What I've always loved about the Sportsman of the Year discussion is that it lets us debate great players and good people, which we need to do more often in this business.
I understand Eli Manning has been in a slump for the past month, but he's my nomination for the 2012 Sportsman because, well, because it's an award for the entire year, and he had the biggest clutch moment of any athlete this year, and the biggest win in the biggest game on our sports calendar -- and because he's one of the good guys in the game you don't hear much about. You don't hear about the $2.5-million he raised over a five-year period to fund a children's clinic at a Jackson, Miss., hospital. Or the work he's done to raise money to fund the care, training and purchasing of guide dogs for the blind. The Giants didn't know much about it either, until a blind woman approached Manning at the team hotel in Cincinnati the Saturday before the Nov. 11 game against the Bengals and spent 15 minutes thanking him, showing him photos of his guide dog and regaling him with stories about the great program that helped people like her get guide dogs.
"But you wouldn't know that about Eli," said one of his teammates. "Of all the guys I've played with, he's the guy who always hid that stuff the best."
You recall the Super Bowl, of course, with the Giants trailing 17-15 with four minutes left. New York took over at its 12. On the first play, Manning looked off the safety, threw a perfect arcing rainbow down the left side to Mario Manningham -- the pass that, if he plays 20 years in the NFL, for aim and beauty he'll never top -- and it landed softly in Manningham's arms just as he was crushed going out of bounds. Gain of 38.
Manning led the Giants to a game-winning touchdown, which was a familiar thing. The greatest current streak of any player in sports against a great foe? It has to be this: In his last three games against New England and their Mount Rushmore-of-the-NFL coach Bill Belichick, Manning has trailed at the two-minute warning of the fourth quarter. And in those three games, he has led the Giants 88, 80 and 83 yards to the winning touchdown, each of those touchdowns coming with less than a minute to play.
I was fortunate enough in the week before the Super Bowl to be the pool reporter at Giants practices, and to watch them prepare for that 21-17 victory. On Thursday, on a practice field at the University of Indianapolis, coach Tom Coughlin ordered a two-minute drill: First-team offense versus first-team defense. This was the only time all week each side got revved up and loud. "UNLEASH THE HOUNDS!" defensive tackle Chris Canty said, jogging on the field. Though they couldn't hit Manning on the pass-rush, the Giants' vaunted pass-rushers could swarm him, and if they got close, the whistle would blow, and a faux sack would be ruled. Manning took the offense 75 yards in six plays, with emotion all around him, but not coming from him.
"Watching him in that drill every week," said defensive lineman Justin Tuck, "that's why he's so good in the last couple minutes of games. He gets that [pressure and emotion] against us every week."
I've always thought Manning was so in control during games, so cool, because he realizes that it's a football game. He wants to win badly, but if he doesn't, he has his family, and he has his life away from football, and yes, there's another game next week. If he thinks much beyond that, he'll only end up screwing himself up.
"I think it comes from the fact I can only do so much," Manning told me the week after the Super Bowl. "And I want to give our team every chance to win, and I want to give myself every chance to compete and to win. I control half the game, and even then, I can't control one of our guys fumbling. So I have always had the attitude that if I do everything in my power to prepare, and then I have confidence that we've got a good plan and I know it's good enough to win, then I just go play and whatever happens happens. If we lose, will I be mad or upset? Yes, for a few days. But I think after some time, a few days, I'm not going to let it ruin my life for the next two months. I've got a wife and a daughter, and it's not fair to them to ruin the off-season because we lost a football game. I need to be there for them."
When then-Giants GM Ernie Accorsi went to see Manning play in college, at Ole Miss, he wrote a long scouting report, all in capital letters. The writer Tom Callahan wrote about this scouting report in his book, "The GM,'' on Accorsi's last year with the Giants. Amazingly, Accorsi saw, and wrote about, a comparison between Johnny Unitas and the kid Eli Manning, in terms of how the biggest moments don't seem too big for either of them. Quoting former Unitas teammate Bobby Boyd, Accorsi wrote, "BOYD TOLD ME ONCE ABOUT UNITAS, 'TWO THINGS SET HIM APART: HIS LEFT TESTICLE AND HIS RIGHT TESTICLE.'" This year, in my book, Manning showed the guts and the grace to earn Sportsman of the Year.