The Eli Experiment

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If you've never read it, Michael Lewis' 2004 New York Times magazine story, "The Eli Experiment" is a good one:

The day after Eli Manning was named the starting quarterback of the New York Giants, in mid-November, his father called him about tickets. Of course, Eli didn't call home with the news right away; his news, to him, was never newsworthy. Archie Manning, once an N.F.L. quarterback himself, learned of his son's midseason promotion from an ESPN reporter. The next day he had Eli on the phone.

''How did practice go today?'' he asked. From Eli's end of the phone came only silence. A long silence — six, maybe seven seconds.

In those long seconds Archie could have written the headlines across the nation: ''Eli Manning, Named Starter, Skips Practice.'' If a life as young as Eli Manning's could be said to have a theme, this was one of them: his ability to cause other people to worry about him. ''Everyone's always worrying about Eli,'' says his old friend Merrick Egan, ''and he doesn't need it.'' ''I think where it starts,'' says his oldest friend, James Montgomery, ''is that Eli kind of likes to toy with his dad.'' When Eli was a star quarterback at the University of Mississippi, Montgomery recalls, Archie would drive up from his home in New Orleans to see his son play at the school where he once filled the same role himself. Ole Miss fans still speak of these visits as a Roman Catholic might speak of a trip by the pope. There are streets in Oxford, Miss., named for Archie Manning, halls devoted to his memory, ballads written and actually sung to commemorate Archie Manning. The speed limit on the Ole Miss campus is Archie's old number, 18. Archie played games in the late 1960's that they still talk about.

Yet so far as anyone could tell, Eli hadn't read his Scripture — hadn't even bothered to skim the Cliff Notes. Archie can recall Eli wanting to discuss his legendary performances only once: ''When he called me after he got to Ole Miss and said he came across my stats in the media guide, and that they weren't very good.'' If he was only feigning indifference to his father's achievements, he did it well. His two older brothers, Cooper and Peyton (who is the quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts and was the league M.V.P. last year) obsessed mightily over their father's playing days. They watched old tapes, peppered Archie with questions, dragged him out into the backyard to throw the football. But Eli never exhibited even a faint curiosity about what his father had done and seemingly knew nothing about it.

On these visits to Oxford, Archie would always go by Eli's apartment, just to check up on things. ''Being the rather tidy person he is,'' Montgomery recalls, ''Archie would just kind of subconsciously start to clean up Eli's apartment. You know, organize the magazines, straighten out all the papers and pens on Eli's desk.'' And what Eli would do, just for kicks, is quietly follow his dad around the place and reverse the process. Dropping the same magazines back onto the floor, messing up the same papers, etc. ''The funny part was,'' Montgomery says, ''his dad would clean the same magazines up about two or three times before finally noticing that he'd already done it.''

Twenty-three years of this treatment and Archie was little better than his youngest son's lab rat, responding to electric shocks, grabbing for the cheese. To Archie it was possible, just, that his son, the day after he was named the starting quarterback of the New York Giants, forgot to go to practice. To him, Eli himself seemed worried that he might have skipped practice. It was a simple question: how was practice today? He awaited the answer.

''We don't have practice on Tuesday,'' Eli said finally.


Was it one of Eli's private jokes? You never knew. Most of Eli's jokes, like most of Eli's thoughts, were private.