Ole Miss head coach David Cutcliffe summoned the redshirt freshman off the bench in the fourth quarter of the 2000 Music City Bowl in Nashville, Tenn., with the Rebels down 49-9 to West Virginia.
The redshirt freshman threw three touchdown passes, and the final was 49-38.
The redshirt freshman was Eli Manning.
“It’s just a rare thing in the way his mind works,” Cutcliffe told The Post.
“He came off the field and I was asking him about a play that lasted five seconds. And his answer back as to what went through his mind in that five seconds was a 30-second answer. And I was just like, ‘Wow!’ His brain processes so fast, and he’s all about business. I see it when I look in his eyes and I see him play a game. Some people look at it as, ‘Well, he’s emotionless.’ But he’s deep into it.
“And he also is not deterred by naysayers. He’s got a really great ability to not worry about what others think. That may be as important as anything. … He will critique himself, he’s not gonna listen to noise.”
Cutcliffe, now the Duke head coach, was an early eyewitness to how and why Manning’s teammates adored and followed him.
“What I would call Eli is: a great crossover leader,” Cutcliffe said. “Because it’s defense, it’s offense, it’s any position. He has the ability of not taking himself too seriously, there’s no ego. He’s easy to like he’s sincere, he’s all of those things. Easy E you know? There’s a lot of people that play with the intensity he has that kinda carry that intensity around all the time or maybe can even be a little standoffish but not Eli, he’s pretty much an open book. He’s a lot of fun.
“He’s sometimes too much fun. He’s one of the greatest practical jokers of all time.”
“He puts my phone in foreign languages, he takes my computer, and when he comes in the past to come work out, I go in there and there’s all these crazy things on my computer and I can’t undo it,” Cutcliffe said. “I have to go get IT people. Some of ’em I can’t even say. He’s just Eli. You better have your guard up.”
Cutcliffe had coached Big Brother Peyton Manning at Tennessee. Little Brother was driven in his own way.
“His preparation [was] not only in-season, his preparation [was] all season,” Cutcliffe said. “Eli was an extremely hard worker in the weight room, taking care of his body. He never got out shape, so he never had to get back into shape. And then, I can just tell you sitting with him hours watching film in March, watching film in April, even June. And just studying the game, a hunger for it.”
Cutcliffe coached Daniel Jones in college, and he shared an anecdote about after the 2020 Giants had been eliminated from the playoffs when the Eagles lost to the Washington Football Team, which speaks volumes about Manning’s successor.
“I went to bed just so disappointed in the game I decided to call him the next morning,” Cutcliffe said. “I called him at 6 o’clock in the morning, he was at the complex there by himself looking at the game film, knowing that there was no chance of another game. Critiquing himself, critiquing the game. I couldn’t have been more proud of that moment and Daniel.”
And remember when Tom Coughlin, at his farewell Giants press conference, had to reassure Manning that it wasn’t his fault? Cutcliffe had to do the same for Daniel Jones when Pat Shurmur was fired.
“He called me and he’s saying, ‘It’s my fault,’ ” Cutcliffe said. “Later on I called Pat, and Pat said this had been hard, but the hardest thing is the way Daniel’s taking this. Thank goodness we got some guys that still care. He’s not playing to make money. He’s playing football for the love of the game.”
Cutcliffe never doubted that Eli Manning and New York would be a match made in heaven.
“I thought he had the emotional, mental makeup to make it in New York,” Cutcliffe said. “And you know and I know not everybody can make it in New York. It takes a special guy.”
You never know if one day your star quarterback will have his number retired by the lucky team that drafted him, and the jury is still out on Daniel Jones in his crucial third season. But Cutcliffe believes in Jones the way he believed in Manning, and when you ask him if there is a possibility one day Jones will have the kind of day that Manning will have on Sunday, he says:
“There’s a chance, because he’s got the ability and the makeup and the work ethic. But we’re susceptible to having the right people around us, period. I realize the Giants have the greatest fans on earth. But everybody thinks the quarterback can just get you in the Super Bowl, and particularly after Tom Brady had a great year and the Bucs got it done, but there were other elements around him that made it all work. The Giants have to mature, and I think they can mature, and it’s early in this year right now.”
Cutcliffe will be preparing to face North Carolina on Oct. 2, so he won’t be able to make it to MetLife Stadium for Manning’s special day Sunday.
“I knew he was gonna be successful, I knew he was gonna be a great pro quarterback,” Cutcliffe said. “But when you start talking about, as they would say, the New York Football Giants. … I know the Giants’ history, those greats, Y.A. Tittle and [Frank] Gifford and more and more and there you are … to be a guy that is gonna have your jersey retired there. Hey it’s New York, New York, right?”
“It makes my palms sweat to even think about it,” Cutcliffe said. “What I know about him is how emotional it’s gonna be and how good he feels about having been a New York Giant for line. I’m picturing his face right now. He will have that look we’ve seen … not a sad look, but just a look of emotion just pouring out of it. That’s him, he’s not afraid of emotion. People don’t realize just how much he cares. The memories, the teammates, the coaches, the ownership. … And he’s a New York Giant, and so he’s gonna feel that, how great it’s gonna be there, home in the stadium.
“I’m thrilled for him, I really am.”
All of New York is.