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Manning stands up to system, draft day crowd

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Eli Manning is already a New York kind of guy.

He wasn't afraid to buck the system. He stood up to the boos. He bluffed that he might just sit out a year if the wrong team — the one in San Diego — took him. He did it his way.

Giants fans ought to love him if his talent lives up to his audacity and his pedigree.

The Ole Miss quarterback had the leverage to manipulate the NFL draft Saturday, and he played it to the hilt, warning the San Diego Chargers ahead of time that, heck, no, he won't go there. He had the counsel of his father, Archie, and the support of his brother, Peyton, but Eli is his own man and he made his own decision.

For that, he heard cascading boos at the Madison Square Garden theater and forced a sullen smile when he posed with commissioner Paul Tagliabue after the Chargers went ahead anyway and picked him at the top of the draft.

It should have been one of the happiest moments of Manning's life. Instead, he looked edgy, reluctantly holding up the Chargers' No. 1 jersey for the cameras but refusing to put on the team cap.

"I guess he didn't want to mess up his hair," Archie Manning quipped.

Mainly, his son said, he "didn't want to embarrass the commissioner and do anything out of the ordinary." He had already riled enough people.

Those jeering fans, and no doubt many others in San Diego and around the country, didn't like the idea of Eli Manning making his own rules. He ought to be thrilled, they figured, to be playing anywhere in the NFL.

But there are sheep and there are thoroughbreds, and Eli Manning is the latter. His will matches his prodigious talents.

Budding lawyers, doctors and engineers don't go through a draft. They have some choice about where they work. Why not athletes?

It's a curious aspect of pro leagues that they get away with holding drafts at all and essentially require players to go where they are chosen — at least until the day when they are traded or become free agents.

There will be no comparisons made here to slavery or auction blocks because slaves — not to mention lawyers, doctors, engineers and most everyone else — do not begin their careers with multimillion dollar contracts.

The drafts exist because they work to the benefit of the leagues and, by extension, the players. If parity is the genius of the NFL, then the draft is the mechanism that pushes it along — allowing the weakest teams to rebuild with the best young players.

That's all to the good. And when someone like Manning takes a stand against that system, he makes most everyone nervous — from the commissioner to the general managers, coaches and die-hard fans.

Yet the league is strong enough and the system is entrenched enough that it can easily withstand an occasional jolt from a recalcitrant player.

John Elway did the same thing in 1983 when he threatened to pitch for the New York Yankees rather than sign with the Baltimore Colts. Elway was a good baseball player at Stanford, though probably not of major league caliber. But he followed the advice of his father, Jack, a coach who thought he knew what was best for his son and wanted him to hold out for a trade.

Elway also had the help of George Steinbrenner in that ruse. The Yankees' boss offered Elway a contract and the Colts couldn't afford to call his bluff. The next move was the trade that sent Elway to Denver, where he went on to win two Super Bowls.

Manning's drama didn't take nearly so long to unfold. An hour of frenzied phone calls after the Chargers took him, they capitulated and traded him to the Giants for their No. 1 choice, North Carolina State's Philip Rivers.

The Chargers saved face and bolstered their prospects by also getting New York's third-round pick this year and first- and fifth-rounders in 2005.

Manning beamed when he got the news, donned a Giants' cap and heard hearty cheers from the same fans who had just mercilessly jeered him.

"I'm a lot happier now than I was 10 minutes ago," Manning said when he came back for a second news conference after diplomatically handling his disappointment with the Chargers' choice earlier.

None of the Mannings gave a reason for turning down the Chargers, though it probably had to do with a perception that the team is going nowhere fast. The Chargers have posted double-digit losses 10 times, including last fall's 4-12 stinker, in the 20 years they've been owned by Alex Spanos.

"I didn't want to disrespect anyone," Eli said.

"For the Chargers, it's not a knock against them," said big brother Peyton, the NFL's co-MVP last season. "This is just something Eli wanted to do. I supported him 100 percent as his brother."

Archie Manning said he regretted only that he felt the Chargers distorted what happened in his meeting with them.

"I didn't lose my cool, but I was upset that things were misrepresented from their end," he said. "We dealt with it. Eli held tough. That's a courageous thing for Eli, I think."