- Adrian Wojnarowski
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The rite of passage into Manning football manhood has long worked its way its way across the 100-yard turf of the New Orleans Superdome, a legacy passed down from Archie to Cooper to Peyton. From regular seasons with the Saints to state playoffs at Newman High School, each had his own history there.
All except Eli. All except the Giants quarterback whose memories of throwing passes there were with his brothers late on Sunday afternoons, when their dad was done calling the NFL games in the television booth. So, Eli Manning had circled Sept. 18 on his Giants pocket schedule, his debut in the dome where his family name is royalty, in the city where his childhood house in the Garden District is on the walking and bus tours.
"I never played a game in the Dome," Eli said, "[But] I grew up there."
It's quite possible the final football game has been played in the Superdome, as the monolith that New Orleans and beyond will forever struggle to see in a football context again could be destined for demolition.
Sept. 18 at the Dome turned into Sept. 19 at Giants Stadium because of Hurricane Katrina and the broken levees. Suddenly a Manning is fittingly thrust into the middle of maybe the biggest night in Saints football history, what with the way America is pulling for them now, the way the displaced and devastated people of New Orleans are using them as a light in the darkness.
The NFL moved the Manning homecoming out of Louisiana, awarding the Giants a ninth home game despite letting the Saints wear their home black and hear pregame and halftime music born of the Bayou. In the middle of everything, it is fitting there is a Manning representing the night, because the Mannings beat a lot of grumbling Americans into the fray to help with the relief on the Gulf Coast, and they promise to be back again and again.
"I know they'll be calling on us," Archie said.
It wasn't long into the national catastrophe before Peyton and Eli were calling Archie on the hour in Mississippi, where he and their mother, Olivia, had evacuated before the storm. Soon, the Colts and Giants quarterbacks had secured a plane, packed it with relief supplies and climbed aboard for the flight bound for Baton Rouge.
When a lot of old neighbors were feeling forgotten and left behind, here were two of the city's most famous sons on the way with help, unloading boxes themselves and making sure the supplies arrived at the shelters, along with several hours of hugs and conversations.
Looking back, nothing prepared the Mannings for the way everyone responded to them in Baton Rouge. Sure, star athletes would soon start flocking there, from the NBA and NFL, but this was different. The Mannings belonged to them. The people knew where they grew up, where they ate Po' Boy sandwiches in the Garden District, where it all started for them.
Maybe Eli expected those people to know all about Peyton and the Colts, but he was floored that in the state of disarray and dismay these people found themselves in, they knew all about the Giants prospects for the season.
"They asked, 'How's Plaxico [Burress]? How's this big Brandon Jacobs?"
Man, you'd have to be some loyal Eli Manning fan to follow the Giants that closely to know that Jacobs, who played high school football in Louisiana, had surfaced as a fourth-round pick in New York. But then again, New Orleans always did follow every move those Manning boys made.
And if you don't think it resonated with those people that the Mannings hustled out of the NFL preseason in Indianapolis and New York to make that trip, vowing to be voices in the reconstruction and restoration of New Orleans for so many who've felt voiceless these past couple weeks, you don't know anything about the way that city loves football. Nor the way it always has loved its first family of football.
"That's amazing considering how many things must have been going through their heads, not knowing what's going to happen in the future," Eli said. "They knew where I went to high school, and they kept up with me at Ole Miss and last year [with the Giants].
"Football seems like a little thing, but it's important."
It is important to the people of New Orleans, wherever they've gone now, because it is part of New Orleans. It is an institution, something they always could count on -- even if that franchise always broke hearts. Archie Manning is staying clear of Giants Stadium on Monday night, partly because that's a rooting interest he wants no part of sharing on national television.
He'll always be a Saint, and no one knows better than him what the franchise means to the people there -- especially now. Yet family is family, and Eli is struggling to find his footing as the NFL's No. 1 pick in New York.
"I never intended to stay in New Orleans," Archie said. "[But] along the way, New Orleans was really good to me. We were the only pro team in town. We weren't too good, but the fans were passionate about the Saints and extremely good to me and my family."
So, the Mannings have tried to return the favor since the storm, the way hundreds of thousands of Americans have tried themselves. This is different for them, though. This is personal. This is home. Eli Manning won't get that homecoming game at the Superdome on Sunday, but he's resolved that one of these days, when they're back to giving tours of the Garden District again, you should expect to see the Manning boys outside Archie and Olivia's house, playing catch, and talking about who's going to pick up the Po' Boys at the corner pub.
"I can't imagine New Orleans not being rebuilt, being the same way it was," Eli said.
And the way it was always included Mannings in the middle of it all. If nothing else, one New Orleans family promises that will always be true.
Adrian Wojnarowski is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj10@aol.com. His new book, The Miracle Of St. Anthony: A Season with Coach Bob Hurley And Basketball's Most Improbable Dynasty, is available nationwide.
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