Published 4:22 pm, Wednesday, February 8, 2012
It was Sunday, Nov. 25, 2007, when Eli Manning and the New York Giants were eviscerated by The Minnesota Vikings in a 41-17 loss. Manning had just thrown four interceptions, three of which were returned for touchdowns.
I was listening to the horror show on the radio as I drove back to UCONN after Thanksgiving break. I stopped for gas and a red bull on the Merritt Parkway. Two guys in an Escalade pumping gas next to me were discussing the game.
"We finally get on a roll with our defense and Manning sabotages us," one of the guys said.
"Yeah. We only drafted him cause he's football royalty anyway," the other guy replied.
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As one of Manning's long time supporters, it was tough stuff to hear. Normally I never get involved in conversations with strangers, let alone arguments about my favorite football player. So I don't know if it was the pain from the defeat mixed with the zany effects of red bull and gasoline but I got irritated and responded.
"Aren't you guys Giants fans?! Just give him a chance. We all make mistakes," I said sounding like child.
"Yeah we do. But we aren't paid to win," one of them replied.
I was caught off guard. I didn't expect them to hit me with a comeback so quickly. I just laughed and muttered something that probably sounded more like a whimpering dog than a witty retort before slinking back into the driver's seat. There was nothing I could really say. Eli probably just had the worst game of his career and all I could do was drive.
After the loss, Coach Tom Coughlin was asked why he kept Eli in the game.
"I just don't like that feeling (of pulling the quarterback)," Coughlin said to the New York Daily News back then. "I wasn't going to do that to him and I wasn't going to do that to me and us."
And there it was. It was never about winning. This was a coach who was not comfortable giving up on his players. In a world where instant gratification is favored over personal growth and improvement, Coughlin and the Giants chose the latter.
In competitive sports, many coaches would have easily pulled Manning from the game, or worse. The bottom line is always win and nothing else. That attitude is pervasive on all levels and even trickles down to the youth leagues. But what do we want our kids and peers to really take away from these experiences? That we have to succeed at all costs? Or do we want them to be inspired by those who fail and manage to claw their way to the top?
I'm often asked why I care so much about teams and players I have never met. The answer is simple. Improbable games and performances show me the resiliency of the human spirit. Five year ago, I saw Eli Manning and the Giants get stepped on while they were down. Fast forward to Super Bowl XLII and it was Manning who was left on top of a goliath shooting for perfection.
Now it is 2012 and the Giants have won their second Super Bowl in five years, both against a New England team, which has dominated football for the last decade. Eli has two Super Bowl MVP titles against his brother's one.
Whether he won the game or not, Manning was a far cry from that desperate Sunday in 2007. A night I argued with two strangers at a gas station on the Merritt Parkway. It should be a terrible memory. My team was stuck in the depths of despair. But all I can do is smile.