EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Odell Beckham Jr. always wanted to catch footballs from a Manning, Peyton or Eli, in no particular order. They were the bayou legends who preceded him at Isidore Newman High, the quarterbacks whose jerseys hung in a school trophy case he passed every day.
Beckham was also a graduate of the summertime passing academy managed by football's first family, and on a few occasions as a high schooler and college kid out of LSU he ran some post and fly patterns for Eli, wondering if they'd ever hook up for real.
Well, it was pretty real Sunday afternoon inside MetLife Stadium: fourth quarter, game on the line. Under heavy pressure all day, and with four of his five interceptions already behind him, a desperate Manning fired a long ball down the right sideline in the direction of Beckham, first-round draft pick of the New York Giants and best player on the field.
Including the opponents, that is, the same San Francisco 49ers who have reached three consecutive NFC title games, with a Super Bowl appearance wedged in between. Beckham would finish with a fairly modest 93 receiving yards, 86 of them in the second half, and his sum wouldn't even leave him as the Giants' leading receiver out of the LSU program.
Rueben Randle was good for 112 yards, and yet in terms of talent and go-get-'em vibe he doesn't belong in the same ballpark with Beckham, the 12th overall pick in the most recent draft. The Giants might be a flagship NFL franchise forever built around weather-proof defense and physicality, but they don't have a rich tradition of dynamic offensive players.
Beckham breaks their mold. And so when he rose high over Perrish Cox and made his juggling, acrobatic, 37-yard catch while crashing to the ground and barely staying in bounds at the 49ers' 4-yard line with 5:04 left, nobody who knew him was the least bit surprised.
Jim Harbaugh challenged the play if only because he had little choice. San Francisco was winning by a 16-10 count, and it felt like Beckham's play was going to make the 49ers an endangered 5-5 team.
The play stood. "I was trying to get my feet down before my butt hit," Beckham said later, "but thankfully my butt hit first."
Manning honored that remarkable effort by throwing three consecutive incompletes on end-zone fades to Beckham, Randle and Larry Donnell, and then by firing a fourth-and-goal pass to Preston Parker that ricocheted into Eli's fifth interception and, ultimately, a 3-7 Giants season.
Tom Coughlin called it "inexcusable" that his team didn't score. "That's on nobody but us," Beckham said. "We've got to put the ball in the end zone."
Manning's got to get it across the line there, even if Ben McAdoo, offensive coordinator, didn't help him with the lame plan of attack -- those three straight 50-50 balls. Until Sunday, it sure seemed the Giants were wasting another good season of Eli's prime.
But against the 49ers, Manning wasted perhaps the Giants' last opportunity to salvage something encouraging out of this season. Eli was having a good year in the new McAdoo system, and suddenly he morphed into the 2013 Eli, the one who threw a staggering 27 interceptions.
"I've got to do better," Manning said. "I've got to make better decisions, better throws. They're all on me. It's nobody else's fault."
Manning took a physical pounding for his trouble. Justin Pugh's injury compromised the offensive line, and the constant pressure allowed by Pugh's replacement surely left Manning muttering, "Good grief, Charles Brown."
But Beckham was the Giant who'd earned the right to mutter the most. His 25-yard punt return set up the drive that nearly won the game, and he punctuated that return by sprinting out of bounds and down his sideline while gesturing to the fans.
"Just trying to keep the crowd in the game as much as possible," Beckham said," because they are the difference. We feel them when they're with us and we feel them when it seems like they're not."
The fans were with Beckham when he reached dramatically for that first down the refs didn't give him, and when he motioned for the crowd to bring more noise.
It didn't work because Manning's performance didn't allow it to work. Coughlin described the meltdown as "an offensive fiasco," but he exonerated his rookie star.
"The kid made a play to give us a chance to win," the coach said. Coughlin added that Beckham "wants to be a great player," a source of inspiration not found in every NFL locker.
Beckham has provided ample evidence, Coughlin said, "that in the big circumstances he'll make the big play for you."
Beckham would chastise himself for missing a couple of blocks and for not coming up with the laser Manning fired his way on the Giants' final play, an incomplete pass that inspired a banged-up Beckham to slowly rise to his feet, remove his helmet, and slam it into the ground.
"I just love this game," he said. "Sometimes it's hard to control your emotion when you're in the heat of battle. It's something I shouldn't have done. ... I'm not going to stop my love of the game or the joy that I have when I'm on the field, but I do apologize for throwing my helmet. That's unacceptable."
Perhaps. But if you're going to throw a helmet, or a tantrum, hey, better to do it when it doesn't cost your team 15 yards or two free throws.
For those old enough, Beckham looked a bit like John McEnroe flipping over a TV camera after a match gone south. Frankly, the Giants need some of that passion and rage.
"I love him," Antrel Rolle said. "I wish I had more years to play with this guy. He wants to be the best. He wants to win."
After he failed to win Sunday, Beckham met up with Colin Kaepernick on the field for a World Cup-like exchange of jerseys that they signed for each other.
"You're a hell of a player," Kaepernick told him.
"They're the best of the best," Beckham said later at his locker, "and when guys approach you it fires me up even more because I want to be so great. ... I've seen these guys for years playing on TV, and I want to be up there with them. ... Those are memories that will never go away."
So are the schoolboy memories of playing catch with Eli Manning, the only Newman alum who would grow up to become a two-time Super Bowl MVP.
The Giants drafted Beckham for his speed and playmaking skills, and because the Manning family loved him. People might've expected the rookie to complicate matters for Eli this year, especially after an injured Beckham missed all of September.
But Sunday, the franchise quarterback was the one who let down the potential franchise receiver. In the end, Odell Beckham Jr. deserved better from Eli Manning, and so did everyone else on the losing side.