Eli’s work off the field is even more impressive

As this is written, we don’t know what the future holds for Eli Manning, just completing his 16th season in the NFL.

We don’t know if he will play beyond this season, either in New York or some other NFL city. We don’t know if he someday will be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. You can make an argument both ways. Pro: He is a four-time Pro Bowler and two-time Super Bowl champion, who won the Super Bowl MVP award twice. The only other guys to win Super Bowl MVP multiple times were Tom Brady, Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw and Bart Starr. That’s elite company, to be sure. Con: Detractors will point to his record as a starting quarterback, a winning percentage right at 50 percent.

What those of us who have followed his career for these past 20 years or so do know is this: Whatever he does in the future, he will do with class and a reserved dignity. He will help others less fortunate, as he always has. He will hold his head high. He will do the right thing – just as he did back in September when it was announced he had lost his job as starting quarterback for the New York Giants. He didn’t sulk. He didn’t bad-mouth his coach or the guy who replaced him. He simply did his job and did it the right way.

Some of us remember how his father, Archie Manning, handled a similar situation all those years ago after the New Orleans Saints had traded him to the Houston Oilers and the Oilers had traded him on to the thenlowly Minnesota Vikings.

The elder Manning handled it all with class. His sons, all three of them, have always done the same. It is the Manning way. The boys learned from their parents. Archie and his wife, Olivia, made sure of it.

It is difficult to imagine how much it hurt Archie Manning to be traded from New Orleans after so many years of risking life and limb playing quarterback for perhaps the most mismanaged franchise in pro football history to that point. In nearly 12 seasons, he played for seven head coaches and with more wide receivers than he can remember. It often appeared he was running for his life and, too often, he got caught. The legendary Roger Staubach once told me the only difference between him and Archie Manning was that he played in Dallas for Tom Landry and Archie played in New Orleans for a team that had no leadership.

There’s much truth to that.

And although Eli Manning played for some great teams in New York, he also played for some stinkers, especially late in his career.

If it ends now, the record will show that Eli Manning completed more than 60 percent of his passes for more than 57,000 yards and 366 touchdowns, compared to 244 interceptions. It will show that he once started 222 consecutive games at quarterback over 14 seasons, a total surpassed by only two people in NFL history, Brett Favre and Phillip Rivers. Again: elite company.

Eli Manning will go down in NFL history as the quarterback who slayed Bill Belichick, Brady and the otherwise untouchable New England Patriots in Super Bowls – not once, but twice.

What all those statistics won’t show is that what Eli has done off the field has been even more impressive than what he did on it. Charities in New York, New Jersey, Louisiana and, especially Mississippi, have Eli and his wife Abby to thank for millions upon millions of dollars of badly needed funding. Here in Mississippi, the Eli Manning Children’s Clinic opened in 2009, thanks to the leadership and support of the Manning couple, who raised more than $2.5 million to help get it started. They have been honorary co-chairs of a Campaign for Children’s of Mississippi, led by Joe and Kathy Sanderson, which has raised more than $76 million to date. Furthermore, the Manning Family Fund for a Healthier Mississippi has provided almost $1.3 million in support of UMMC.

All those previous figures do not include Eli and Abby’s personal, out-of-pocket contributions. That, they do quietly.

So, no, we don’t know what the future holds for Eli Manning. We also don’t know how much better off Mississippi – and the country – would be if all professional athletes gave back to society in the manner Eli Manning has. We can only imagine. And wish.

Contact syndicated columnist Rick Cleveland at rcleveland@mississippitoday.org .

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