EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - The moment was symbolic and emotional, the perfect glimpse into a future that has finally become the present for Eli Manning.
The legendary New York Giants quarterback had just finished what many believed would be the final postgame news conference of his career back in December, picked up his bag while walking off the podium and quickly exited the interview room.
Reporters and cameras scrambling in his wake, Manning hustled through a crowded MetLife Stadium hallway when he was met unexpectedly by three oncoming rushers.
The best part is what happened next: a player whose job for 16 years was to avoid such a situation did not even try to dodge them.
No. 10 took the sack, shared by his three daughters: Ava Frances, 8, Lucy Thomas, 6, and Caroline Olivia, 5. Abby, his wife, held their 10-month old son, Charlie Elisha, and watched from a few yards away, smiling.
That was the point where it seemed like retirement started to feel right for Eli Manning.
That day he took the final snap of a decorated career and left the stadium not only with a victory, but with his family by his side - the ultimate snapshot of a football life well lived, perhaps foreshadowing even greater things to come.
Forty days later, the 39-year-old Manning will officially announce that he is retiring from the game at a news conference at 11 a.m. Friday.
His legacy is complicated, and the debate over his Pro Football Hall of Fame candidacy will surely continue because, well, that's what we do with everything nowadays.
He is seventh all time in passing yards and passing touchdowns - more in both categories than Hall of Famers John Elway and Joe Montana. He has seven seasons of more than 4,000 yards passing and three with more than 30 touchdown passes.
His streak of durability is incredible, with 210 consecutive starts, second all time to Brett Favre when it ended in 2017, and he never missed a game due to injury.
He bested Tom Brady and Bill Belichick on the biggest stage in sports not once but twice, winning the Most Valuable Player award in Super Bowl XLII and again in Super Bowl XLVI four years later.
There were those remarkable highs and shake-your-head lows - Manning led the league in interceptions three times - and his career regular season record of 117-117 speaks to the mediocrity that has defined Giants football for much of the past decade.
But years from now, when Brady and Belichick are being lauded for the greatest run for a quarterback and coach combination in NFL history, just remember the part Manning has played in those legacies.
Critics will say the Giants' defenses that featured Hall of Famer Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul carried Manning to those titles. Yet that could not be further from the truth. If anything, it was Manning who raised his level in the playoffs en route to both Super Bowls, including unforgettable performances on the road in five of those steps to the Big Game.
That, in and of itself, is worthy of a Hall of Fame bust in Canton, Ohio.
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How beloved is Manning by many Giants fans?
When you call him the greatest quarterback in the 95-year history of the franchise, somehow that is perceived as a slight because, in their eyes, he is so much more.
And in some ways, they are right.
"For 16 seasons, Eli Manning defined what it is to be a New York Giant both on and off the field," co-owner and team president John Mara said, adding: "He represented our franchise as a consummate professional with dignity and accountability. It meant something to Eli to be the Giants quarterback, and it meant even more to us."
The amazing part of Manning's longevity with the Giants, and perhaps the most frustrating part, is that he was largely a myth for teammates in recent years.
Those who won with Eli were long gone, replaced by younger ones who watched him win on TV, but did not win with him.
The respect was always there, but there's a different bond for the Giants of the Super Bowls of 2007 and 2011 and the players who have come through since.
You stay for 16 years, you're a part of multiple generations.
Manning was present for the best and worst the Giants have been.
Hall of Famer Harry Carson suffered a similar fate with the Giants in the late 1970s. His career was almost a complete reversal of what Manning lived through: unfathomable losing early followed by greatness late that culminated in Super Bowl XXI in 1987 and the first of four Vince Lombardi trophies for the franchise.
Manning played a significant role in bringing home two of those for Big Blue.
Manning will forever be linked with Ben Roethlisberger of the Steelers and Philip Rivers of the Chargers - three iconic quarterbacks drafted in the Class of 2004. All three can make their Hall of Fame case, even though Rivers is without the two Super Bowl rings Manning and Roethlisberger have won in their respective tenures.
Considering what has transpired in their respective markets, neither Roethlisberger nor Rivers would have survived New York and had the success here Manning did.
The trio ended up where they were supposed to end up.
Manning was destined for the Big Apple, and he made sure of that, his desire not to play in San Diego having helped orchestrate a draft day trade that brought the No. 1 overall pick from Ole Miss to the Giants.
"It's easy to say the championships, and I think those are special memories," Manning said when asked of what he is most proud during his career. "I think just the work every day, came in committed to getting better and finding ways to win games and to improve myself and improve my teammates. I'm proud of the friendships and being a good teammate to all the guys that came in here. Trying to help out anybody who needed help and work. I think the commitment was there and sometimes you got the result, sometimes you didn't. I think I always gave myself, this team and this organization everything I had."
Which is why Manning's legacy as a giant among Giants will last forever.
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