Out Of The Shadows

Ole Miss quarterback Eli Manning is proving a worthy namesake to father Archie and brother Peyton
Ole Miss quarterback Eli Manning is proving a worthy namesake to father Archie and brother Peyton
November 12, 2001

Little did the younger fans realize, as they sat in Mississippi's Vaught-Hemingway Stadium last Saturday night, cupping both hands around their open mouths, cheering on one play and gasping on the next, that Eli Manning was taking them back in time. This is how it was in his daddy's day. Except Daddy didn't work overtime.

Eli's father is Archie Manning, who was a scrambler and a gambler when he was Mississippi's quarterback more than 30 years ago. Archie led the Rebels to 22 wins and three bowl appearances in three seasons, but the two-time All-America is remembered most of all for his performance in a 33-32 loss at Alabama in 1969. That day he ran for three touchdowns, passed for two more, had an SEC-record 540 total yards and afterward was seen crying on the sideline by a national television audience.

Fans watching last Saturday's game in Oxford could also have felt empathy for Archie's youngest son, a sophomore quarterback who upheld the family's good name under extraordinary circumstances. Eli threw for 312 yards and six touchdowns, rallying his team to five second-half and overtime comebacks before Mississippi finally lost to Arkansas 58-56 in a game that lasted four hours and 14 minutes and went seven overtimes--the most in college history. The Razorbacks won thanks in large part to 6'5" option quarterback Matt Jones, a freshman who replaced starter Zak Clark at the helm of the team's option attack late in the second half. From the fourth quarter on, Jones ran for 99 yards and threw for 61 more in leading Arkansas to 48 points.

As the game pitched back and forth, Eli handled the pressure differently than his father or older brother, former Tennessee quarterback Peyton, might have. He didn't go for Archie's razzle-dazzle improvisations or exhibit Peyton's high-strung persona. Instead the 6'4", 205-pound Eli lingered in the pocket as if he were in an elevator waiting calmly for the doors to open. In personality Eli has less in common with Archie or Peyton than with his coolheaded mom, Olivia, who was the homecoming queen at Ole Miss when she fell in love with the All-America quarterback. Rather than shed tears after the defeat, Eli let go of his frustrations merely by tearing off the lucky rubber band he had been wearing around his throwing wrist during the Rebels' five-game winning streak, their longest in nine years.

The loss threatens to drop surprising Mississippi (6-2, 3-2 in the conference) out of the running in the SEC West, in which front-runner Auburn (6-2, 4-1) holds the tiebreaker edge over Ole Miss because of the Tigers' 27-21 victory over the Rebels on Sept. 8. Still, Ole Miss remains in contention for a fifth straight bowl, no small feat for a young team that was widely predicted to finish last in the division. The main reason for the turnabout is the spectacular performance of the 20-year-old Manning, who in his first season as a starter has thrown for a school-record 23 touchdowns (five more than the old single-season mark shared by his father) and only two interceptions. Against the Razorbacks, Eli nearly pulled off a game-winning fourth-quarter comeback for the third time this season.

On the whole, things have gone better in Oxford for Eli than Archie could have imagined. Given the meteoric rise of Peyton, who starred at Tennessee from 1994 through '97 and was taken as the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft by the Indianapolis Colts, Archie worried that Mississippians would expect nothing less from Eli. "I was scared to death about him coming here," Archie says.

How could anyone hope to fulfill the Manning legacy at Ole Miss? The place is full of booby traps. The speed-limit signs on campus read 18 MPH, which by no coincidence is Archie's retired uniform number. Eli frequently does interviews in the athletic department's Manning Room, filled with memorabilia from Archie's heyday. Local television reporters ask Eli to pose in front of a portrait of his father, while he answers their questions.

"They even stand alike," says university chancellor Bob Khayat, a former Rebel who was a kicker for the Washington Redskins from 1960 through '63. "Eli's legs are slightly bowed, like his father's, and when I see him standing on the sideline with his hand on his hip, he looks just like Archie."

The comparisons with his father haven't bothered Eli (though he did decline an offer to bring Archie's number out of retirement, preferring to stick with the number 10). The legacy of Peyton was Eli's main concern while he was starring at Isadore Newman High in New Orleans and was choosing a college. Less than a year later, after Peyton had left Tennessee, David Cutcliffe, the Volunteers' offensive coordinator and Peyton's close friend, hoped to recruit Eli to Knoxville. However, everything Peyton had accomplished there was fresh in Eli's memory, and he didn't want that burden. "It would have been too much to deal with," he says, in explaining why in November 1998 he told Cutcliffe that he would not be attending Tennessee. (Eli was planning to sign with Texas or Virginia.)

