“In Football, a man was asked to do a difficult and brutal job, and he either did it or got out.” — Frederick Exley: A Fan’s Notes
In 2004, Eli Manning was asked to do that job by the New York Giants and he responded with 15 years under center in a sport where the average quarterback’s lifespan is a mere three. And once he became a starter, he maintained that status for 234 games — 210 consecutively — with a distinction far beyond his legendary indestructibility: Two Super Bowl MVPs over Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, no small feat in the best of circumstances, but in 2007 those Patriots finished the post season undefeated and were an unprecedented 18 and 0 entering the game.
It’s difficult at times being a fan, especially of a franchise that’s taken you through exhilarating highs and soul crushing lows since childhood as the Giants have me and, I must assume, other transplanted New York-area Vermonters who have not become apostates, dropping the Giants, Yankees and Knicks in favor of the Patriots, Red Sox and Celtics. I still maintain an unhealthy and steadfast hatred for those teams, taking great pleasure in their struggles and defeats, particularly in the case of a rare stumble by Brady and the Pats, whose year-in, year-out excellence darkens most of my autumns.
Watching Daniel Jones call signals Sunday, leading the Giants to an improbable 32-31 comeback win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with Manning on the sidelines was confounding for some fans: elated at their team’s first win of the year, but conflicted that it wasn’t Eli at the helm. Turning the page on a beloved athlete is difficult, made more so by a slow but steady decline in skills or execution rather than something more significant, such as a monumental injury — like the difference between a question mark and an exclamation point. It would probably be far easier if Manning wasn’t there at all, instead of being reduced to a spectator.
There’s an iconic 1964 photograph of an aging Giants quarterback Y.A. Tittle, kneeling in the end zone after throwing an interception against the Pittsburgh Steelers, blood trickling from his balding head, that places athletic defeat distinctly into the pantheon of tragedy. Just as Tittle released the ball, he was crushed by John Baker, a 6-foot, 7-inch, 280-pound defensive end, who knocked his helmet off, fractured his sternum, strained his rib muscles and caused a concussion.
That picture sticks in your mind, especially if you grew up a Giants fan. It captures a significant moment in time, a transitional harbinger between having played in the three previous NFL championship games into an nearly two-decade stretch known as “The Wilderness Years,” when winning records, never mind championships, were the stuff of dreams. It wasn’t until the emergence of all-world linebacker Laurence Taylor that Big Blue regained equilibrium behind LT’s near revolutionary dominance, winning their first two Super Bowls in 1987 and 1991.
But supporting the Giants isn’t necessary to feel the almost mythic symbolism of that one captured moment so many years ago, when football was in black and white, played outdoors on grass in all kinds of weather. Although Tittle was only 38 at the time — the same age as Manning today — he looks like an old man. Eli still appears like a teenager, nervous about asking a girl to the junior prom. Compensation for the risks Tittle took long before there were rules protecting quarterbacks and a league concussion protocol, was unlikely to have exceeded $100,000 per year. Manning makes more than 10 times that ... per game.
While my sensibilities about NFL football have evolved over the ensuing years, more about the NFL’s excruciatingly slow response and dishonesty concerning head injuries, rather than the teams or players themselves, I still watch, although far less frequently than 20 years ago, and generally by recording a game and scrolling through commercial-free. Perhaps my devotion is slipping, but it astounds me that anyone is willing to sacrifice three hours watching a whole game that only provides about 12 minutes of actual football.
Misgivings aside, I find myself surprisingly still moved by the essence of the game, vulnerable to the nostalgia that wells up contrasting the departure of two distinctly different quarterbacks, representing two different eras, each in his own way a symbol of his time. In the brutal, early years of the modern NFL, Tittle was a warrior: After being bloodied and battered, he played the following week and — since it was only mid-September — the remainder of the 1964 season. Manning was simply invincible, enduring hits, knockdowns and sacks, and picking himself back up for a decade and a half, impervious to everything but a coach’s inevitable decision.
Walt Amses lives in North Calais.