Retired New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning was one of the most philanthropic athletes of his era, winning the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award in 2016 and the Athletes in Action/Bart Starr Award in 2020 for his leadership and community work.
The list of charities Manning belongs to or has worked with could fill the length of several CVS receipts, but the future Hall of Famer took a particular interest in children with cancer, serving as the face of Tackle Kids Cancer (TKC) since 2015 to go along with his work for Project Sunshine and the Tom Coughlin Jay Fund Foundation.
What separates Manning from most is his genuine care for those battling hardships, and the impact it has on their families.
Gary and Elyssa Randman experienced that firsthand when their 20-year-old son, Josh, passed away in January of 2018 after a three-year battle with cancer and they were met with a lengthy handwritten note courtesy of Eli, who previously visited with Josh.
“We were reading and reading and then we were like, ‘Wait a second, this is Eli!’ I don’t think we saw the word Manning and we were just reading, ‘Sorry to hear about this,’ and then we see Manning,” Gary Randman told The Athletic. “We were really taken aback by that. How many people do that, make that kind of effort?”
“We were very touched,” Elyssa Randman said. “What got me was that he didn’t just give it to somebody to do it for him. He took the time to sit there and hand write us. What celebrity does that? So it’s very special.”
The Randman’s weren’t the only family to witness the genuine care Manning has for these kids. The Carroll family, whose seven-year old daughter Kaia had been diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia called Philadelphia Chromosome positive acute lymphoblastic leukemia, also got a firsthand look at the real Eli.
“At a time when everybody is so low and sad and heartbroken, someone comes and shows interest in you – and it’s a celebrity. It was a nice pick-me-up,” said Kaia’s mother, Darlene. “He actually cared and he actually had a personality. He’s really very sweet. He was saying how he has daughters. He was trying to relate to us and just trying to be positive.”
“We were like, ‘Oh, wow,’” said Kaia’s father and Giants season ticket holder, Demetrius. “It’s funny because everybody talks about how Eli only has one expression when you see him on TV. It’s that same (blank) face. Darlene was like, ‘I wonder if he’s going to be just like blah,’ and we were laughing. But he had a personality. He smiled. He came back in and talked to us. It was real genuine.”
As a man with four children, Manning has a unique perspective in dealing with the families who are going through turbulent times. He also has valuable experience when it comes to tea time with the girls who are just looking for a distraction.
“He’s obviously a big, tall guy and he’s sitting at this tiny little kids’ table with these three little girls,” Elyssa Randman said. “It was just so adorable. I remember (a girl) said to Eli, ‘Can you read?’ And he said, ‘I think so.’ It was hysterical.”
What truly sets Eli apart from others is that he doesn’t just find time for these families when it’s convenient — he formed bonds that remain in place to this day.
“We felt like it was our last hurrah with Eli, not knowing what was going to happen going forward,” Darlene Carroll said of an impromptu reunion with Manning last summer following a practice. “It was hot that day. The poor man was literally dripping in sweat. He was soaking like he just came out of a pool. And he stood there and talked to Kaia like he had nowhere to go. He took pictures. He said thank you for the card she gave him. If it was me, I would have been like, ‘I’ve got to go, it’s too hot.’ And he was just like, ‘I’m going to stand here, I’m going to give Kaia her time, I’m going to take these photos’ because that’s just who he is.”
For Manning, these children and their families are not just names on a piece of paper; they aren’t forgotten about when he leaves the building or they overcome their cancers.
“It’s not just a name or a kid. It’s someone who you had numerous conversations with and been around and have met the family,” Manning said.
“When you make numerous visits to the same place, you will hear from the nurses or from the parents that, ‘After you left, they couldn’t stop talking about it and telling all their friends that you came in their room. Their spirits were lifted that whole next week and they were excited about getting better.’ That helps show me that it is making a difference. I’m nowhere near smart enough to try to be a doctor or to find a cure, but in some way you feel a part of it. It’s lifting their spirits and helping the process and giving them something to smile about during a tough time. That’s what keeps you saying, ‘I will come back’ or ‘I will get more committed and find different ways to get involved.’”
As valuable as Manning was on the field, he has been that much more valuable off of it. And now in retirement, he will be able to provide even more value to those in need.
“I so admire Eli, not because he’s a big football player, but because of who he is as a person. And it comes through,” Elyssa Randman said. “Now, how well do I know him? Not so much. But from what I see, the sincerity comes through. He’s real, he’s down-to-earth, he’s not phony. He does things because he really does care. He’s a mensch. That’s the only word that really fits. He’s the real deal.”