- Ian O'Connor, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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HOBOKEN, N.J. -- Vinny Johnson was a star quarterback at Hoboken High School and, better yet, the biggest Archie Manning fan in what would become Eli Manning's adopted hometown. In fact, Johnson saw in the father a toughness and resolve he did not always see in the son.
So as an assistant coach at Hoboken and the man charged to shepherd Manning and a small circle of Giants teammates through their recent lockout-inspired workouts, Johnson was moved to approach Eli with this simple confession:
"You're not the quarterback I really thought you were."
Manning smiled that goofy, aw-shucks smile of his.
"I mean," Johnson continued, "you're a greater quarterback than I thought you were."
No, the point isn't to suggest that it takes a quarterback to know one, or that Johnson's quarter century of coaching teenagers at Hoboken High makes him a tougher and more credible critic of the Giants' franchise player.
The point is to show how Eli Manning has grown on the people around here, if only because Eli Manning has done some growing of his own.
"What a general he is," said Johnson, who runs the Veterans Field facility at Hoboken High's John F. Kennedy Stadium. "The way he handles himself, the way he handles his teammates, it's amazing to see how they respond to him.
"Eli comes in around 10 a.m., he talks, everyone's quietly listening, and then they get their work done. You can see in the eyes of his teammates that they're going to do everything this kid asks of them, and they're going to try to make him the best quarterback there is."
Chances are, Manning won't ever be the best quarterback in his own family, never mind the best quarterback there is. He did throw 25 interceptions last year, not all of them deflected, remember?
But it wasn't so long ago when Manning was defined by his slumping shoulders, by his bewildered facial expressions, and by the fan base's suspicion that he didn't have the necessary leadership gene to be a championship quarterback.
In the immediate wake of the 2006 season, and the Giants' first-round playoff elimination in Philly, Archie Manning returned a reporter's phone call and promised that Peyton's kid brother would soon take his team by the chin strap, if not the throat.
"Eli will never be like Jim McMahon," his father said then, "but I think he will take a step forward in that regard next year. He's a quiet kid, but I saw him do this at Ole Miss. By his senior year, he was assertive. ... I'm very confident he's going to make that part of his work in the offseason."
It hasn't been a smooth path to Canton since, not after Plaxico Burress shot up the Giants' dynastic designs by blasting a hole in his own leg. But Manning is no longer the retiring, squeaky-voiced quarterback mocked by Tiki Barber and friends.
He speaks with more authority and stands with his shoulders square. The end-of-the-world loss to the Eagles last year didn't send Manning cowering behind a desk; he called a team meeting for the first time in his seven seasons, and made sure his was the only voice heard in the room.
Manning didn't want that audible to go public, just like he didn't want these workouts near his Hoboken residence to go public. But Johnson stood a better chance of convincing local elders to disown Frank Sinatra than he did of keeping Team Eli's get-togethers a secret.
The best Johnson could do was to keep everything simple and drama-free, just the way Manning prefers it. The pass-and-catch drills run by the quarterback and the likes of Kevin Boss and Hakeem Nicks have drawn school kids on lunch break, city workers, stroller-pushing mothers and reporters hoping against hope that Manning might stop and say something newsworthy about the lockout or the team.
Johnson guards the stadium gates and politely rejects the autograph requests he fields from school officials, colleagues and cops. He doesn't want to bother the players while their zigging and zagging on his artificial turf.
But Johnson did jump into the fray when Eli's backup, Sage Rosenfels, jokingly claimed that Eli's oft-battered father had better blockers in New Orleans than people think. "I used to watch Archie play for the Saints and he got absolutely no protection and had to run toward the sideline," Johnson said. "So I said, 'Hey Eli, show [Rosenfels] your father's films. That will prove he didn't have any blocking.'"
Manning allowed himself a small laugh. "Everything is business with Eli," Johnson said.
The Hoboken assistant was impressed. Once a fan of Archie Manning's and Dan Marino's, Johnson needed only a few days around Archie's boy to identify something in Eli he didn't expect.
"I'm a Dolphins fan and my brother's a Giants fan," Johnson said, "and I used to tell my brother that Eli is overrated. I just wasn't very big on him, but now I think he's the real deal.
"Just getting to know him a little bit, you can see the real person and you can tell a lot by looking in his eyes. We had a great coach here at Hoboken, Ed Stinson, and he had a look that would make us all run through a wall for him. I see that same look in Eli's eyes."
Johnson was wearing a red Hoboken cap, a team pullover and coach's shorts as he stood under a "no trespassing" sign near the turf field, his field, that was wedged between a few tennis courts and some weary-looking buildings from another time. The soccer nets were down behind one end zone, but the bags were out for the baseball and softball diamonds in the corners of the field.
Johnson spoke about his bygone days as a 155-pound quarterback running the Delaware offense for Hoboken before he turned the conversation back to a man working on a $97.5 million deal to play his old position.
"Eli's got the Super Bowl ring that Peyton has," Johnson said, "and that's made him more of a leader. He's not that guy that people used to talk about."
Manning convinced his teammates to come to him in Hoboken, rain or shine, labor deal or no labor deal. But he hasn't just won over the players in his locker room.
Eli has also won over the Vinny Johnsons in the crowd, one of his most important victories yet.
Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter."
Eli Manning is proving himself as a leader for the Giants.