Eli Manning, missing familiar faces in retirement, says Giants’ season was ‘building block’

Once a Giant, always a Giant, only a Giant: That's how Eli Manning described his professional football identity while announcing his retirement a year ago.

At the time, the two-time Super Bowl MVP anticipated he'd spend at least a few days swinging by the facility to visit old teammates and staffers. But 2020 had different ideas. 

“Guys I had seen every day for the last 16 years,” Manning told USA TODAY Sports during a Zoom call on Friday. “Being cut off cold turkey was a little different.”

He found ways to pass the time, like driving his daughters to soccer games or practices. He exercised at home and appeared ready to sample every Sloppy Joe's sandwich in New Jersey. He even joined Twitter. For 16 weeks, though, he was in place to watch his New York Giants, who came within a game of winning the NFC East despite a lackluster 6-10 record. 

Eli Manning was encouraged by the Giants' season. (Photo: Danielle Parhizkaran, via Imagn Content Services, LLC)

"When you have a brand new coach, new offensive (and defensive) coordinators and a young quarterback, it’s going to take some time for everybody to come together and get on the same page," Manning said.

Losing running back Saquon Barkley to a torn ACL in Week 2 didn't help. 

"They played tough. They had a chance to win a number of games early (in the season), they just couldn’t quite make the play or two that they needed," he said. "But then you saw toward the end of the season they started to make those plays and start to come together and learned how to start winning together.

"I think those moments are important going forward. You can’t look at a season and say, ‘Hey, we didn’t make the playoffs’ or ‘We only won this many games, it was a wasted year.’ It’s not that way. It was a building block for those guys to come together, for Daniel Jones to get those opportunities, to make strides to get better.

"He learned how to play injured. He learned how to play hurt. When it gets late in the NFL season, you’re going to have injuries and you got to learn how to adjust. So those are all important things that they learned and he learned.”

Plus, it's not like Manning hasn't seen any of his old teammates. Recently, he and Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz teamed up to launch Stella Artois' "Stella Stadium Bites" by Blue Apron ahead of the Super Bowl.

"With it being a little bit different, not knowing quite how to celebrate – you’re not going to the big Super Bowl parties," Manning said. "I think what Stella is doing with these meal boxes is giving people a cool way to still enjoy the game." 

Not many are more familiar with the significance of Super Bowl Sunday than Manning, who twice won the game's MVP award. His first Super Bowl victory, when the Giants ended the New England Patriots' dream of an undefeated season, helped him realize that sports' impact goes far beyond wins and losses. 

"You see some of those classic videos of fans in New York City after Plaxico (Burress) catches that (game-winning touchdown) pass, and it’s just people dancing in the streets, families hugging. That’s when you get a little glimpse of the idea of how fans and people kind of live through their sports teams and what it means to them," Manning said. "It’s not a simple game. It’s a time to gather, it’s a time to bring families together and friends, for them to share that experience together." 

Both of Manning's Super Bowl wins came at the expense of the Patriots, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. Until Nick Foles and the Philadelphia Eagles came along, only Manning and the Giants had proven able to defeat the Patriots on the big stage. 

So what would Manning do for one more shot at Brady in the Super Bowl, if that was the only game he had to play? 

“I knew I was ready to retire just because of – just the grind. I don’t think I was willing or committed to the grind of a full season. If they would throw you right into the playoffs, and you could just play that playoff stretch, that sounds great, that sounds awesome. Even better, they say here’s the Super Bowl, and here you go," Manning said with a laugh.

"It might be a little tough to learn the offense for that one game, but to be back in that situation … I don’t know if this year is the year I would pick, with not many fans there and the circumstances." 

Home with his family, "kind of creating my own unique Super Bowl experience," sounds perfect instead. 

Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.

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