The first impression of Eli Manning was that he wasn't very good at first impressions.
That wasn't just back in 2004, either, when he introduced himself to the NFL by seemingly offending everyone outside of New York because he refused to play for the San Diego Chargers. It wasn't even from his terrible first practices, or his bland first press conferences and what seemed like endless mountains of clichés.
The first time I thought I had a chance to really get to know Eli Manning was in the spring of 2006, at a posh house in North Caldwell, N.J., right across the street from the house The Sopranos used for the mobster, Johnny Sack. Eli and Peyton were there to film a Reebok commercial, the first commercial that would feature the two of them and their father, Archie, together. I somehow got one of the first exclusive interviews with Peyton and Eli together.
And honestly, it was like Eli wasn't even there.
Peyton was the alpha male. He was in charge. If the question was tough, or if he didn't like it, or it was ... well, any question at all, Peyton would answer it, even if it was directed at Eli. They sat together on a big couch in the spacious basement, with me on a chair directly across from them. Peyton leaned forward, was animated, was fully engaged.
Eli looked like he was trying to sink back into the couch.
I remembered all that on Friday, as Eli, now 39, stood in the Giants field house, under the two Super Bowl banners he helped create, and spoke about a 16-year NFL career that was more remarkable than anyone could have ever imagined. He retired as an icon of an iconic franchise, the symbol of a generation of Giants, a man who handled New York and the New York media as flawlessly as any athlete ever had.
I remembered how, 13 ½ years earlier, I sat there watching a quiet and seemingly shy boy from the deep South try to hide between the cushions as I spent the entire interview thinking "New York is going to eat him alive."
Of course, it never did -- no matter how hard New York tried.
"From the very first moment, I did it my way," Manning recalled as he announced his retirement on Friday. "I couldn't be someone other than who I am."
That remains the most remarkable thing about the now-retired Manning. What the world saw on the podium in the field house on Friday is what the world saw on April 24, 2004, hours after the Giants pulled off the biggest trade in franchise history. He was bland, laid back, almost goofy then, and the only difference now is he seems more comfortable in his own skin. He's maintained the same public image through being pounded by the New York media and fans, to being the toast of the town as a two-time Super Bowl champion, to being nearly run out of town near the end.
He's been one of the most cooperative, polite, accommodating athletes I've ever covered. Until he was benched for Daniel Jones this season, I don't think I've ever heard of him turning down an interview request. Through his entire career he maintained a remarkable, unheralded routine: If the Giants lost on Sunday, he was in the locker room on Monday to take the heat for his teammates. If the Giants won on Sunday, he was a no-show on Monday so his teammates could bask in the praise.
And through the years, his teammates not only appreciated it all, they marveled at it all. They couldn't believe how Manning was hammered, at times, for his demeanor, his outward lack of passion, and sometimes even the look on his face. While the world saw bland, they saw a lively practical jokester with an underrated personality. While the world saw a man who seemed almost dangerously unaffected by anything, they saw one of the fiercest competitors they ever had on their side.
"He doesn't show it to people on the outside, but the guy's an intense competitor," former Giants receiver Plaxico Burress said. "He just goes about his job differently than any other quarterback than I've played against."
"I know what you're talking about with the body language thing," added former Giants coach Tom Coughlin. "But if you look around the league, Peyton didn't always have the greatest body language. (Tom) Brady doesn't always have great body language. When you're not real happy about what just happens, you're not going to show a different emotion. It's pretty honest."
That's another good word to describe Manning: "Honest." He was what he was and he wasn't going to change.
"Undoubtedly I would've made the fans, the media, even the front office more comfortable if I was a more rah-rah guy," Manning said. "But that's not me. Ultimately, I choose to believe that my teammates and the fans learned to appreciate that. They knew what they got was pure, unadulterated Eli."
That they did. Whether it was after the four-interception game in Nov., 2007 against the Vikings, when fans burned his jersey in the parking lot, or in his remarkably funny appearance as a host on Saturday Night Live, or after he posted that 0.0 passer rating in Baltimore his rookie year and was benched during a game for the first and only time, or during those two incredible last minute Super Bowl drives, or on the ensuing rides down the Canyon of Heroes, or when he stood there fighting back tears when he was benched for Geno Smith, or when he sensed the end was coming two years later when he was benched for Daniel Jones.
Eli was Eli. He was the person he wanted to be, not what the world thought he should be. He was consistent, present and dignified in public. He was apparently passionate, fun, and a strong leader behind the scenes. Given the way his career started and the way it ended, he took more heat from inside and outside the organization than any athlete I've ever seen. He was torn apart, hoisted onto the world's greatest podium, and then torn apart again. And in the end, he outlasted it all.
It was more than that, of course. He also thrived. And just like he thought: "Pure, unadulterated Eli" turned out to be more than good enough for the outside world.
I wouldn't have bet on that 13 ½ years ago, because the kid on the couch in 2006 sure didn't look like he could handle any of this.
Turns out, that first impression of Eli Manning was very, very wrong.