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NFL teams lining up for shot at Manning

Former Ole Miss quarterback Eli Manning calls an audible during the Cotton Bowl against Oklahoma State in January. (Melanie Duncan ThortisThe Vicksburg Post)

[4/19/04]Donned in a tuxedo, Eli Manning quietly exited a room full of admirers at the Vicksburg Convention Center to talk to reporters before the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame banquet two weeks ago.

He answered questions about the NFL combine, the draft and his chances at being picked first, and he delivered the same rehearsed answers to different groups.

“It’s been interesting,” Manning said. “It’s been a fun experience that not everybody gets to go through to go to the combine, to have personal workouts and getting ready for this, meeting coaches and players.”

Later that same night, Manning won another award Mississippi’s amateur athlete of the year to add to his growing cache of honors that could fill an average closet. He’s already received the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award for the nation’s top quarterback and the Maxwell Award for the nation’s top college player, among many others.

While it may seem like Manning is getting bored, the last four months have been a whirlwind of activity for him ever since he closed out his Ole Miss career with a Cotton Bowl victory over Oklahoma State.

He’s been whisked away to banquets and dinners, awards ceremonies and celebrations. He’s also taken part in practices and drills, scouting reports and evaluations.

He even had trouble answering one of the questions on the New York Giants’ intelligence test True or false: Are you fascinated by fire?

“That’s one that I really struggled with,” the laid-back New Orleans native said. “I didn’t know quite what they were looking for right there. I didn’t think I was really fascinated by it, so I put false.

“That’s about the weirdest question I got.”

For the quiet, unassuming Manning, it can all be a little overwhelming.

“It’s been fun but, you know, it’s coming down to it now and I’m looking forward for it ending also,” he said.

And soon it will. On Saturday, he will find out exactly what his fate is and which team in the NFL it will be with and he shouldn’t have to wait long.

Rumors continue to circulate that the Giants will trade up with San Diego to get the top pick to select Manning.

Other possibilities are Oakland and Arizona, or just about any other team in need of a quarterback.

NFL draft expert Mel Kiper Jr., however, expects San Diego to keep the pick.

“Trade rumors are swirling and the Chargers have plenty of needs,” wrote Kiper, the preeminent NFL draft guru and writer for espn.com. “But Manning seems to be the logical choice as it appears San Diego is not convinced Drew Brees can be its QB of the future with his height limitations and questionable arm strength.”

But Manning isn’t worried about the rumors.

He doesn’t look at the television reports or newspaper stories.

“It’s almost a pain just to follow it, just because you hear something every day, something new, and you can’t believe anything of it,” he said.

All he listens to are his father, famed NFL quarterback Archie Manning, and his older brother, last year’s NFL co-MVP Peyton Manning.

Not a bad pair for advice.

Eli said Peyton has been a little more helpful because he encountered the same process when he was selected No. 1 overall in the 1998 draft, following a stellar career at Tennessee.

“He went through it only six years ago, so he knew what the combine was like, he knew how all those things worked,” Manning said. “Talking with him’s probably been the most helpful thing.”

Many experts speculate that Manning will be chosen with the No. 1 overall pick, but who will have the pick come draft time is unknown. And it doesn’t matter to Manning.

“Whatever team wants me and thinks I can help out their program the best, that’s where I want to go,” he said. “Whoever drafts me, I’ll be happy to go there.”

Ole Miss coach David Cutcliffe said he knows Manning will be successful on the next level, based on comparing him with his brother.

Cutcliffe got a good look at Peyton while the former was the quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator at Tennessee for all four of the latter’s standout seasons.

“Eli’s got the same type of capability that Peyton had,” Cutcliffe said. “He’s got all the tangibles and intangibles that Peyton has, and he will do extremely well.

“They both have the ability to compete at such a high level. They take every snap in practice and make it seem like it’s a game situation.”

Cutcliffe said whatever team gets Manning will get not only a talented player, but also a hard worker.

“He pays great attention to detail,” he said. “He can concentrate and focus. He’s willing to do whatever it takes to get ready for the game.”

And Manning is ready. He can’t wait until draft day in New York when his name is called out at the podium by commissioner Paul Taglibue.

“That’s when you find out where you’re going to be playing football,” he said. “You can get a playbook, start learning new things and get back to what you like to do and what it’s all about.

“It comes down to how you do on the field and playing football.”