I didn’t know the Giants drafted Eli Manning until months after it actually happened.

My high school years in Baltimore were the period of my life least devoted to football. Living among Ravens fans and not wanting to deal with their teasing of the still fairly recent Super Bowl loss caused me to withdrawal from paying close attention to football. In Maryland it was easy to miss Giants games, we’d only get them on TV if the Redskins were playing them, they were on primetime, or the Redskins were scheduled at a different time. We could watch roughly 1/3rd of the games every year if we were lucky. So I spent most of my Sundays going through angst and depression like any good teenager should.

My New York grandparents decided to visit the summer of 2004 and I was tasked with chatting them up for several hours before my parents could get home. I don’t remember much of that conversation outside it being rather awkward since I hadn’t seen them in ten years. At some point though, it turned to football, and my grandfather mentioned he was excited to see what “this Manning brother we drafted could do”. I didn’t know Peyton had a brother. I barely knew who Peyton was. I barely knew our own roster at that point.

But I got intrigued and by the season’s start, I knew the story. Honestly I didn’t think much of him. I was honestly more excited the Giants had signed Kurt Warner. We had a Super Bowl winning QB on our team? Rad!

I spent Eli’s first two years giving the Giants the usual amount of high school attention. I watched enough to know he wasn’t playing that great and that fans were mad about it. We had given up a king’s ransom to draft him and out of the 3 QBs taken that first round, we got the lemon.

When I got to college in 2006 I made quick friends with the only other sports fan in the entire dorm floor (RIT is not a sports school). His enthusiasm for the Patriots helped get me back into watching the games again. My personal turning point of opinion on Eli was probably the same one as most Giants fans. When Tiki retired and decided to run his mouth the way he did and Eli responded with a sassy joke, it was like a tide had turned. The quiet doofus who threw bad picks had spoken for once, and it was a quality zinger against a guy the fanbase had now decided was a traitor. Eli was cool now. But could he win some games?

2007 was an amazing season in retrospect but at the time was filled with the same dread as seasons before it. Eli was still up and down. He hurt his shoulder early but kept playing. He did what had to be done that year and we comfortably took the 5th seed. After what many considered an upset against Tampa Bay (I don’t think it was an upset, the Giants were better than Tampa), they took down the mighty Cowboys and gained some respect.

It was enough for me at the time. All I wanted that season was to beat the Cowboys. Eli did it. Then all of a sudden he outplayed Brett Favre in Lambeau and I was watching a Super Bowl against my roommate’s undefeated Patriots and…we won. Eli won. He delivered a miracle play, a miracle drive, a miracle moment that I will never forget. It was the greatest sporting moment of my entire life.

From that day forward I didn’t care how bad Eli could play sometimes. He had delivered one of the greatest upsets in all of sports history and I felt honored to have witnessed it. But even then, they disrespected my boy. To giving all the credit to the defense, to continuously shitting on his interceptions and his face, my boy was still maligned. Then in 2011 he went and had the season of his life.

His play that year gets overshadowed in the stats by Rodgers and Brees having MVP seasons but without Eli, that 2011 win does not happen. He willed that team into the playoffs all by his own damn self, setting a record for 4th quarter comebacks. I watched him get obliterated over and over by San Francisco in the championship and he just kept getting back up like it was nothing. To this day I haven’t seen a more resilient QB performance.

His throw to Manningham on the game winning drive in Super Bowl 46 is the best throw I’ve ever seen him make. The Helmet Catch was mostly freaky luck. The Manningham throw was Eli’s greatest throw. He earned that Lombardi trophy in 2011, and don’t let anyone tell you that it was just him riding the defense again.

The team began the long slow decay soon after than win and the last half decade has largely been depressing. But despite all of that, Giants fans have not wavered in their love. Despite the interceptions, despite the losses piling up, despite the age clearly kicking in…we love Eli. He’s our boy.

I think the fact that he wasn’t constantly elite or top 3 is what made him so endearing to us. He was a perpetual underdog living in the shadow of draft expectations, of his brother, and of his contemporaries. And he still came out on top twice. Watching a dominant player be the best at his position is fun. Watching an imperfect player struggle and come out on top is inspiring. When I watched Eli play football I was inspired. I saw the value in persistence. I saw what hard work and a little good fortune could do. Eli felt like a blue collar hero. He was the guy from your neighborhood who made it and made you feel like you could too.

I don’t care if Eli makes the Hall of Fame. It honestly doesn’t even matter. He’s already a completely polarizing choice. Some think he’s a shoo-in. Others very much doubt it and don’t want him near the hall. If Eli does get picked, it won’t change anyone’s mind. The people who hate him will call it a terrible choice. The people who love him will think it was the right choice. It’ll be debated into eternity. Such is the life of a player who spent an entire career being perpetually underrated and overrated at the same time. Eli ending his career at 117-117 is perfect.

What I care about is the memories he gave me. I don’t need the Hall to pick him to somehow validate my love of him. When I think back on watching Eli play, I’m going to think of those moments that stats don’t show. I’m going to think of the escape during the helmet catch. I’m going to remember the throw to Burress, alone. I’m going to remember his goofy face when he threw a TD, and his goofy face when he threw a pick. I’m going to remember the countless comebacks and the bombs to Cruz. His hail mary to Nicks in the divisional round. Facing the wrath of the 49ers and not giving an inch. His silly direct TV commercials. His holding back tears when he was benched to end the streak. His final start, where he got to walk off with a win. The highs, the lows, and all the nonsense in-between. Eli gave Giants fans so much to treasure, and that’s why, despite his flaws, we will love the man forever. I’m not sure how I’m going to handle watching football without him.

Eli is my favorite athlete of all time and it was an honor to watch him play.

Thank you for everything, Eli.