INDIANAPOLIS - INDIANAPOLIS
Eli Manning's voice is soft and polite, with an ever-so-faint hint of a lisp. His hair always looks a bit tousled, as if one of his older brothers had just given him a noogie. His physique is more lanky than sculpted, making him appear about as athletically imposing as a guy on the way to play a weekend tennis game.
Manning does not look like a famous football player, which actually is a subject of some amusement in his family of famous football players. Father Archie is regal. Older brother Peyton might have the most recognizable face in the game. But Eli? According to his oldest brother Cooper, the Giants' quarterback can walk the streets in midtown Manhattan wearing jeans and a baseball cap and not be asked for an autograph.
"He's always been one of those guys who just blend in," said Cooper, a wide receiver whose football career ended in college after he was diagnosed with a spinal condition. "He can go to a restaurant, sit down next to anyone at the bar and they have no idea who he is. If you meet him, you would never think he was a professional athlete and a leader on the elite level that he is."
Looks can be deceiving, which is the number one thing we've discovered about Eli Manning as he leads the Giants into Super Bowl XLVI Sunday night against Tom Brady and the Patriots. Manning may have entered the NFL looking like the pampered youngest member of a quarterback dynasty, a player so spoiled that he was able to dictate where he wanted to play. But since joining the Giants, he has refused to let perceptions and pedigree define him.
As Manning stands on the precipice of a chance to win a second Super Bowl -- something his more famous older brother has not been able to do -- he has turned out to be the exact opposite of the player we thought he would be. Manning is ego-less, hard-working and incredibly, incredibly tough.
"We do give him a hard time because of his dorky appearance and he doesn't look like he has been in a weight room ever," defensive end Justin Tuck said. "But we all know how tough he is. He is the energizer bunny. He just keeps firing."
If you have to isolate one image from the Giants' postseason run, it is that of Manning picking himself off the ground again and again in the NFC Championship Game overtime victory in San Francisco.
Manning's helmet was knocked askew, grass was wedged in his facemask and his shoulder pads kept popping out of the top of his jersey like a toy animal losing its stuffing. All told, Manning was hit 20 times and sacked six. Still, he managed to avoid injury and throw for 316 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
That performance, it seems, won Manning a whole new group of fans around the country.
One of them, believe it or not, is Hulk Hogan, the professional wrestling icon. Hogan, who ignited a mini-controversy when he ripped a Tim Tebow jersey in half on ESPN earlier this season, says Manning might be the one football player out there who could succeed in professional wrestling.
"I saw him get the crap knocked out of him at least 11 times," Hogan said in a phone interview. "I've never seen another human being get hit like that, and he just kept getting up like he was invincible.''
Another celebrity-turned-Eli fan is actor J.R. Martinez, the Iraq War veteran and "Dancing With the Stars'' winner. Martinez, who suffered burns over 40 percent of his body while serving in Iraq, knows something about defying expectations. And he believes that's exactly what Manning has done.
"We think toughness is big muscles and scars and tattoos," Martinez said. "Well, he has none of that stuff. But anyone who watched what he did against the 49ers knows he's tough. It just goes to show that you can't underestimate anybody; you can't judge people by how they look."
Can't change personality
There's no doubt that off the field, Manning is lacking in the swagger department. He not only does not have big muscles, scars and tattoos, he doesn't have the intimidating, born-to-walk-the-red-carpet-with-my-supermodel-wife good looks that Brady has.
Manning knows that his demeanor is comparatively bland. And that's just fine with him.
"You can't change your personality," he said. "If you're going to be something you're not, it's not going to work. Ultimately, if you win games, people will celebrate you and say you're good and great. Either way, you have to be yourself and do what you're comfortable doing."
What Manning is most comfortable doing is working with other people to try to find a way to win. Every Friday he meets with his receivers, going over what he has seen during the week. And he is careful not to point fingers, even when things seem to be breaking down as they did against the 49ers.
"He's been a great leader from day one," guard Chris Snee said. "It's not his style to get in your face, which you can appreciate. He could have really gotten frustrated with us in San Francisco and looked for someone to yell at. But he didn't. He's not like that."
Cooper Manning says he likes to think that he and Peyton are partially responsible for Eli's quiet but tough demeanor. Cooper is seven years older than Eli, Peyton five. By the time Eli was born, Cooper said, their parents no longer had the energy to sort out sibling squabbles.
Said Cooper, "Eli was young enough that you wouldn't want to beat him up. You just wanted to pick on him a bit."
Eli learned to quietly take care of himself and not care all that much what other people think. And it doesn't overly excite him now that everyone is recognizing him for his toughness.
"I don't really talk about toughness. No one wants to be hit, but it's a part of playing quarterback," he said. "I'm just trying to do my job. If it entails taking a few shots, then all right."
Sunday's Super Bowl will be Manning's 130th straight start, an indication of toughness if there ever was one. A win would put him in an elite class, making him one of 11 quarterbacks to have won two Super Bowls. He also would make himself the only Manning to win more than one. Perhaps then he wouldn't be the only football-playing Manning able to walk unnoticed down the street.
Said Cooper: "I don't think he cares much about that. He's just a real unassuming guy who doesn't draw attention to himself."