INDIANAPOLIS -- The gangly freshman was being redshirted. He needed more bulk and strength before he had a chance to hit the field for Ole Miss. He also needed to answer a question from his head coach.
" 'I need to know, and I need to know the truth -- Do you want to be a starter at Ole Miss? Do you want be all-conference? Do you want to be All-American? Or do you want to be the best who's ever played here?' " Cutcliffe said. "And I said, 'Do not answer that right now. Go home and think about it. I want a conscious answer.' "
The question was as loaded as they come: The best player in the history of this particular institution just so happened to be Manning's father, Archie. He was an icon in the SEC and especially in Oxford, with speed limits on campus set at 18, the number Archie wore as a Rebel.
Three days later, the younger Manning returned with an answer. The 18-year-old looked Cutcliffe in the eye and said, "I want to be the best that ever played here."
That gave Cutcliffe the roadmap he felt he needed for handling the son of a legend, but moreso it provided insight into who the youngest of Archie's sons really is. Underneath the easy-going, laid-back demeanor lies a fierce competitor unafraid and unaffected by the most intense scrutiny or brightest spotlight. As Cutcliffe said, "I don't think handling the pressure has ever bothered him.
"And with all due respect to Archie, Eli's the best who's ever played there."
"Eli's disposition is one of calmness," Archie said earlier this week. "I don't think he's shy -- although, as a youngster, he was shy -- there's just a calmness about him. I've never seen him get way down. And he gets excited, but he never goes crazy. He's level. And I think Eli's disposition has served him well, especially playing in New York."
Eli Manning was in the fifth grade when his eldest brother, Cooper, was being courted as an SEC receiver prospect; and in the eighth grade when middle brother Peyton started his first game at Tennessee. All that before he even reached his freshman year at Isidore Newman School in New Orleans, where both his siblings starred.
Each of the Manning kids had expectations following them. But no one had more to live up to than Eli.
"See, I think a lot of people made a big deal of that," said Cooper, who had a back condition that ended his playing career after high school. "But Eli never put that pressure on himself. He enjoyed football. He never went to bed saying, 'Golly, they're gonna be on me. They'll rip me if I'm not as good as Peyton.' He never looked at it like that, never saw the pressure. For him, football was a personal thing, and he just wanted to get better."
Still, until you see a kid face the pressure, you can project, but it's hard to know just how he'll handle it.
Eli's first chance came as a freshman at Newman, when seven varsity players were suspended and the 14-year-old JV quarterback had to step in. He was immediately up to the task, and Newman won the game.
"I was a worried a little bit about Eli when he took over as the quarterback in high school," Archie explained. "Some people figured, 'God, that's a lot of pressure.' By then, Peyton was established at Tennessee. But it wasn't pressure to Eli. He loved it. And then, I worried a little bit about Ole Miss, not because I played there, but because of what Peyton did at Tennessee and how Ole Miss people were expecting Eli to do the same thing."
As a redshirt freshman, Manning showed he was again up to the challenge. With the Rebels down 49-16 to West Virginia in the fourth quarter of the Music City Bowl, the 19-year-old stepped in for his first meaningful collegiate snaps and promptly threw three touchdown passes, making a blowout a competitive game again.
"I knew I had something special," said Cutcliffe, now coaching at Duke. "Eli comes off the field, and we had a conversation about the drive. And I had three specific plays I wanted to ask him about, and each one is 3-4 seconds. I wanted to know what he was thinking, and it took him 30 seconds to explain his thought process on each play. And I was thinking, 'Wow,' because it was all real."
At that point, of course, Manning wasn't thinking about wearing his dad's college colors, or what his older brother accomplished at some other SEC school. That tunnel-vision guided him to a college career that saw him break or tie 45 Ole Miss passing records and left Cutcliffe thinking, "God forbid they should lower the speed limit to 10."
Nor was Manning thinking about the avalanche of criticism that he incurred in New York during his 25-interception 2010 season. He was just thinking about how to improve.
