Inside the Eli Manning goodbye: ‘Once a Giant. Always a Giant. For me, it’s only a Giant’

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — John Mara was able to hold his emotions in check for much of Friday. The butterflies were there, to be sure, but the co-owner and team president of the New York Giants had known this day was coming for awhile.

Saying goodbye to Eli Manning is something for which the entire franchise has been preparing. There were plenty of memories shared of Manning throughout the morning, yet one remains fresh in both Mara's mind and his heart.

"The last game of the 2004 season, Eli's rookie year, when he took us down the field at the end of the game in the closing seconds to beat Dallas," Mara said. "It was the last game my father [Wellington] ever saw. And I can remember walking to the locker room with him afterwards, and him saying to me, 'I think we found our guy.'"

Mara paused before adding: "And how right he was."

After 16 years, Manning bid an emotional farewell to the NFL and the only football life he has known as a professional. His retirement Friday officially brings to an end his time in the capacity of the lone job he ever wanted: quarterback of the Giants.

There were laughs and tears, poignant moments involving those closest to Manning from the past and present. His parents, Archie and Olivia, his wife, Abby, and their four children, Ava, Lucy, Carolina and Charlie all had front-row seats.

Tom Coughlin and David Cutcliffe, the two coaches he credits most, were there, seated next to Ernie Accorsi, the general manager who helped deliver Manning to the Big Apple.

Dozens of players were there, too, from Hall of Famers Michael Strahan and Harry Carson, another Super Bowl MVP in Phil Simms to players who intersected his entire career, from Amani Toomer and Plaxico Burress to Daniel Jones, Sterling Shepard and Evan Engram. 

All in attendance had gotten used to expecting Manning to deliver in big moments, especially late, so maybe it should have come as no surprise that No. 10 nailed the closing to his retirement speech – appropriately enough, with a nod to The Duke.

"Wellington Mara used to say, 'Once a Giant, always a Giant,'" Manning said. "For me, it's ONLY a Giant."

Confident yet humble

Manning's journey to becoming legend was challenging at the beginning.

He took over for Kurt Warner in November 2004 and endured six straight losses.

“I remember when we decided to start him as a rookie, and right away, he plays Baltimore and he plays Washington," said Coughlin, who coached Manning for 12 of his 16 seasons. "And they blitz the heck out of him. He’s on his back most of the time.

“He came in the office the following Monday [after the game against the Ravens] and [said], ‘Coach, I really know I can do this. I didn’t do very well yesterday.’ The true humility of the man. That’s a moment for me, but there’s lots of moments."

The Giants will retire Manning's No. 10. He will be inducted into the franchise's Ring of Honor at some point during the 2020 regular season.

For Manning, staying true to himself was ultimately the secret to being the face of Big Blue in this market for so long. Who would have thought a kid from New Orleans who played his college ball at Ole Miss could come to New York and win over a city that, for a while, wondered whether he could live up to his last name and the hype?

Last month against the Dolphins, he took the final snap of a decorated career and left the stadium not only with a victory, but with his family by his side. Manning was provided the ultimate snapshot of a football life well lived.

"This sport has very few real farewells," he said. "As the clock wound down on our win against the Dolphins [on Dec. 15] this season, I ran to my favorite place in the stadium – the tunnel. I waved to our loyal fans, and then Abby and my kids ran out to meet me. That was my farewell, and a moment I'll cherish forever. There won't be any more tunnel moments for me, and I'll truly miss them.

"I'll miss standing in the shadows, staring out into the field before a game, surrounded by my teammates and knowing all the hard work we put in. I'll miss hearing the first roar of the crowd, triggering the knowledge that we had been given one more opportunity to go win a football game. It's impossible to explain the satisfaction, actually the joy I've experienced being a Giant. From the very first moment, I did it my way. I couldn't be someone other than who I am." 

New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning announces his retirement with the two Vince Lombardi trophies he won for the Giants on display during a press conference at Quest Diagnostics Training Center on Friday, Jan. 24, 2020, in East Rutherford. (Photo: Danielle Parhizkaran, Danielle Parhizkaran/NorthJersey.com)

At 39, Manning certainly has become his own man. He walks away with his own legacy alongside father, Archie, and older brother, Peyton, considered one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game.

Eli Manning finished with 57,023 passing yards and 366 touchdowns, the most in Giants history. He is one of five quarterbacks to win at least two Super Bowl MVP trophies, beating Tom Brady and Bill Belichick – and the Patriots – on the biggest stage not once, but twice.

"It's a little surreal for me because I always knew that this day was going to come," Mara said. "But I don't think you're ever quite prepared for it emotionally, at least I wasn't. The last couple of days, it really started to hit me, especially waking up this morning. He handled it the way he handles everything – with dignity and class and professionalism."

Asked if the Giants have ever held a farewell event such as the one they put on for Manning, Mara quipped: "No, I don't think so. But I also don't think there's ever been a player like this for our franchise, either."

Family Man

From his seat in the front row, Mara watched the tribute video of unforgettable on-field highlights featuring Manning. He was three chairs from Eli, who spent most of that time taking turns being playful with his daughters and 11-month-old Charlie.

"I grew up a Giants fan. So I loved the whole 16 years. We all think he made the right decision," Archie said. "When they talk about the Giants' Ring of Honor, I see those names up there and numbers, they mean a lot to me, it's a great honor to know Eli is a big part of that now."

What's next for Manning? He's not sure yet.

"I look forward to spending time with my family, coaching Ava’s third-grade basketball team as an assistant coach," he said. "And just being involved with my kids and Abby and getting to do some things that I’ve missed out on because of this job and occupation and dedication I gave to it."

The future of the Giants

At one point, in the arms of his mother, as infants tend to do, Charlie Elisha Manning reached out and touched one of the two Vince Lombardi trophies his father helped win for the Giants.

The allure of the shiny object means different things to different folks, and at all stages of their lives.

Daniel Jones, Manning's successor, watched from the back of the room, a Big Blue-print for success laid out directly before him.

"I hope I'm here in 2036 to watch Daniel do the same thing," Mara said. "I'm so thankful Daniel got to spend a year around him, see how he prepares for games, see how he conducts himself. I think that'll serve him well going forward."

A daunting challenge, for sure.

"For most of my life, people have called me Easy," Manning said. "Believe me, there is nothing easy about today."

It's always hard to say goodbye to something cherished, respected and beloved.

But for Eli Manning and the Giants, it's never going to be goodbye. It's see you later.

As Wellington Mara always said: Once a Giant. Always a Giant.

And that 'only a Giant' legacy Manning wanted so desperately and worked so hard for? That will never be taken away.

Email: [email protected] Twitter: @art_stapleton 

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