This was as angry as you will ever see Eli Manning. No loss, no interception, no missed read ever could come close to causing this kind of indignation in his voice, in his eyes, in his soul.
No, this time was different from any other for the usually laid-back Giants quarterback with the nickname “Easy.”
Manning has been accused of having a role in a conspiracy to sell fake game-used equipment and memorabilia, and until Thursday afternoon, he was silent about the allegations and the subsequent criticism from many quarters. Even New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — who has fought back against his own public censure regarding the infamous “Bridgegate” scandal, in which two former high-level members of his administration have received jail sentences — recently suggested on WFAN that Manning is lying about his alleged involvement in the case.
So furious was Manning in defending himself that he appeared close to tears, his voice shaking with emotion.
“I will say that I have never done what I’ve been accused of doing,” he said at the Giants’ training complex, where the team has begun its offseason conditioning program. “I have no reason, nor have I ever had any reason, to do anything of that nature. I’ve done nothing wrong and I have nothing to hide. And I know that when this is all done, everybody will see it that way.”
In the meantime, Manning has had to deal with fallout from the first significant attack on something he cares about and works tirelessly to protect: his integrity. It has not been easy, especially for an athlete whose reputation has been nothing short of impeccable.
So universally respected is Manning for the work he does on and off the field that he was selected to share the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award with Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald. He was the first Giants player to receive it in its 47-year history.
Does that mean we automatically conclude Manning is innocent of any and all charges in connection with the memorabilia lawsuit? No. But Manning’s reputation should count for something until there is a resolution of the case. And if, as Manning so forcefully suggested Thursday, he is found innocent, the aspersions that have come his way ought to be silenced.
If it turns out that he and the Giants’ organization are culpable, that they purposely engaged in fraudulent behavior for which they are found guilty, then the conversation changes. But until then, Manning has earned the right to a presumption of innocence.
“It’s one thing to write about my football or my play,” he said, “but when you’re attacking my integrity, it definitely makes me angry. I think my track record with how I’ve handled myself since I’ve been here in New York since 2004 speaks for itself. I’ve tried to do everything with class and be a stand-up citizen. That’s what I have done and that’s being attacked right now . . . Someone starts something up and everybody turns against you very quickly. It hurts a little bit.”
His older brother Peyton experienced a somewhat similar situation in his final NFL season in 2015. That December, Al-Jazeera America reported that Manning’s wife, Ashley, had received deliveries of HGH in 2011, the year Peyton Manning was recovering from a series of neck surgeries. Manning issued a vehement denial of suggestions in the report that he had used the banned substance, and he and three other players were cleared by an NFL investigation.
“I have talked to Peyton about what’s going on,” Eli Manning said. “I obviously witnessed him and how he went through that. It hurt him and was tough for him at the time. I understand. But we have talked. It’s been good to have someone who has been through a similar situation and been in the same position of doing things the right way and then being attacked.”
Manning suggested that his own vindication soon will be forthcoming. If and when that day comes, his good name will remain intact.
Until there is a final rendering of the case, a reputation crafted by strong play on the field, an impeccable standing inside his own locker room and years of giving time, money and commitment to charitable organizations shouldn’t be forgotten. If nothing else, it gives him the benefit of the doubt.