Ernie Accorsi was watching the 1983 NBA Finals, when suddenly a most surreal story flashed across his screen. The general manager of the Baltimore Colts picked up the telephone, called his coach, Frank Kush, and asked him: "Are you watching the basketball game?"
"No," Kush said. "I don't watch the NBA."
"Well," Accorsi said, "you better turn it on because they just traded our quarterback."
Before owner Bob Irsay had moved the Colts to Indianapolis in the middle of the night, he had traded John Elway to the Denver Broncos against the pleadings of his general manager and coach. Elway swore that he wouldn't play for the Colts, that drafting him No. 1 promised to be a monumental mistake for Baltimore. He'd play baseball for the Yankees. He'd sit out. Accorsi wanted to call his bluff, stay the course, but he never had the chance.
"It was the easiest decision I've ever made in football, like drafting Willie Mays," Accorsi once told me. "I had grown up with the Colts. The franchise had been too storied to sell short. My obligation was to take the best player. Over time, I think the choice has been justified."
All these years later, Accorsi, now the general manager of the New York Giants, has a chance to bring back a franchise passer, a chance to find himself on the winning side of a No. 1 pick's diva act. Mississippi's Eli Manning wants nothing to do with the San Diego Chargers, the way Stanford's Elway dismissed the Baltimore Colts. The Giants are picking fourth in the draft, and there are strong suggestions that the franchise's stability and talented tight end and receivers make New York the preferred destination for Eli and his father, Archie.
This is the chance for the Giants to get the superstar quarterback that they haven't had since Phil Simms, a chance for Accorsi to even the score with fate. Accorsi can steal Manning in similar circumstances that cost him Elway. Kerry Collins is a good quarterback, but Manning has a chance to be a great one. And Accorsi always swore that he would never pass on quarterback greatness.
Between now and the Chargers' ticking draft day clock, the Giants gather leverage by the minute. The Chargers can hold out until early Saturday, but they can't afford the embarrassment of picking Manning in Manhattan and watching him refuse to march up to the podium. Rest assured, they'll wait on offers until the final minute, but in the end, the Giants are working from the most significant strength. Accorsi believes in franchise quarterbacks, refusing to accept the evolving NFL belief that team's can afford to search the late rounds and scrap heaps for Super Bowl quarterbacks, like Tom Brady and Kurt Warner.
Around New York, he'll have a hard time explaining what happened if the Giants don't trade from fourth into that No. 1 spot -- especially if Eli Manning wanted to be a Giant and the franchise wouldn't pay the price. It would turn New York into a quarterback town, with two sons of the South, Manning and the Jets' Chad Pennington, promising to make Giants Stadium something to see every Sunday.
Accorsi has hinted toward his retirement sooner than later, so Manning probably wouldn't haunt the Giants GM, the way Elway did. And make no mistake: Elway made Accorsi miserable for years. After Irsay traded Elway, it wasn't long until Accorsi resigned his job with the Colts, just to end up the Cleveland Browns' general manager. Three years later, Accorsi sat in the freezing cold and watched Elway take the Broncos 98 yards on The Drive that eventually delivered the Broncos to the Super Bowl. Before Elway was done, he beat the Browns three times in the AFC Championship game. He refused to stop breaking Accorsi's heart. The Colts weren't just his employer, but his childhood love.
"I believe, had Elway stayed, the team never would've moved," Accorsi said. "Our season ticket base was up 36,000 that season, and there's no question Elway alone would have gotten it to 50,000. I was just going to play the percentages, be patient. I knew it was going to be a long battle. We weren't going to convince him on Baltimore in five days, but we had reason to believe over time we had a decent chance."
This time, nobody needs to sell Eli Manning on the Giants. Nobody needs to sell him on New York. Between now and noon Saturday in New York, high noon in these high-stakes game, the Chargers and Giants can wait for someone to blink. In the end, the deal must get done. Everyone has too much to lose. And all these years, after all these great quarterbacks have come and gone, Ernie Accorsi has waited to finally get his man.
Adrian Wojnarowski is a columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj8@aol.com.