By: Eric SanInocencio
SEC Digital Network
Birmingham, Ala. -- Eli Manning is the starting quarterback for the New York Giants. After capturing his second Super Bowl with another magical MVP performance, Manning stands among the "Eli-te" signal callers in the NFL. The New Orleans native is thriving in the country's biggest media market, and is being mentioned among the greatest to ever play the quarterback position. Today, Eli is on top of the world.
But, despite the national success, under the royal blue and white of his number 10 jersey, Manning remains one thing.
Eli is a Rebel.
As evidenced by the splash built in his honor on the Ole Miss website shortly after the Giants 21-17 win in Super Bowl XLVI (46), Oxford is proud of their native son. They should be. The Manning family is SEC royalty, headed by father Archie (Ole Miss) and his two Super Bowl winning sons (Peyton and Eli). They have achieved both college and NFL greatness, with the two Manning boys providing three of the past six Most Valuable Players on Super Sunday.
In the midst of a great run like that, you have to remember the beginning. The trek that ended last night with a celebration on stage in Indianapolis began in the city of Oxford and the SEC.
Watching Eli perform yesterday, carving up the Patriots secondary much like he did the SEC's Western Division, it reminded me of a simple lesson I've learned in my time working for this conference.
Even when you leave "The Grove" in Eli's case, or the SEC as a whole, you never leave the SEC family. The connection is always there.
Manning arrived on the Ole Miss campus in 2000, with a legendary last name and the athletic tools to match. Following in the footsteps of his father, Eli forged a legacy of his own on the Grove, throwing for over 10,000 yards and capturing the SEC's top honors in 2003. Team success wasn't far behind, as the Rebels won the Cotton Bowl in his final season. He took his squad to another level, with many in this region of the country feeling his talents and production were Heisman worthy.
After a decorated college career, Manning's NFL life started somewhat rocky. After a draft-day trade, and questions about which team he'd be under center for, Eli landed in New York, a far cry from the welcoming fans in Oxford he'd spent the past four years wowing with every throw.
Having a legendary player leave the SEC is akin to seeing one of your son's finally grow up and leave the house as a parent. Most SEC fans aren't NFL followers, or at least not to the degree that they cheer for their alma maters, so there is something of a break up that follows after the conference's greats take their final snap.
You see it every year, a salute from the league's fans to a legendary figure, almost wishing them well as they embark on their professional lives. Sure, you may keep up with them after they are gone, but for the most part the special moments fans share with conference's best players remain on the campus where those memories were made.
For me, that story is different, since I grew up in the concrete jungle Manning was about to call home. The NFL is to me what college football is to you, something to live and die with each Sunday as my beloved Giants take the field. The torch was passing from the SEC faithful, and me and a million other Giant fans happily accepted the responsibility of cheering on the talented quarterback. We embraced everything about him, from his Southern drawl to the "aw shucks" mentality he brought to a city more known more for the impatience of its inhabitants.
It wasn't always easy.
Manning quickly began to understand what a "New York minute" meant, being thrown into the fire at the league's most difficult position, with unrealistic fans (myself included) expecting greatness from his first throw. While it took longer than most people thought, the talent that was undeniable during his tenure at Ole Miss exploded on the scene in the NFL, with Eli taking hold as the New York Giants became a championship caliber team.
Then, 2007 happened.
Manning's run through some of the league's best teams, all on the road, set up a storybook ending that would make any father proud. It was all the more special for dad Archie, as he saw son Eli named the Super Bowl MVP just a year after his other son Peyton won the same honor, giving the Manning's a "back-to-back" not likely to ever be seen again.
Giants fans were finally behind Eli Manning...at least for a little while. Manning's greatness during that run raised expectations higher, with New York hoping the football version of Derek Jeter was beginning to take form. Eli continued to play well, even though the pinnacle he reached during that 2007 run wasn't seen in the following four seasons.
People began to wonder in New York. How good is he? Can he ever be as good as his brother? Is Eli truly "elite"? After that very question was posed to him by a media member this off-season, the young man who carried Oxford on his back responded in a manner that would have made the fans in the SEC proud.
“I consider myself in that class," Manning answered, saying that he was as good as the Tom Brady's (and to some degree his brother) of the world. After that statement, the New York media ran wild. Talk shows debated it, fans wonder aloud and the world wondered.
What would Eli Manning do?
Fast forward to last night, as Manning lead another final drive in the Super Bowl, commanding the Giants 88-yards to set up the game winning touchdown. In the face of adversity, the former SEC great shined once again. The SEC's "Rebel" was the NFL's greatest, at least for the 60 minutes that the entire country watched Manning orchestrate the Giants epic victory.
In that moment, SEC fans shared in Manning's joy. The Ole Miss webpage (and soon to be billboard) appeared, with congratulations from SEC fans streaming down Twitter and Facebook pages. Despite it being nearly eight years since Manning roamed the sideline in an Ole Miss uniform, the bond Eli made with the nation's top college conference was once again apparent.
Even on the NFL's biggest stage, the "Rebel" shined once again.