Eli Manning did not want to be Peyton Manning in New York. He wanted to be Derek Jeter, or at least the Giants' answer to the iconic Yankees shortstop. He wanted to speak softly and carry a big postseason stick.
That he succeeded on and off the field is a testament to his poise, his maturity and his staying power -- until Tuesday, when his coach, Ben McAdoo, effectively fired him as the starting quarterback.
"You can't say you're totally shocked by [this decision] or anything, the way the season has gone," Eli's father, Archie Manning, told ESPN by phone. "But I'm just a daddy. Eli is 36 years old, and he handles everything."
McAdoo told Eli that he could continue to start if he wanted to keep his consecutive games streak alive, at 210 and counting, but Geno Smith and/or Davis Webb would replace him to get some needed reps. McAdoo might as well have asked Peyton's kid brother if he wanted to dance naked in Times Square on New Year's Eve.
There was Eli at his locker, with his lip quivering and his eyes welling up. The last time he looked that emotional, he was sitting in Tom Coughlin's goodbye news conference and listening to a worthy coach say that his own forced exit wasn't the quarterback's fault.
"My feeling is that if you are going to play the other guys, play them," Eli said Tuesday. "Starting just to keep the streak going and knowing you won't finish the game and have a chance to win it is pointless to me, and it tarnishes the streak."
And that was that. Nobody else has started at quarterback for this franchise since the middle of the 2004 season, but Smith will sure as hell get the ball on Sunday against the Oakland Raiders. The Giants are 2-9, and Eli has already been sacked 26 times -- five more than he was sacked all of last season, when the team went 11-5. At one point, the two-time Super Bowl champ and MVP thought he had a shot at getting back to the big game this season, to have a shot at maybe beating Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick for a third time.
"That's the goal," Eli said in August. "I feel we're putting together a special group of guys right now."
That special group of guys fell apart, limb by limb. Receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Brandon Marshall were lost for the season, and general manager Jerry Reese's failure to fortify the offensive line continued to put his 36-year-old quarterback in harm's way.
I asked Eli in the preseason if he thought he could play until he was 40. "Yeah, I think, sitting here right now, I think I can play another four years," he said. "That's the way the body feels."
The body looked a lot older during the season, and even when McAdoo publicly blamed Eli for a delay-of-game penalty on fourth-and-goal against the Lions in Week 2 -- "Sloppy quarterback play," McAdoo said in a sloppier coaching moment -- the franchise player absorbed the hit for the sake of the team. McAdoo had never been a head coach, even at the high school level, until Eli pushed for him to become one after Coughlin was shown the door following the 2015 season. Eli was never going to remind McAdoo of who did what for whom because that's not the Eli Manning way.
"Eli is a rock, not too high and not too low," Archie said. "He just rolls up his sleeves and works. I'm proud of him for the way he's handled himself through everything, and he'll deal with this. He doesn't have to like it, but he'll deal with it."
Just like Jeter, the New York athlete he most admired, Eli has dealt with everything the big city threw at him with dignity and grace. He was always in love with the idea of being a Giant. Another Ole Miss quarterback, Charlie Conerly, was his paternal grandfather's favorite player, and Eli wanted to start and finish his career with the Giants like Conerly did. That now looks like a wild long shot.
"A quarterback north of 35, if his health is good, can play as long as his team is good," Archie said. "When your team is no good, it gets hard."
As fate would have it, Archie was boarding a plane Tuesday to make a dinner speech for an award in Conerly's name that goes to the top college player in Mississippi. This is what he told Eli's wife, Abby: "There's no sense trying to predict everything right now. You just go day to day, and we'll get through this thing, and we'll see what happens. There are a lot of things to be grateful for."
Eli's health is one. His legacy is another. He was nearly run out of town before he delivered the biggest victory in franchise history, the Super Bowl XLII triumph over the 18-0 Patriots. After Eli beat Brady and Belichick in a second Super Bowl four years later, Giants owner John Mara said the quarterback will go down as the team's all-time greatest offensive player.
It was a long, long way from his days as a lost and overmatched rookie in 2004, when Eli took a phone call from a number he didn't recognize. It was Derek Jeter. The shortstop had won four of his five World Series titles at the time, and he told the quarterback that he liked the way he carried himself, and that if Manning kept grinding, things would work out fine. Eli called Jeter "a great role model for me," and he embraced the Yankee's low-volume approach in the ultimate high-volume market. Eli didn't make headlines at his locker or in a nightclub. He made them on the biggest stage in American sports.
A card-carrying country boy, Eli became such a comfortable New Yorker that his father joked with him about never returning to Mississippi. Nothing rattled him. Not bridge and tunnel traffic, not the Meadowlands wind, not fourth-quarter interceptions ... nothing.
"You just try not to get overwhelmed with everything going on," Eli said in August, "and New York can do that to you ... You just can't let it get you up and down."
Eli wanted that no-trade clause in his contract for a reason. He wanted to represent New York and the Giants for his entire career, and for 13 years, nobody did it better. The difference between the Jeter and Eli endgames? Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner made it clear to his GM, Brian Cashman, and manager, Joe Girardi, that he didn't want Jeter embarrassed -- i.e. benched or demoted to the bottom of the order -- as his skills declined. John Mara has been a devoted Eli supporter, but he did not prevent McAdoo from doing what he did.
Eli will survive, and he might even thrive for another team. But even if he doesn't have another postseason run in his right arm, he has already done enough. He made a lot of noise in New York without ever raising his voice.