HOLLYWOOD, Fla. – Three years ago, Eli Manning became the first Giants player to receive the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award (which he shared with Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald). This morning, Manning achieved another franchise milestone when he was presented with the Athletes in Action/Bart Starr Award, the first Giant to be so honored in its 32-year history.
The award is given annually to an NFL player who "best exemplifies outstanding character and leadership in the home, on the field, and in the community." Manning received the award at the Super Bowl breakfast, an annual NFL-sanctioned event at the Diplomat Hotel in Hollywood, Fla., a week after announcing his retirement, something he is still getting accustomed to.
"I probably haven't worked out as much as I should have," he said. "I've missed a few, kind of played golf instead of working out. Not much has changed so far. The first week has been pretty smooth."
Each NFL team nominates one candidate and players around the league select the winner of the Bart Starr award at the same time they vote for Pro Bowl players.
The award, bearing the name of Hall of Fame Green Bay Packers quarterback Bart Starr, honors his lifelong commitment to serving as a positive role model to his family, teammates and community. Starr passed away at age 85 on May 26. His widow, Cherry, and son, Bart Starr, Jr., attended the breakfast.
Manning's brother Peyton won the award in 2015.
"Thank you so much for this great honor," Manning told the 1,500 people in attendance. "The loss of Bart Starr last year gives extra significance to today and his memory, and what it really means to be an athlete in action. I love that Peyton and I have become the first brothers to be awarded this incredible honor. That means mom and dad, you did something right. My brother Cooper is here today, as well. Coop, you're not too bad, either.
"It's also important that this is an award voted on by the NFL players. That it's now my former NFL brothers that gave me the nod. I'm happy to say that there are so many others in the league who deserve to be singled out for the way that they conduct their lives on and off the field. That's especially true of this year's finalists. Congratulations to all of you."
Giants president and chief executive officer John Mara and his wife, Denise, and several other members of the Mara family attended the breakfast.
Manning, of course, won two Super Bowl most valuable player awards and set more than 20 franchise records in his brilliant career. But he has long considered his work off the field to be his most important contribution. He and his family built the Eli Manning Children's Clinics at the Blair E. Batson Hospital for Children in Jackson, Miss. Manning heads the Tackle Kids Cancer Initiative at Hackensack UMC and he launched "Eli's Challenge" by pledging to match grassroots donations from local organizations dollar-for-dollar up to $100,000. He also supports numerous other charities, including March of Dimes, Guiding Eyes for the Blind, American Red Cross, Scholastic's Classroom Care Program and the PeyBack Foundation.
"If he (Bart Starr) were here today, he would be thrilled to see the second Manning winner of this award, because Eli Manning has done so many things," Starr, Jr. said. "It would take 10 minutes to talk about all the community service he has done in Mississippi and in New York with various charities. Trust me when I say they have been numerous and they've had a profound impact on people's lives. The Manning family and Eli Manning embody the very principles that my dad stood for. Eli is such a wonderful recipient of this year's award."
Manning was introduced by Pro Football Hall of Fame and Super Bowl-winning coach Tony Dungy, who coached Peyton Manning on the Indianapolis Colts.
"Archie and Olivia Manning have been phenomenal parents, and raised not only two outstanding sons, but a third, Cooper, who's here," Dungy said. "They are just phenomenal people, raised the right way, and a tribute to them that they have two boys who have won this award.
"I'm going to really introduce Eli by something my mother used to say. She was an English teacher, she taught high school English public speaking and Shakespeare. From the time I was a little boy, she used to tell me, 'Excellence that feels it has to be proclaimed by the mere fact that its proclamation, admits the doubt of its existence.' Now, when you're six years old or eight years old, you say, 'What does that mean?' She would say, 'If you're good, you don't have to say it. Let other people talk about you.' To me, that's Eli Manning, all the way. He has never said a word about himself, even though he's won two Super Bowls. He's never pointed you to what he does off the field and his commitment to service work in New York and Mississippi. He just let's other people say it."
Manning enjoys calling attention to himself about as much as he liked throwing an interception. Today, he was more interested in talking about Starr.
"The people who have come before me, starting with Bart Starr himself, are champions in every way," Manning said. "They show the world what a person's talents can become when coupled with exemplary character in their home, on the field and in their community. In the NFL and in elite sports, reputation, or as it's called today, a personal brand, gets an awful lot of attention. It often becomes synonymous with who the individual is as a person, and because of marketing, that's intentional, even if it's not always totally genuine. But as President Abraham Lincoln once said, 'A person's character is like a tree, and their reputation, the shadow. The shadow is what we think of, but the tree is the real thing.' Who you are and what you do in private, as well as in public, is what's real. … I'm a big fan of people being exactly who they are, while stretching to become the athlete and person that they are capable of becoming.
"I've seen all of Bart Starr's stats. But the thing that stands out for me the most was his character. We only met a few times, but as big as his talent was, it was clear that Bart was the same person in private as he was in public. I imagine him treating Mr. Irrelevant exactly the same as he would a superstar. It's too easy to become an elitist in professional sports, especially with the much-heralded NFL. We are human. It's natural to be charmed by the millions of fans devoted to us, watching us play every game, wearing our jerseys, and calling out our names each week. Our quest to be the best at our sport is easier to go through life with blinders on. It's easier to focus on the work that it requires to be the best, and only connect with those who block, tackle, or catch a ball for us. It's easy to automatically wave to the masses without thought. It becomes too easy to walk right past people at home, in the equipment room, in the community, without exerting the energy to make that person feel like they're really seen, heard, or valuable. But each of us bears the burden of proving that we're more than a celebrated football player, of proving what we've learned and deeply understanding what teamwork really means. We have to apply those lessons and pay it forward, beyond the field, in our homes, and in our communities. When we've mastered that as well as we have mastered our favorite play, then we have earned the right to walk in the shadow of Bart Starr. Thank you for this incredible honor and the ability to walk away from the game knowing that football, and my last 16 years as a New York Giant, helped make me who I am."
Photos from the career of two-time Super Bowl MVP quarterback Eli Manning