One thing that most football fans know about Giants quarterback Eli Manning: He is good at winning Super Bowls against the Patriots.
One thing that most fans do not know about him: He is just as good at pranks, big and small.
A receiver removes his gloves to discover his hands are dyed blue. An offensive lineman finds his dress shoes for the Super Bowl are painted purple.
A rookie wonders why his travel bag is so heavy, not realizing someone has lined the bottom with weights.
A coach finds his missing bike hanging from the rafters of a basketball arena.
“Eli is one of the most creative and thoughtful human beings when it comes to pranks,” Zak DeOssie, a teammate for the past 13 seasons, said recently in an email.
It is a lesser-known part of Manning’s 16-year legacy with the Giants, a tenure expected to end after Sunday’s season finale against the Philadelphia Eagles.
“When he feels like he’s around trusted people, teammates and people like that, he definitely lets his guard down,” said Tim Hasselbeck, who was a backup to Manning in 2005 and 2006. “And he’s definitely a goofball.”
The Giants drafted quarterback Daniel Jones last spring, hoping he would be Manning’s long-term replacement, and benched Manning after two September losses. That may have ushered Manning toward retirement, although he has not announced his plans beyond this season. He will turn 39 next Friday.
Two Sundays ago, while Jones was out with a sprained ankle, Manning started against the Miami Dolphins at MetLife Stadium. It felt like Eli Manning Appreciation Day. The home crowd welcomed him with a standing ovation, then serenaded him with another as he left the field. In between, Manning threw two touchdown passes to lead the Giants to victory, ending a nine-game losing streak.
Jones started again last weekend and led the Giants to another victory. After the game, Jones and Manning celebrated at a Hoboken, N.J., bar by tossing napkins in the air and flipping cups in a drinking game — revelries that were captured and spread on social media.
“I saw it and thought, man, that’s Eli,” said Mike Sullivan, a former Giants quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator. “That’s who he is.”
Manning managed the rarest of New York tricks — becoming a high-wattage star unmarred by scandal. Both liked and respected, he could teach classes on handling the New York news media — be friendly, accessible and rarely quotable. He was good-natured, not hilarious.
He publicly displayed his comedic chops, scripted and unscripted, in other ways. He proved to be funny when not trying to be.
Manning sent David Letterman into a giggle fit shortly after being selected first over all in the N.F.L. draft in 2004. Manning was selected by the San Diego Chargers, despite warnings that he would not play for them, and was soon traded to the Giants.
“Were there other teams that you said, ‘I’m not interested in playing for?’” Letterman asked on his “Late Show.”
“No, that was the only one,” Manning replied, straight-faced, leaving Letterman so tickled that he laughed for nearly 10 seconds.
Manning later co-starred with his older brother Peyton in cheeky commercials, selling everything from Sunday Night Football to Oreos. They rapped in one DirectTV ad and played “football cops” in another. Eli gave Peyton a wet willy in an ESPN commercial.
And Eli unintentionally supplied the internet with funny faces. There was a #manningface hashtag on Twitter, applied mostly to looks of confusion or exasperation.
The most famous appeared when Peyton Manning led the Broncos to a crucial Super Bowl touchdown in 2016. Eli’s deadpan expression amid a luxury box filled with excited family members was widely ridiculed, including by his brother.
That is what the public sees — Easy Eli, with a gee-whiz countenance. But to teammates and coaches, he is best known as a Hall of Fame-caliber prankster.
“One of the things that helped him be successful was his whole premise that he was this even-keeled, respectful, aw-shucks guy,” Sullivan said. “He could definitely strike back with the best of them.”
Manning was a target as a rookie. He once went to his locker to find all his clothes frozen. They had been soaked in a cold tub, folded and put into a freezer.
During a training camp in Albany, center Shaun O’Hara bought tree frogs at a pet store and put one in Manning’s sock.
“I didn’t know before I did this, but Eli hates reptiles and does not like amphibians,” O’Hara said. “He freaked out. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him run that fast.”
