It began with a standing ovation and ended with a curtain call.
Those who stayed to the end on their feet and The Pride of the Giants fighting back tears, feeling somewhat awkward and uncomfortable since Eli Manning has never made it about him, a wave of the right hand from the sideline and a smile captured on the big video screens, his team so genuinely happy for him, his fans forever grateful for delivering those two Lombardi Trophies.
“It gave everybody chills,” Sterling Shepard said.
The scoreboard clock showed 1:50 left when Alex Tanney replaced Manning, and one by one players and coaches and support staff congratulated him. Pat Shurmur gave him a hug and Daniel Jones, who has the enormous task of following this Giants legend, gave him a quick hug. You saw David Tyree, of course you did, next to his old Super Bowl XLII quarterback right as time expired.
I asked Jones on his way out of the locker room what he said to Manning and he said what virtually everyone of the men who played with him when he was a rookie all the way to now, less than three weeks away from his 39th birthday: “Just congrats. Obviously he’s done a lot, and accomplished a lot. It’s been a pleasure to be able to play with him.”
It ended with him trotting off the field and waving goodbye with his right hand to cheering Giants fans, fans who had been chanting ELI MANN-ING from the start. With his mother, Olivia, in a suite with her husband Archie waving down at him, it ended with Eli carrying one of his three daughters in his arms in the tunnel, and then lifting his 10-month-old son Charles Elisha, the cameras flashing, the fans screaming, for one meaningful family photo for his Hall of Fame scrapbook.
It ended with a 36-20 victory over the Dolphins that prevented him from presiding over what would have been an historic, franchise-record 10th consecutive loss.
Justice for Eli Manning.
It ended with his career record back at .500 (117-117).
Justice for Eli Manning.
He won’t get to leave the way Big Brother Peyton did, with a Super Bowl championship, but this was the next best thing: The kind of love that New York and New Jersey do not reserve for too many — a warm, sweet embrace that Eli Manning will remember forever.
In moments such as these, the last six years of despair and decline are forgotten, but never the essence of the man and the champion quarterback he used to be and the forever footprint he has left on the franchise.
“Man,” Tyree had said toward the end to Shepard, “we all got a piece of Eli.”
Archie Manning, asked what the most emotional part of the day was for him and his wife, said: “Sending in Alex. E coming out.”
His poker face and Easy Eli temperament always belied the fire inside of him, and he felt compelled on this occasion, with no certainty about his future, to deliver a rousing pregame speech imploring his teammates to get a win, finally, end it with, “F –k it.”
“He’s not one for the pregame speeches as much,” Shepard said. “He gave us one today and it got everybody fired up.”
Manning downplayed it. Of course he did.
“I don’t think a pregame speech has ever won a football game before,” he said. “I still don’t think it has. Just said a little something to get ’em ready.”
This was, you see, the perfect storm.
“They all wanted to get me a win,” Manning said. “I wanted to get them a win as well.”
And you bet he wanted to get Giants fans who adopted him as a native son 16 long years ago a win as well.
They held up signs that read: “THANK YOU ELI” and “ELI FOREVER.”
“Appreciate them always,” Manning said.
On this day, they weren’t going to care that he carried three interceptions, two of them egregious, into the third quarter. But it was following a safety — Sam Beal tackling Patrick Laird in the end zone — that Manning did what he had done so many times as a Giant: he remembered what it was like to recognize Winning Time. He completed his next five passes for 70 yards and a 16-13 game had become 30-13.
His 364th career touchdown pass was a 5-yarder to rookie Darius Slayton in the third quarter. His 363rd has been a 51-yard catch-and-run to Golden Tate.
“I went and found him once I scored and I gave him the ball,” Tate said. “He said, ‘Thank you.’ Very very special moment for me for sure.”
Very special moment for everyone who’s life Eli Manning has touched with his class, with his professionalism, with his love for the Giants.
“I’m thankful to have him as my QB,” Shepard said.
At the very end of his press conference, I wanted to know if he was near tears on the sideline at the end. Because what meant to him more than anything was the camaraderie and experiencing the feeling of winning with his teammates and coaches. He wore that mischievous smile and said: “Uh, you know … maybe.”
Cheers and tears for The Pride of the Giants.