Eli takes center stage

By Eddie Pells, The Associated Press

PHOENIX — Baby brothers across America know hardship.

They grow up playing “permanent center” while the bigger kids get to be quarterbacks and wide receivers. They lose every game of Monopoly and Risk, every wrestling match and household power struggle until their 15th birthday — if they’re lucky.

And in the very special case of the Manning family of New Orleans, the baby brother had to wait his turn to make it to the Super Bowl.
So give Giants quarterback Eli Manning this much: Playing second fiddle is nothing new. He didn’t need to be compared to Tom Brady to get an inferiority complex. He grew up the son of one great quarterback, the baby brother of an even better one.

“I got pounded on a little bit,” Eli said, acknowledging the unavoidable consequences of being the youngest of Archie and Olivia’s three sons.

Cooper Manning was the oldest and had bona fide talent as a receiver. But he was diagnosed with a spinal cord condition and was forced to the sideline very early in his career at Mississippi.

Peyton Manning was the prodigy, the one who set out for Tennessee to establish himself in his own right instead of following his older brother and his father to Ole Miss.

Then there was Eli — shy, rarely animated, a self-proclaimed “mama’s boy,” who did go to Ole Miss and later made an awkward entry into the NFL. If the mission was to top what his older brother had done or come off as more of a showman — well, he didn’t stand a chance.

If Brady is the star of this Super Bowl and Peyton is the wunderkind of the Manning clan, Eli is the scruffy underdog — handsome and charming, yes, but no Tom Brady; talented and successful, sure, but no Peyton.

“I consider it a compliment,” Eli said, sitting unshaven at the podium on media day, of the inevitable comparisons to his brother. “If I’m getting compared to one of the best quarterbacks in the league, that’s a good position to be in.”

Because there’s a five-year difference between the two, Peyton concedes to not really getting to know Eli as much more than just the easygoing little brother until after he had left for college.

“I started seeing Eli in six-month spurts,” Peyton said. “It would be safe to describe him as a quiet kid growing up. And he’s a funny guy. It was nice to see him break out of his shell. I kind of saw it from afar.”

Their football careers also developed in different spheres.

Peyton was the star at Tennessee, a national program with a national reputation, and when he was drafted by Indianapolis with the first pick, the city rejoiced and figured the Super Bowl title that finally came last year was just a matter of time.

Eli’s college career at Mississippi was a success, albeit not as ballyhooed as Peyton’s. His entry into the NFL wasn’t nearly as smooth.
He, too, was first-pick material but didn’t want to play for the San Diego Chargers, who at the time were one of the worst franchises in the league, having missed the playoffs eight straight years and compiled a record of 43-85 over that span.

He let his agent know he didn’t want to play for San Diego, but when Chargers general manager A.J. Smith went public with that, and Archie was on the front line explaining things, some saw Eli as something of a spoiled crybaby — never mind that none other than John Elway embarked on his Hall of Fame career after forcing almost an identical scenario 21 years earlier.