EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Eli Manning returned to the center of MetLife Stadium Sunday afternoon for the first time in 651 days and it's obvious the time apart did not dull the affection between the Giants' former quarterback and the team's fans.
On a beautiful autumn afternoon, a crowd of 74,119 people saved some of their loudest cheers for Manning, who was inducted into the Giants' Ring of Honor and had his No. 10 jersey retired in a ceremony at halftime of a 17-14 loss to the Atlanta Falcons.
Surrounded by former teammates and coaches, Manning stood on a stage set up at midfield near the visitor's sideline and told the raucous crowd, "Wellington Mara said, 'Once a Giant, always a Giant.' I'm glad I'm only a Giant."
In his franchise-record 16 years and 248 regular-season and postseason games, Manning led the Giants to a pair of Super Bowl titles and was the MVP in each of the victories against the New England Patriots. He holds almost all of the Giants' significant passing records and is one of the most popular players in franchise history.
Manning led the Giants to victory against the Miami Dolphins in his final start on Dec. 15, 2019 and announced his retirement less than six weeks later.
On Sunday, he was joined on the stage by his parents Archie and Olivia, his wife Abby, team president John Mara, executive vice president Steve Tisch, and former center Shaun O'Hara, who, like all of Manning's teammates, wore a blue No. 10 jersey.
Fittingly, Manning was escorted to the platform by some of his offensive linemen, including Chris Snee, Kevin Boothe, Kareem McKenzie, Rich Seubert and David Diehl.
The players who lined up in front of the stage were Justin Tuck, Amani Toomer, Victor Cruz, Mario Manningham, David Tyree, Plaxico Burress, Kevin Boss, Ahmad Bradshaw, Zak DeOssie, Corey Webster, Jay Alford, Mathias Kiwanuka, and Jeff Feagles, who wore No. 10 before giving it to Manning in exchange for a family vacation in Florida.
Former coaches Kevin Gilbride and Chris Palmer were also in attendance.
Behind the stage was a 30-yard long white banner with images of Manning and the words, "Thank you."
Former coach Tom Coughlin, the most important figure in Manning's career, was unable to attend but lauded his former quarterback in a tribute shown on the stadium's huge screens.
"Eli, there are four Super Bowl championship trophies in the trophy case upfront at the New York Giants' offices," Coughlin said. "You were the quarterback and the MVP on two of those Super Bowl championship teams. I just looked at the final drive the other day, and even though I know the outcome, you couldn't write the script any better. My God, if you're writing a drama or a great sports story, there it is. You literally put your team on your shoulders, drove the ball the length of the field and got the winning touchdown. Congratulations to you on your induction into the New York Giants Ring of Honor. You, my good man, are a New York Giants legend."
Next up on the big boards was former defensive end and Pro Football Hall of Famer Michael Strahan.
"Hey Eli, it's Michael here," said Strahan, a member of the Ring of Honor whose No. 92 jersey will be retired on Nov. 28. "I just want to say congratulations, my friend, well deserved. A jersey retirement, going into the Ring of Honor. You have earned every bit of it. You make me an extremely happy teammate and you made all those Giants fans out there extremely happy as well, man, bringing it two Super Bowls to New York City and the Giants. I love you, I'm proud of you, I'm happy for you, and I want to also apologize. I didn't mean to grab you like that man. I was just so excited because that excitement you brought to everybody else, you brought it to me in Super Bowl 42, so I love you, man. Congratulations again."
O'Hara then strode to the microphone set up on the stage.
"Eli, on behalf of your teammates, coaches, and Giants fans, congratulations on a remarkable career," O'Hara said. "Not just for what you did on this field, alongside many Super Bowl fields, but for what you did off the field. The way you carried yourself, the way you honor the Giants. There's a great quote that I think is very fitting for you right now: 'No man was ever honored for what he received. Honor was a reward for what he gave.'"
Manning was then presented with a framed jersey and a dark blue blazer with the Ring of Honor logo.
"Eli, for 16 seasons you set the standard for what a Giants player should be both on and off the field," Mara said. "As a two-time Super Bowl champion, NFL Man of the Year, and as a future Hall of Famer, you represented this team with pride, with dignity, and with class. We now welcome you into our Ring of Honor and tell you that no Giant will ever wear number 10 again."
As the crowd stood, Manning – wearing his new jacket – took the microphone and could barely be heard above the din.
"Thank you so much," he said. "I am grateful and honored to be here today. I'd like to thank the Mara and the Tisch families for making this possible. Being a part of the New York Giants organization has been one of the great joys of my life. I'm indebted to so many wonderful coaches and great teammates. I'm lucky that I still get to call so many of them mentors and friends now. This day would not be possible without the love and support of my family. It was easy for everyone to celebrate the wins, but you were the ones that were with me all the time and had my back and picked me up when I was down.
"And last but not least, a big thank you to the great New York Giants fans. I'm going to miss running out through that tunnel and hearing your cheers. And thank you for this incredible journey."
After he finished, the stadium thundered again as a blue banner facing the upper deck on the opposite side of the field was removed to reveal Manning's name in the Ring of Honor.
But Manning still had a couple of passes left in his arm. He threw the first to Tyree, who recreated his epic helmet catch in Super Bowl XLII – "76 union Y sail," O'Hara said. Manningham then stepped up and caught a Manning pass down the left sideline, just as he did to start the game-winning drive in Super Bowl XLVI.
He doesn't wear a Giants uniform anymore, but Manning can still create magic in MetLife Stadium.
Check out the best photos from Eli Manning's jersey retirement and Ring of Honor induction ceremony at MetLife Stadium.