There is an auditorium in the Giants’ training facility where news conferences for major events usually are held. When Eli Manning first told the Giants he intended to announce his retirement, that’s where everyone, including the quarterback, assumed the event would take place.
Then things began to snowball. Former teammates started saying they would attend. Coaches from college and the pros wanted in. Networks wanted to carry the event live. Family and friends from a 16-year career in one area flooded the team with requests for admission.
It became clear fairly early that the auditorium that seats about 200 people would not be fit for such a fete.
So the Giants moved the news conference into their field house, setting up chairs and a stage on the turf where the team practices, placing two Lombardi Trophies on one side and a framed number 10 jersey — now retired, by the way — on the other to serve as bookends. On Friday morning, that large space was filled with team dignitaries and luminaries, many of the most prominent members of the organization from the past half- century, all of whom wanted to show their appreciation for Manning.
It felt at times like an awards show, like a funeral and like a celebration.
Michael Strahan didn’t get this kind of a send-off when he retired as a future Hall of Famer. Phil Simms didn’t. Not Harry Carson nor Ernie Accorsi nor any of the others who came before Manning.
Co-owner John Mara said the Giants had never had an event like the one on Friday. And the reason for that, he added, is simple.
“There’s never been a player like him.”
Mara introduced Manning as “the ultimate Giant” on Friday, noting that he will be inducted into the team’s Ring of Honor in the 2020 season and declaring that no one will ever again wear No. 10.
“For most of my life, people have called me ‘Easy,’ ” Manning said. “There is nothing easy about today.”
He noted that he could have taken more time to mull his playing future. He has maintained that he still can perform at an NFL level, and his contract with the Giants expires this offseason, so he would have been a free agent. But uprooting his family for one or two years was not something he wanted to do. And wearing another uniform was another change he wanted to avoid.
“I might have rushed it a little bit just because I knew it was the right thing to do,” Manning said. “I know 100% I’m not going to regret this. When I make a decision, I commit to it and make it the right decision, and this is it. This is the right one.”
Two things helped make the timing right, Manning said. The first was that the Giants drafted Daniel Jones in April to succeed him. Manning said it would have been more difficult to leave had he not been confident that the franchise and the quarterback position were in the proper hands.
He also said that having one last start and one last victory over the Dolphins on Dec. 15 was as close to a perfect ending to his career as he could have asked for.
“This sport has very few real farewells,” Manning said. “As the clock ran down on our win against the Dolphins this season, I ran to my favorite place in the stadium: the tunnel. I waved to our loyal fans and then [my wife] Abby and my kids ran out to meet me. That was my farewell and a moment I’ll cherish forever.”
Manning was born in Louisiana and went to college in Mississippi, but on Friday he called himself a New Yorker. “Well, at least a Northeasterner,” he quipped.
Despite not winning a playoff game in the last eight years of his career, appearing in only one in that span and finishing with a .500 record in the regular season, Manning said he chose to remember the highlights, the wins and the bonds he forged with teammates who he said became not only real friends but brothers.
“If there are going to be endless echoes, choose the good ones,” Manning said.
There are other memories that others will remember for all of Giants eternity. The two Super Bowl championships that he brought to many in attendance on Friday and that drew, in a congratulatory tweet from Tom Brady, some remorse that he’d beaten the Patriots twice to get them. (“We joke around a little bit,” Manning said of his off-field interactions with Brady, “but I think it’s not real funny to him.") The conference championship games in which he gutted through the arctic conditions in Green Bay and a beating by the 49ers’ defensive line to reach the two Super Bowls.
Mara choked up when he recalled walking off the field with his father, Wellington, after Manning’s first win against the Cowboys as a rookie in 2004. For Wellington Mara, who initially had been resistant to the idea of drafting Manning to show loyalty to Kerry Collins, it was the last game he ever attended in person in his life. He turned to his oldest son, by then in charge of the organization, and said: “I think we found our guy.”
But what Manning seemed most proud of was that none of it — not New York, not winning, not losing — changed who he is.
“I did it my way,” he said. “I couldn’t be someone other than who I am. Undoubtedly I would have made the fans, the media, even the front office more comfortable if I was a more rah-rah guy, but that’s not me. Ultimately, I choose to believe that my teammates and the fans learned to appreciate that. They knew what they got was pure, unadulterated Eli.”
And, unlike his famous father and brother who preceded him into the NFL, unlike so many of the thousands who have worn the Giants uniform and then gone elsewhere, Manning did it all with one team.
"You can be confident that no one has loved and appreciated wearing the Giants uniform more than I have, and that will never change,” he said.
“Wellington Mara always said: ‘Once a Giant, always a Giant.’
“For me, it’s only a Giant.”