Two weeks later Eli had another conversation with Cutcliffe, who called to say that he had been hired as the Ole Miss coach, replacing Tommy Tuberville, who had left for Auburn. To those who smell a conspiracy, Khayat says that he'd had his eye on Cutcliffe for years and that his hiring had nothing to do with any hopes of luring Eli to Oxford. All the same, Eli committed to Ole Miss within a fortnight. The visits he had made with his parents over the years made the campus feel like home, and he felt assured that Cutcliffe's pro-style offense would bring out the best in him.

The only uncertainty for Eli was how he would be received. "I worried coming in for my freshman year what my teammates would think of me," he says. "I was a little scared they would think I was here just because I had a brother who could play, that I was cocky." It didn't help that the old Three Dog Night hit Eli's Coming was played ad nauseam on campus before he took a snap.

As his new teammates would learn, Eli does not act as though the world owes him anything. On the contrary: His surname connotes hard work and high standards on and off the field, which he tries to live up to. Eli is a business major and an honor student with a 3.6 GPA. He makes time to study his opponents on film--apart from team meetings--for an hour or two daily.

Eli threw only 33 passes last season as a backup to senior Romaro Miller. Not until last December, when Eli was sent into the Music City Bowl at the beginning of the fourth quarter with Ole Miss trailing West Virginia 49-16, did the new Manning era get its start. Eli completed 12 of 20 passes for 167 yards and three touchdowns as his teammates rallied around him in scoring 22 unanswered points in a 49-38 defeat.

In unofficial summer workouts he remained hesitant to raise his voice, but he found other ways to assert himself. "He would try to burn me," says senior cornerback Syniker Taylor. "If he completed the last ball on me, I'd make him stay out there. If I stopped the last ball, he'd make me stay out there. Some days we would keep each other out there an extra 20 minutes, until the receiver would mess it up, and then we could all go in."

Eli cannot throw as far as Peyton--yet--and the deep ball is not a big weapon in the Ole Miss offense, but Eli's quick delivery and uncanny accuracy (he has completed 69.9% of his passes this season), even when rolling to his left, have tormented opponents. In a 27-24 comeback victory over Alabama on Oct. 13, Eli absorbed a monstrous hit that left him woozy but got up and completed a pass on the next play. "He's a clone [of his brother]," Arkansas defensive coordinator John Thompson said last week, after watching video of Eli. "The way he sets his feet and turns his shoulders, it looks like Peyton. It's fun to watch if you're not trying to defend against him."

In Saturday's game, Thompson's ever-shifting defenses stifled Eli for the first three quarters. In typical Manning fashion, he figured them out by the fourth. Unfortunately for the Rebels, the Razorbacks came alive in the same quarter, once Jones was under center. "I got sick of seeing him out there," said Manning, who responded with a number of clutch plays of his own, including a finely threaded fourth-down pass to Jason Armstead in the back of the end zone in the first overtime, which tied the game at 24.

The offenses feasted on the exhausted defenses. It didn't help that the order of possession was reversed with each overtime, forcing defenders to return to the field for back-to-back series. Starting in the third overtime, the teams were required to attempt two-point conversions after every touchdown. Eventually the conversion options in the playbooks were exhausted. "I kept wondering, What's going to be our two-point play?" said Arkansas coach Houston Nutt, whose team didn't convert a two-pointer until it had to, in the fifth overtime. (Jones connected with Jason Peters for a conversion to tie the game at 50.)

"We came off the sideline after scoring our two-point conversion, and I'm thinking, That could be it," said Ole Miss center Ben Claxton. "Then they go out and get a two-point conversion of their own. The whole game was like that--you're high up here, and then they score, and you're down there again. It was almost as taxing emotionally as it was physically."

As the teams exchanged punches at a Rocky Balboa-Apollo Creed pace--the game produced 988 yards of total offense and an NCAA-record 198 plays, and three Razorbacks rushed for at least 100 yards--this much became clear: Neither team deserved to lose. "It went through my mind during one of the overtimes, I can't remember which one, that they ought to blow the whistle and say, 'Boys, go to the house,'" Cutcliffe said. The game finally ended when the Rebels failed on a conversion attempt: Eli's roommate, tight end Doug Ziegler, caught a pass on a crossing route over the middle but was stopped a yard short of the end zone. "It's the strangest game I ever played in," Eli said.

How many times did people walk away from his father's games saying the same thing? There's the remainder of this season and possibly two more to be played out in this Manning sequel, which could yet turn out to be better than the original.

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