Fall football practice at Ole Miss was barely three weeks along in 1999 when then-Rebels head coach David Cutcliffe had to make an uncomfortable phone call.
“I had to call Archie [Manning] and tell him Eli wasn’t ready,” Cutcliffe recalled this past week.
In other words, he had to tell the most famous player in Ole Miss history that his freshman son — the most acclaimed recruit in school history — needed to be redshirted.
Of course, as Cutcliffe — now the head coach at Duke — also noted, “Eli ended up being pretty good.”
Peyton’s little brother has ended up being so good that he will pass his slightly more famous sibling in Lombardi trophies if his New York Giants defeat the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI this evening inside big brother’s Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
“Go, Giants!” Cutcliffe exclaimed Wednesday.
“Go, Giants!” echoed Ken Lass into his phone at Isidore Newman School in New Orleans the next afternoon.
“Eli came to us in the eighth grade, which was also my first year at Newman,” said Lass, now the dean of students at the prestigious private prep school. “I think he threw something like 20 touchdown passes that season [on the eighth-grade team].
“Just a great, fun little kid. It was obvious even then that the gene pool was working.”
The gene pool has worked well enough in the years since that the youngest Manning actually has a better postseason record than nearly Perfect Peyton, Eli winning seven of 10 playoff games to big brother’s nine of 19.
Beyond that, while Peyton has tossed 29 playoff touchdown passes and 19 interceptions, Eli’s thrown 15 touchdowns to seven playoff INTs.
While Cutcliffe — who was the Tennessee offensive coordinator during Peyton Manning’s time in Checkerboardville — isn’t fond of comparing the Brothers Manning, he will say of Eli, “What he does better than anybody else is focus on the task at hand. Whether it’s reading a book on a plane, studying or working out in the weight room, Eli’s totally focused on the task at hand.”
Lass seconds that assessment.
“We all know that Peyton’s in the film room every free minute,” Lass said. “But Eli’s just the same — it doesn’t show as much. He was always one of those guys who when he getting ready for practice or in the hall at school, he loved to cut up with his buddies.”
Cutcliffe will tell you there hasn’t been much cutting up the past few weeks, as the Giants again have traveled the hard road to reach the Super Bowl, winning the final two of their three playoff wins on the road.
“I’ve been in conversation with Peyton a lot lately,” said the fifth-year Blue Devils boss. “Eli’s been pretty busy lately. I’ve been in text with Eli a little. He likes to text.”
Though you’ll find no mention of the Mannings on Newman’s website — “I think you’d find our school is just as proud of Walter Isaacson as the Mannings,” said Lass, referring to the Newman grad who’s been the CEO of CNN, managing editor of Time Magazine and the author of best-selling biographies of Henry Kissinger, Benjamin Franklin and Steve Jobs — the school does have a giant No. 18 overlooking its football stadium. That was the number worn by the three Manning sons — Cooper, Peyton and Eli — in honor of Archie, who wore 18 at Ole Miss.
“Cooper and Archie still come to games,” Lass said. “And both Eli and Peyton will come by and work out with our players during the offseason. The whole family has always been very supportive of the school.”
Perhaps that’s the reason Newman staged a pep rally for the Giants for the second time in five years, just as the school did for Peyton on the first of his two Super Bowl trips.
“The second time Peyton went they played the Saints,” Lass said. “We love Peyton, but I think most of our students love the Saints more.”
Here in the Tennessee Valley we almost certainly love Peyton more, especially since he has an offseason home just north of Chattanooga.
And Cutcliffe sounded hopeful this week that his former UT quarterback will recover enough from his neck surgery and nerve damage to play again.
“If there’s any way possible,” he said, “Peyton will soon be back throwing the football and playing the game he loves.”
But before that happens, Eli has a fairly important game to play tonight against the same New England Patriots the Giants beat four years ago.
Said Lass in discussing why he thinks the men in blue will win again: “What you see with Eli is what you get. He’s easygoing, but he’s also unflappable. He’s very competitive.”
Make it Pretty Good Manning QB 28, Patriots 24.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...