Eli Manning is as square as a game of checkers on the front porch -- refreshingly down to earth and normal.
So much so that during Thursday night's annual Best of Preps banquet, when one high school athlete asked the New York Giants' two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback if he would follow him on Twitter, Manning smiled sheepishly and in his typical aw-shucks way responded, "I don't know how to tweet. I don't have a Twitter account."
After a morning practice in New Jersey on Thursday, Manning flew to Chattanooga in the afternoon to serve as the guest speaker for the annual Times Free Press dinner honoring the area's top high school athletes and coaches. After more than a 30-minute Q&A session, before exiting the stage to a standing ovation, Manning held up his hand as if quietening a stadium full of fans and thanked the audience for welcoming him, then ended his portion of the evening by encouraging all the prep athletes to continue making the right choices in life.
Since our town's two newspapers merged 13 years ago, the event has grown to the point that more than 1,300 attended Thursday's banquet. The featured speakers have progressed from local coaches to world-class athletes, including back-to-back years of bringing in NFL-champion quarterbacks.
Manning quietly solidified himself as the embodiment of all that's right with athletics on the biggest stage. He certainly connected with many of the athletes on hand to receive their awards.
"For me, it's a huge honor to have him here for our banquet," said Ridgeland defensive back Vonn Bell, who was given the E.B. "Red" Etter award as football player of the year. "He's a two-time Super Bowl winner and he's here, and that's pretty awesome. It means a lot to me personally because I'm hoping my talents can take me to the level he is on. It's definitely cool to see how someone who has accomplished so much handles himself."
Professional athletes as a whole are assumed to be spoiled and detached, but Manning simply oozes class. When he was asked before the banquet how often he speaks publicly to teenagers, he didn't hesitate.
"You always want to do things like this when you know they can impact kids' lives," Manning said. "A lot of my best friends are still my old high school buddies. We had a lot of laughs together and helped each other through some tough losses, and we learned a lot. I'm still close with a lot of those guys and brought them in for the Super Bowl last year. After we won, they celebrated with me as if they had won it.
"I just try to pass along any advice that has helped me, whether it was from a coach or a parent. And the best thing I can tell any of them is to find something you're passionate about, something you enjoy in life, and do that. If you can find that, you'll never really feel like you're having to work, and that can make life more enjoyable."
As someone who has enjoyed covering local sports for more than 22 years, I couldn't agree more or think of a better person to help us end another successful prep sports season.
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 24 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including seven in 2013 and a combined 12 in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers ...