Monday, February 04, 2008

Charlie Conerly Would Understand

Somewhere inside the Pearly Gates, in that section of paradise reserved for gridiron greats, Charlie Conerly is smiling.

He’s smiling because his beloved New York Giants won the Super Bowl, and because the victory was engineered by Eli Manning, a quarterback that played at Conerly’s alma mater, the University of Mississippi.

Charlie is also pleased because he understands what it means to play in New York, the ultimate fishbowl environment for any pro athlete. Over 14 seasons as the Giants quarterback (1948-1962), Conerly endured the best and worst of the Big Apple, from the cheers of the 1956 championship season and his 1959 MVP performance, to the boos of the early 1960s, when his numbers began to slip and he was replaced by Y.A. Tittle.

Conerly would appreciate the struggles that Eli Manning endured en route to yesterday’s Super Bowl win. They began with his selection by the Giants as the number one draft pick in the 2004 NFL draft—a move that resulted from a trade between New York and the San Diego Charges, who originally held the top pick. The Manning family didn’t want Eli to play in San Diego (they had concerns about Chargers management), so a deal was made to place him in New York, the sports and media center of the universe.

Manning’s early play was unspectacular; while he led the Giants back to the playoffs in his second season, there were inevitable comparisons to his older brother Peyton, who had emerged as (perhaps) the best quarterback in the game, or New England’s Tom Brady, winner of three Super Bowls before his 30th birthday. Until Big Blue began its improbable Super Bowl run, the NFL “book” on Eli Manning was rather simple: has the tools to be a great NFL quarterback, but can’t make the plays consistently.

And that was the charitable assessment. Privately, a lot of coaches whispered the Eli was unwilling to stand in the pocket and take a hit to complete a pass. Former Giants star Tiki Barber, who retired at the end of the 2006 season, complained that Manning wasn’t enough of a leader to take his team to a Super Bowl.

Some pro football pundits offered a more blunt analysis, describing Eli (only four years into his pro career) as another in a long line of NFL busts. The Giants finished the 2007 season with a 10-6 record, but Eli had almost as many interceptions (20) as touchdown passes (23). His quarterback rating was abysmal for a playoff team, and no one gave the Giants a chance of reaching the second round of the playoffs, let alone the Super Bowl.

But statistics and analysis can’t effectively measure qualities like grit, determination and character. That’s why Conerly, the Giants QB of old, would appreciate Eli, who was born three decades after Charlie retired from the NFL.

Not that Conerly and the younger Manning had much in common, other than their Mississippi roots. Charlie Conerly didn’t come from NFL royalty. He grew up as a poor kid in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Football was his ticket to a better life.

He enrolled at the University of Mississippi in 1942, but World War II intervened. Conerly saw combat as a Marine in the South Pacific before returning to Ole Miss and becoming a star quarterback under new head coach John Vaught.

While Conerly set several NCAA records as a college player, he was only a seventh-round draft choice for the Giants. At age 27, he was old for a rookie, even in the post-war era. However, Conerly quickly emerged as one of the great steals of that year’s draft—or any other. He quickly established himself as the Giants’ starting quarterback and won Rookie of the Year Honors, setting the stage for a storied career.

During the 1950s, Conerly led the Giants in some of their most memorable games, as television—and the nation—began to discover the NFL. Conerly quarterbacked his team to three NFL championship games in four seasons (1956, 1958, 1959), winning the first of those contests. He was named the league’s most valuable player in 1959.

Despite those accomplishments, Conerly was never acclaimed as the greatest quarterback of his time. That honor is typically reserved for Otto Graham of the Cleveland Browns, Norm Van Brocklin of Los Angeles Ram, or toward the end of the decade, Johnny Unitas of the Baltimore Colts.

Conerly also played in the shadow of more famous teammates like Frank Gifford, Sam Huff, Kyle Rote, and Roosevelt Brown. But few could match his toughness or grit. During his rookie season, Gifford watched Conerly suffer a terrible injury—and stay in the game:

He broke his nose really badly, they literally called a timeout and then they called another one while they stopped the bleeding, they stuck stuff up there until it would stop bleeding. You try to get them to do that today. They would be yelling, 'Get my agent!'

If Conerly wasn’t the best quarterback of his time—or the best player on his team—then he was more than good enough to lead the Giants in the championship game, on multiple occasions. It was Conerly who took his team to the edge of victory the 1958 NFL Championship against the Colts, often acclaimed as the “Greatest Game Ever Played.”

Even casual football fans know that Baltimore won the contest in sudden death, as fullback Alan Ameche plunged over the goal line in overtime. But most forget that the Colts had to stage a comeback to secure the victory, after two Conerly drives put New York ahead in the fourth quarter, 17-14.

After Conerly retired, it would be 24 years before the Giants won another NFL championship. Much of that drought can be attributed to poor coaching, ineffective ownership and lousy personnel decisions, but it also reminded fans of how special those teams of the 50s had been, and Conerly's effectiveness as an NFL quarterback.

While the Giants retired his number (and Conerly was a consensus choice for the College Football Hall of Fame), Canton never came calling. Despite intense lobbying by Frank Gifford and other former teammates, the former Giants star was rejected by voters for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He is among a handful of quarterbacks who have won league championships—and MVP awards—but are not enshrined in Canton.

After retiring from pro football, Conerly retired to Clarksdale and ran a string of shoe stores in the Mississippi Delta region. He died in 1996. Today, his name and legacy are memorialized by the Conerly Trophy, given annually to the best college football player in the state.

If much of the football world has forgotten Charlie Conerly, we’d like to think that his spirit lived on last night, in the form of Eli Manning. A good (but arguably, not great quarterback), playing against one of the greatest teams of the era—led by a quarterback who’s a veritable shoo-in for Canton.

Against that backdrop, Eli led his Giants down the field and scored the winning touchdown, finding Plaxico Burress in the end zone with only 35 seconds left in the game. At times, it wasn’t especially pretty, but Manning and his receivers executed, making the plays they needed to win. It was good enough for Big Blue to score one of the greatest upsets in Super Bowl history—with more than a little help from the Giants indomitable defense.

For his performance, Eli Manning was named the game’s MVP, temporarily silencing the criticism that’s dogged him since arriving in New York. But despite his relative youth, Eli also understands the hazards of being the Giants’ QB. The glow of Super Bowl adoration will last until his next bad game, when the columnists and callers on WFAN will again start screaming for his scalp.

Down the road, maybe the New York faithful will realize that Eli Manning is a better quarterback that most of us realize. Maybe not in the same category as brother Peyton or Tom Brady (at least not yet), but good enough to win on the greatest stage in American sports. Good enough to bring back a trophy for a city that’s unflinchingly tough on its greatest sports stars. Good enough to win the respect of his peers, even if football immortality passes him by.

It’s something that Charlie Conerly would certainly understand. As he once observed, "if you win, you're and Old Pro; if you lose, you're an Old Man."

Charlie Conerly was the ultimate pro, and he deserves to be in Canton.


ADDENDUM: Dave Anderson of The New York Times wrote a superb column on "The Toughest of the Giants," an appreciation of Conerly published shortly after quarterback's death in 1996.

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