Eli in spotlight as Super Bowl kicks off tonight

Published 12:03 am Sunday, February 3, 2008

PHOENIX (AP) — 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.

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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.

‘‘I told some friends of mine and people that were more familiar with the league than I was,’’ Archie Manning said of Eli’s desire to force the Chargers to trade him. ‘‘And a few told me, ‘If it was my son, I’d let him do it.’’’

An uncomfortable episode, though any vitriol Eli withstood for that was surely trumped by the venom spewed by New York fans during his first difficult seasons as a starter with the Giants.

Poor decision-maker. Not a leader. Not a big-game player. Not Peyton.

These critiques dogged Manning all the way through December of this, his fourth NFL season. Then something clicked. In three playoff wins, Manning has been a different quarterback, one who looks to second and third receivers, makes the right decisions, doesn’t throw interceptions (literally) and wins.

‘‘But I’m not a screamer, I’m not a yeller,’’ he said. ‘‘I go out there and just try to lead by example.’’

Suddenly, his laid-back demeanor is viewed more as fashionably cool and collected. Funny how a trip to the Super Bowl can change things.

His calm assuredness came from spending a lot of one-on-one time with his mother after Peyton and Cooper had gone off to college and while Archie was on the road working and giving speeches.

‘‘There were a lot of days when Mom wouldn’t want to cook for just one, so we’d go out,’’ Eli Manning said. ‘‘We became very close. We have very similar personalities.’’

Archie Manning calls his wife ‘‘The Great Equalizer.’’

‘‘She can take a crisis and get it right back to normal because she’s very levelheaded,’’ he said. ‘‘She doesn’t holler and scream, she just handles it. It’s a great trait. I’m grateful Eli picked up on it.’’

He’s nowhere near as smooth as his brother, a commercial pitchman with a wry sense of humor and a love of the spotlight. And he’s nowhere near as resourceful as Brady — at least off the field — as their appearances at media day proved on Tuesday.

In that surreal and circus-like atmosphere, both Super Bowl quarterbacks received marriage proposals from a TV reporter in a wedding gown.

‘‘I’m a one-woman man,’’ Brady cooed while jilting his potential bride, then continuing the banter for a few more seconds.

Eli wasn’t that smooth. ‘‘I’m taken for,’’ he said with a smile before looking around for the next question.

Of course, no player reaches this level without having some cunning and fire.

Eli described one turning point in the family dynamic coming after Peyton had gone away to college. Eli decided he wanted Peyton’s old room because it was a little bigger.

Time passed. Eli started growing and lifting weights. When Peyton came back from college, he often booted Eli out and took his old room back.

‘‘Early on, I’d give it back to him, but I finally felt I could stand up to him, so we’d get in a wrestling match,’’ Eli said. ‘‘Not a real fight, but a wrestling match. I was finally able to defend myself and I said, ‘I’m not going to give it up that easily.’’’

Peyton found out what the rest of the NFL learned this season: Baby brother isn’t a pushover anymore.