A look inside Manning's brain
Last summer, after that rough campaign, Manning called Cutcliffe wanting to set up a three-day minicamp at Duke with Giants receivers Hakeem Nicks and Jerrel Jernigan. Cutcliffe told Manning that if he was going to take time off his vacation to work with him, he was going to coach his old quarterback hard. So Manning, with the lockout still in progress, put in three full days of film study prior to traveling to North Carolina, and sent Cutcliffe a very specific itinerary. It built on lockout workouts he'd set up with his receivers in New Jersey earlier in the offseason. And ultimately, it proved once again that this year Manning was, in Cutcliffe's words, "a man on a mission." Responding to the heat in New York? Not even close. To those around Manning, the drive that set up this spectacular season of his had more to do with his own expectations than anything else.
"You can't discount the fact that he has the physical and intellectual skills to do it," Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride said on Monday. "You can't take that out of the mix, it's erroneous not to include that, because he wouldn't have the confidence he has if he didn't know he had those skills. But there's a genuine, deep-rooted belief in himself there, a healthy self-esteem masked in a quiet personality."
Remember, Manning didn't just land in New York. He actually forced his way there, pushing for San Diego to trade the first pick in the 2004 NFL Draft. The Chargers eventually did and Manning became a Giant. Maybe it wasn't that he necessarily coveted the pressure or the spotlight. Though he did anything but run from it.
Former Giants GM Ernie Accorsi initially wanted Manning for the way he was capable of carrying a team, evident by his success with an undermanned Ole Miss group competing against the iron of the SEC. The above dynamic, though, certainly didn't hurt his cause in the New York draft room.
SB Debate: Manning or Brady?
"I want my quarterback to be cool, I don't want him jumping around," Accorsi said. "I came in with [Johnny] Unitas, and if you go back and watch the sudden-death touchdown (from the 1958 NFL Championship Game), you'll see he turned and just walked off the field."
Manning's level-headedness allowed him to handle everything, including the controversial circumstances of his arrival.
"He had all the qualities he's exhibiting now," Accorsi continued. "You saw him take teams down the field, all those things. It doesn't mean it's going to happen in the pros -- you can't predict [Plaxico Burress] is gonna get open in the Super Bowl -- but the seeds were sewn. The circumstances enabled him to do it."
As an athlete in New York, Accorsi always liked how Manning would say he admired the way Derek Jeter carried himself publicly. And the Giants quarterback is beginning to garner a similar reputation to the Yankees' captain as a clutch winner.
The funny thing about how Manning's story has played out in 2011, to those who know him, is how it's perceived that he's undergone some type of transformation.
Way back at Newman, the youngest member of the first family of quarterbacking was given the nickname "Easy E" by his teammates, a nod to that laid-back nature. It soon was shortened to "Easy," and followed him to Ole Miss and then the pros.
The truth is he's never really changed much, which might be as big a part of his success as anything.
"I think if his teammates saw Eli going crazy, and banging his helmet with theirs or going berserk, they'd be more alarmed than seeing him mellow in all those big spots," Cooper said. "It's normal, it's routine, it's the way he is. He doesn't get too high or too low. He's pretty unflappable, regardless. He may fight it when it's not good, and love it when it's great, but doesn't ever lose sight of the mission."
In fact, if anything surprised the Manning clan about Eli's 2011 campaign, it was something that happened before the season even began: his now-infamous comments on sports radio in New York. When asked if he was in "Tom Brady's class," Manning didn't hesitate to provide an affirmative answer. That response caught Archie off guard and spurred a season-long debate on whether or not Eli is truly elite.
"As Eli's daddy, I thought, 'That doesn't sound like Eli,' " Archie said. "But I didn't call him after I read about it and it started making news. The thing that made me say 'Whatever' was hearing Tom Coughlin say that he thought the same thing I did, and then investigated a little bit and figured any other quarterback would say the same thing. It was a couple weeks before I asked Eli about it, and I know how Eli is. He doesn't worry about that stuff."
The moment could be paralleled back to that day when Cutcliffe asked his freshman quarterback how good he wanted to be. The coach had to pose the question then, because Manning wasn't going to tell him otherwise. After the answer came, Cutcliffe realized that his quarterback felt that way all along. In this case, more than a decade later, Manning had no problem placing himself among the game's best. All it took was someone asking.
And with a win on Sunday, it's going to be a lot harder for anyone else to disagree.