New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning announced his retirement Friday. In the foreground are Super Bowl XLII and XLVI trophies. Manning was Super Bowl MVP twice. Only four other players have won multiple Super Bowl MVP awards:  Bart Starr, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana and Tom Brady.

So many memories come to mind where Eli Manning is concerned, and one of the earliest is from 1994, when older brother Peyton Manning was throwing touchdowns for Tennessee as a freshman.

I wrote something in praise of Peyton and the next day got a call from Cooper Williams, their maternal grandfather, thanking me. “You must be mighty proud of Peyton,” I remember saying.

“I am,” Mr. Williams responded. “I am proud of all of them. But wait until you see Eli, that last one. That little young’un is going to be the best of them all before it’s over.”

Rick Cleveland

Eli was 13 at the time. That was the first Peyton-Eli comparison I ever heard. There have been thousands since. TV personalities were still comparing them Friday morning, as Eli made his retirement official.

By any standard, Peyton Manning was surely the more accomplished quarterback of the Manning brothers. But guess what? Peyton Manning is superior to probably 99.999999 percent of the quarterbacks to ever play professional football.

Cooper Manning, the oldest of the Manning brothers, may have put it best Eli’s rookie year when Peyton was having an MVP season with the Indianapolis Colts.

“People say Eli’s not a student of the game like Peyton, that he doesn’t spend as much time in the film room and stuff like that. Well, guess what, nobody’s like Peyton when it comes to that stuff.”

We are better served to appraise Eli on his own merits, and there’s plenty to praise: two Super Bowl MVPs in victories over Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots; four Pro Bowls; and top 10 in NFL history in touchdown passes (8th), passing yards (7th), passes completed and attempted (6th) and game-winning drives (9th).

Only four other players have won multiple Super Bowl MVP awards. Their names: Starr, Bradshaw, Montana and Brady. Perhaps Eli’s most impressive statistic of all considering some of the offensive lines he played behind is this: He started 210 consecutive games, third most in NFL history among quarterbacks. He was tough, too.

Dam Prescott and Eli Manning exit the field after the Giants defeated the Cowboys 20-19 on Sept. 12, 2016.

Everybody has their own opinion about whether or not Eli should go into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I’ve heard the voters discuss the criteria for the Hall of Fame. Almost all mention this: Could you write the history of the NFL and not mention them prominently? With Eli Manning, the answer is, no, you could not. You ask me, he’s a no-brainer. He was at his best on pro football’s biggest stage. He has impacted pro football significantly. Of course the same is true about another former Ole Miss quarterback who played for the Giants named Charlie Conerly, whose name has never been called. There are no guarantees.

Regardless, so many fond memories of Eli, to mention just a few…

• Of watching him play as a 10th-grader at Newman High in New Orleans. He was still growing and gangly as could be, but he threw these perfect spirals pass after pass. Archie Manning, his daddy, told me: “I don’t know how this will all end up, but Eli sure does throw a pretty pass.”

• Of a fourth quarter, against-the-clock drive against Auburn when Eli was an Ole Miss senior. That was the day Eli showed the courage, ability and grit that would make him twice a Super Bowl MVP. Three Ole Miss starting offensive linemen were out. The Rebels were down 20-17 at Auburn. You could not hear yourself think. And Eli took them 80 yards, completing several clutch third down passes for a 24-20 victory.

• Of that Cotton Bowl after his senior season. Ole Miss defeated Oklahoma State 31-28, Eli was the MVP and this hack wrote that Eli had pitched football’s version of a perfect game.

• Of Eli’s awards tour after his senior season. Of him receiving the Johnny Unitas Trophy in Louisville as the best quarterback in America from none other than Bart Starr. “I love the way he handles himself,” Starr said of Eli. “I love the way he handles pressure situations.”

• Of what happened to the city of Oxford and Ole Miss during Eli’s college career. Oxford grew like weeds after a Mississippi summer rain. Real estate prices exploded. Vaught-Hemingway Stadium expanded by 10,000 seats. Season ticket sales increased by more than 16,000, bringing millions to the university coffers. Seemingly every kid in Oxford had an Ole Miss jersey No. 10. And there’s no telling how many Ole Miss fans named their boys  Eli.

Eli Manning signs Batson Children’s Hospital patient Anthony Gastireau’s cast during a visit to the state’s only children’s hospital in 2015.

• Of Eli’s poise and politeness, no matter the situation during post-game interviews, including one one-on-one interview following a heartbreaking 17-14 loss to LSU his senior season. He answered every question, gave no excuses and praised LSU’s swarming defense. He also took blame he didn’t deserve. “Some of my passes just didn’t go where I wanted them to,” he said.

And so that will be the lasting memory of Eli Manning as a football player: How he handled every situation with utmost class, how he always gave back – and continues to give back – to his communities in Mississippi, New York and Louisiana.

All that, and the pretty passes.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.