This remarkable story began at old Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford, Mississippi, on a freezing-cold day in early November 2003. Ernie Accorsi was given a seat outside in the auxiliary press section. He "almost froze to death," he recalled years later, and practically begged the Sports Information Director to let him come in every few minutes just to warm up.
What happened down on the field, though, got his blood flowing in a way that wouldn't stop for nearly six months, until the next NFL draft. He was there watching a young Eli Manning lose a game to Auburn on an end-zone interception near the end of the game. Manning went 26 of 46 for 286 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions.
But Accorsi saw so much more.
"He carried this team completely on his own," Accorsi told me years later, for my book Eli Manning: The Making of a Quarterback. "And every time Auburn scored he came right back. At the end of the game, Auburn goes right down the field and scores, and he's got like a minute and 10 seconds, he takes them down the field again. He throws an interception in the end zone. He forces it. That's in my report. But he's trying to win the game and he needs a touchdown to win, not a field goal.
"I was convinced."
It was that moment that sent Manning on a wild journey that would run like a roller coaster though the next 16 years -- a ride that will officially end on Friday when the Giants quarterback announces his retirement from the NFL. It was a journey that included a huge draft day trade that re-energized the Giants franchise, two improbable Super Bowl championships, two Super Bowl MVP performances, almost all of the Giants passing records and a possible future place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
And it all happened because on that cold day in Oxford, Accorsi remembered what he had been told by Milt Davis, a Baltimore Colts scout, back in 1970 when the world was starting to wonder if the great Johnny Unitas was done.
"Ernie, listen to me," Davis told him. "You evaluate the great quarterbacks on one element alone: Can they take their team down the field, with the championship on the line, and into the end zone?"
Davis believed Unitas still could.
More than three decades later, Accorsi was convinced Manning could, too.
Accorsi knew a little something about quarterbacks, of course. He was the GM who famously drafted John Elway for the Baltimore Colts, only to see his owner trade him away. That was 1983 and in many ways Accorsi had spent the next 20 years searching for the next great one.
He was sure he found it in Archie Manning's third son. This is how crazy Accorsi was for Manning: At a time when it wasn't even clear to the rest of the NFL that Manning was worthy of the No. 1 overall pick in the 2004 draft, Accorsi left that game and typed out a four-paragraph, 494-word report -- all caps, bold type, just for emphasis. In it, he compared Manning -- then just 23 years old -- to Unitas, Joe Montana and Peyton Manning.
He even used the word "magic" to describe Manning, several times. He didn't use it lightly. And he wasn't killing at all.
"Summary: I think he's the complete package," the report read. "He's not going to be a fast runner, but a little like Joe Montana, he has enough athletic ability to get out of trouble. … Throws the ball, takes the hit, gets right back up … Has courage and poise. In my opinion, most of all, he has that quality you can't define. Call it magic.
"As (former Colts defensive back) Bobby Boyd told me once about Unitas, 'Two things set him apart: His left testicle and his right testicle.' … Peyton had much better talent around him at Tennessee. But I honestly give this guy a chance to be better than his brother. Eli doesn't get much help from the coaching staff. If he comes out early, we should move up to take him. These guys are rare, you know."
That's the perfect way to describe Manning: "Rare." In one of the world's biggest media fishbowls, his performance over the years was nearly flawless. Employees of the Giants rave about his kindness and heart. His bosses were constantly thrilled with the way he represented the organization. His coaches and teammates loved his accountability and his desire to step aside so others could be praised. He frustrated the media at times with his dull demeanor -- which never really matched his actual personality -- but he was as cooperative and as professional as any athlete has ever been.
And then on the field, there's this: 57,023 passing yards, 366 touchdown passes, a completion percentage of 60.29 -- all franchise records. He started an amazing 210 consecutive games -- a streak only broken by a coach's stupidity. He never missed a game with an injury, right until the end.
And of course there were the two remarkable championships in two of the greatest Super Bowls ever played. He performed a miracle in helping the Giants edge the 18-0 Patriots in Super Bowl XLII, with a last-minute drive punctuated by a pass to David Tyree that might just be the greatest play in Super Bowl history. And then, just in case anyone thought it was a fluke, he did it all again, to the Patriots again, in the last minute again, four years later in Super Bowl XLVI.
Those two drives still tell the world everything it needs to know about Manning, and everything Accorsi saw as he shivered in the stands the first time he watched Manning play. He has the perfect demeanor for the big moments, a remarkable ability to stay calm, and the Unitas-like ability to inspire confidence in his teammates. The number of quarterbacks in NFL history who have led their team down the field to win a championship in the final minute is small. And Manning did it twice.
Accorsi was in the stands for the first one, in the first year after his retirement. And that game, that drive really, was as wild a ride as most of Manning's career. He had spent much of the game pacing around the concourse, as nervous as he had ever been. But he was in his seat for the fourth quarter. And when the final drive began, he turned to his son and said, "You know what? If he's what we thought he was going to be, he's got to do it now."
Twelve plays, 83 yards, and a handful of heart-stopping moments, he did of course. And it was all exactly as Accorsi had described: "Magic." And really, that's the best way to remember Manning's career. Forget the .500 record. Forget all the losing in his later years. Forget the benching for Geno Smith or losing his job to Daniel Jones.
Remember the incredible, improbable Super Bowl runs. Remember the pass to Tyree, the one to Mario Manningham four years later, the touchdown for the ages to Plaxico Burress. Remember the miracle moments. Remember his Iron Man streak and his remarkable ability to just be there every game, for every snap, until he was told to sit down. Remember how he crawled out of a hole in 2007, when fans were literally burning his jersey in the parking lot in November, to ride a float down the Canyon of Heroes, 2 ½ months later.
History will judge whether he really was comparable to Unitas, Montana or even Peyton. By most measures for a quarterback, he was not. But he was certainly right up there by the most important criteria, the one that led Accorsi to him years ago. Because the "magic" turned out to be real and it was everything anyone could have expected.
Or to put it another way, as Accorsi said after Manning led the Giants down the field for that first championship: "He did what we drafted him to do."