As he stood uncomfortably next to commissioner Paul Tagliabue, holding up one end of a Chargers jersey with the No. 1 on it, only one thought went through Eli Manning’s mind: Get me out of here!
Tagliabue had just called the name of the Ole Miss quarterback as the first pick in the 2004 NFL Draft, but it hardly was cause for celebration for the Manning family. Eli barely smiled as he posed for a picture alongside his parents, former Saints quarterback Archie Manning and Olivia, and the commissioner.
Word had circulated in the days leading up to the draft that Manning did not want to be selected by the Chargers, in part because of the team’s history of front-office dysfunction. Eli was so disconsolate about being picked by San Diego that he didn’t even take part in the customary practice of putting on a cap of the team that drafted him.
“I had no idea anything was going to happen,” Manning told Newsday in an interview last week.
Asked if he feared he might be forced to spend his career with the Chargers, he replied, “Possibly.”
Manning’s selection was a blow to the Giants, too, because they clearly preferred him as their choice with the No. 4 overall pick. Unable to move up high enough to take him, general manager Ernie Accorsi instead focused on moving a few spots down to take Ben Roethlisberger. But through an unlikely sequence of events that included the Giants taking Philip Rivers at No. 4, Accorsi eventually worked out a deal to trade Rivers, two draft picks and tackle Roman Oben to the Chargers in exchange for Manning.
It was a franchise-changing event that led to two Super Bowl championships and secured Accorsi’s place as one of the most important executives in Giants history. Accorsi, 75, was honored for his contributions by being selected for the team’s Ring of Honor and was inducted at halftime of Monday night’s Giants-Bengals game at MetLife Stadium.
Manning, still going strong at age 35 and now in his 13th season as the Giants’ quarterback, couldn’t be more delighted to see Accorsi take his rightful place among the team’s all-time greats.
“He’s such a big part of why I’m here,” Manning said. “He brought me here, making that work on draft day. He’s such a big part of those championship teams, because he brought a lot of that squad together. He’s very deserving of this honor.”
Accorsi joined two other key parts of those two championship seasons — coach Tom Coughlin, who stepped down last January after 12 seasons, and defensive lineman Justin Tuck, one of the team’s most prolific pass rushers.
Accorsi retired after the 2006 season, one season before the Giants won their first of two Super Bowl titles in the Manning-Coughlin era. But Accorsi’s fingerprints were all over those championships, starting with Manning and the hiring of Coughlin, both before the 2004 season.
“You make that trade to win championships,” Accorsi said. “That’s the only reason you make a trade like that, and you’re in a position only so many times. But the blessing for us, which was not a blessing when we went through it, was the 2003 season.”
The Giants went 4-12 that year.
“If we wouldn’t have gotten to the fourth spot , God only knows what we would have had to give up to get up there,” Accorsi said. “There were three quarterbacks up there, so we could have had a shot at one of the other ones besides Eli. If we didn’t make the trade, I felt fairly confident that we would have been able to get Ben Roethlisberger, but you never know. When we picked Eli, we picked him to win championships. That’s what you hope for and to see it happen, of course, just makes you feel great.”
Manning won his first Super Bowl title with an improbable 17-14 win over the previously unbeaten Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. Accorsi was at the historic game and remembered the moments before Manning took the Giants on the winning drive.
“I remember my son was a coach at Virginia and Maryland, and he sat with me at that first Super Bowl and I remember telling him, ‘Well, if he is what we thought he was going to be, he’s going to do it right now,’ ” Accorsi recalled. “You never know, because maybe you’re never going to get in that position, and he did it. He had some help, but he did it.”
The Giants were down 14-10 when they took over at their 17-yard line with 2:39 to play, and Manning got the Giants into the end zone for the winning score. But before his 13-yard touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress with 35 seconds remaining put the Giants ahead, Manning avoided a fierce pass rush and completed a 32-yard pass to seldom-used wide receiver David Tyree, who made a leaping catch and pinned the ball to the side of his helmet. It remains one of the greatest pass plays in NFL history.
It wouldn’t have been possible without Accorsi’s signature trade. Now his name will be forever inscribed in the Giants’ Ring of Honor.
“It’s not something I ever really thought was possible,” Accorsi said. “I’ve been around a million stadiums and have seen those names there, and their immortal players and coaches. To be up there with that kind of group of people is overwhelming. It’s not something I ever dreamed.”