds of them. Games where he didn’t look much like a Super Bowl champion, a Hall of Famer, or even much of a quarterback at all. You can probably recall a few of them right now, if you put your mind to it.
But here’s the thing: future generations won’t. In a few decades’ time, the future’s memory won’t stretch to Week 13 of 2013 (five interceptions) or of 0-6 beginnings to seasons. It won’t bother to linger on the forlorn years where Big Blue might as well have draped itself in black.
Posterity will still remember Manning, though, because it will still remember his biggest nights, when he produced the biggest throws on the biggest stage.
Because that’s the gravity of the Super Bowl — a sporting event with a scale unsurpassed. As Eli Manning showed, if you can rise to match it, it will carry you to immortality.
Written by Martin Rogers — @MrogersFOX