INDIANAPOLIS -- During his rookie season, while he was in the midst of losing his first six games as the New York Giants' starting quarterback, Eli Manning got an unexpected phone call. It was from Derek Jeter, the star shortstop of the New York Yankees, and he had a simple message for Manning, who remembers it to this day.
"It was kind of right after I'd become the starter and had a couple of tough games," Manning said. "He just told me, 'Keep your head up, keep doing what you're doing and it'll get better.'"
This was 2004. Jeter was an established New York superstar, owner of four World Series rings and on a Hall of Fame path. The phone call mattered because Jeter was someone Manning had been studying carefully.
"Derek's a guy, from the time I first came here, that I definitely have paid a lot of attention to," Manning said last week after a Giants practice. "He's a great player, but he's also a guy who really shows you what you have to do to succeed in a place like New York. The way he's handled himself on the field, off the field. The way he's dealt with all of the attention without letting it affect the way he does his job. He's done that better than anybody."
As Manning prepares to play the New England Patriots on Sunday in his second Super Bowl, he's the focus of much attention and hype. There is an urge to rate him, to compare him, to discuss his place in the pantheon of quarterbacks -- both current and all time. He is compared to his brother, the great Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning. He is compared to Tom Brady, the three-time Super Bowl winner he's trying to beat in the big game for the second time in five years. But the best comparison for Manning may actually be a guy who plays a different sport in the same town.
Jeter has succeeded as a New York superstar without once saying anything to get himself in trouble or embarrass his organization. He is a quiet leader whose entire team respects and follows him without question. At a young age, he established himself as the kind of player who excels in clutch situations, and the way he does that is by remaining exactly the same regardless of the intensity of the situation. By refusing to let the game become too big or too important at times when it feels that way to many other players, he effectively raises his game at the critical moment. All of these same things can be said about Eli Manning, and it's no accident.
"Playing in this market, you learn quickly that you've got to be immune to the distractions," Manning said. "And watching Derek and seeing how he's kept his private life private and managed to keep the focus on the field and on the job he has to do, that's a big help for someone like me. That's what you've got to do, and he's the ultimate example."
It's not a perfect comparison, of course. Jeter is a single guy who digs the club scene and has, throughout his career, been romantically linked to movie stars and Miss Universe contestants. Manning is married to his high school sweetheart. Jeter was Rookie of the Year, won the World Series in his first full season in the major leagues and three more times before the end of his fifth. Manning struggled at the start of his career and to this day continues to fight a perception that he's not one of the game's great quarterbacks. A quarterback is more integral to the success of a football team than a shortstop is to that of a baseball team. Jeter is nearing the end of his career, while Manning's appears to be taking off.
"Eli is Eli," said Justin Tuck, Giants defensive end and admitted Yankees fan. "If you want to make the comparison, he's more Jeter than he is Peyton. I'll give you that. But he's Eli. He's himself. He doesn't need to be compared to anyone."
But the comparison to Jeter as a clutch player and an even-keeled star is a worthy one, and it seems to please Manning and Jeter, who share a mutual respect.
"I've always appreciated the way Eli has carried himself, not only on the football field but more importantly away from it," Jeter wrote in an email through the Yankees' media relations department. "He certainly seems to me to have the perfect demeanor to handle the spotlight that comes with playing in New York. He's already had a great deal of success in his career, and I don't see any reason that won't continue for a long, long time to come."
If it does, part of the reason for it will be the example Jeter set and the intelligent extent to which Manning paid attention to it. The classy phone call from the star shortstop to the rookie quarterback seven years ago was a part of that example, and the meaning it held for Manning is part of the reason he's so determined to follow Jeter's lead. It's not easy being a star athlete and winning championships in New York. But if Manning really is about to win another one, the comparison between the football star and the baseball star will only grow closer. And you only have to ask Manning about it once to learn that it's no coincidence.