Manning quickly went on offense. He proved the perfect foil — a franchise player who could take it and dish it, a deft understudy to his older brothers, Cooper and Peyton.
“The best thing about Eli is that he was never above it,” O’Hara said. “And he came with his own bag of tricks, that’s for sure.”
Working in the discipline-first era of Coach Tom Coughlin, he sometimes solicited accomplices for his covert operations.
“Eli liked to have wing man, because the retaliation always seemed to go somewhere else,” Hasselbeck said.
During training camp in 2007, at the University at Albany, Manning and Hasselbeck took the bicycle of Chris Palmer, the Giants’ quarterbacks coach at the time. They strung it from the rafters of the basketball arena, maybe 40 feet off the ground.
Most of Manning victims were teammates. The day the Giants flew to Arizona for the Super Bowl in 2008, they had a short practice at their New Jersey headquarters. The offensive linemen returned from the showers to put on business suits for the flight, as required.
Their dress shoes were gone. They were replaced by replicas that Manning had purchased, in the correct sizes, painted bright purple.
“When you walk on the team plane, the Mara family sits in first class, so you’ve got to walk by John Mara to get to your seat,” O’Hara said, referring to the team’s co-owner. “And if you wore sneakers, Tom would’ve fined you.”
The actual dress shoes awaited the linemen at their airplane seats; Manning knew just how far to take a joke. He once emptied the locker of the backup quarterback Andre Woodson and forged a note from Coughlin, on Giants stationery, telling Woodson to come see him and to bring his playbook. Manning stopped Woodson before he got to Coughlin’s office.
Standby pranks included squirting dye into gloves and shoes (“Your hands look like a Smurf,” Hasselbeck said), or applying Icy Hot to deodorant sticks. In the parking lot, Manning would leave his car about an inch from a teammate’s driver-side door, forcing 300-pound offensive linemen to crawl in and out the passenger side.
“He loves the dumb little daily pranks like that,” O’Hara said.
Sometimes Manning and other quarterbacks used their cars to block others from all sides, forcing teammates to wait until the quarterbacks — often the last to leave the practice facility — emerged.
(To demonstrate that no good prank goes unanswered, kicker Lawrence Tynes once retaliated by letting the air out of Manning’s car tires and taping a bike pump to the driver-side door handle, Hasselbeck said. Punter Jeff Feagles responded to a gag by removing Hasselbeck’s license plate — something Hasselbeck did not realize until he was pulled over by the police at the George Washington Bridge.)
Manning remains especially dangerous if he gets his hands on someone else’s phone. He has a reputation for surreptitiously swapping out smartphone screen savers with shocking photos or altering the font to an indecipherable language.
“He just did it to me the other night,” O’Hara said.
At an anniversary party for “Saturday Night Live” a few years ago, the comedian Kevin Nealon asked for a photograph with Peyton Manning. Eli Manning took the photo and handed the smartphone back to Nealon, who realized later that all of its text had been changed to Mandarin. Nealon tracked Manning down later that night.
“He pretended to fix it, and it still wasn’t fixed,” Nealon told Conan O’Brien in 2015. “I had to go down to the Apple store.”
At practice, Manning turned the mundane into fun. During quarterback passing contests, as a backup lined up to hit a target for the win, Manning would toss a ball at his head or knock the pass out of the air with his own perfect toss.
“Hey, you’ve got to make the throw, no excuses,” Manning would say with a shrug and a straight face.
During parties, Manning was a subversive photo bomber, stuffing his mouth with a brownie and then flashing a muddy grin. And if you find yourself staying overnight somewhere with Manning nearby, check the thermostat before nodding off. It might be set to 89 degrees.
“It’s cool when you go to sleep,” DeOssie said “Then you wake up in the Sahara in the middle of the night.”
That is part of Manning’s legacy with the Giants.
“He’s been able to be a consistent professional, someone who should be in the Hall of Fame someday, and yet was never standoffish, was great with the media and great with teammates,” Sullivan said. “And he had that sense of humor, which I bet some people would be surprised about.”
Oh, and he helped beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Twice.