There was a time when star NFL quarterbacks looked, walked, and sounded like golden-age Hollywood action heroes. They had names like Johnny or Dan, nicknames like the Mad Bomber and Broadway Joe, and hailed from blue-collar places like Pennsylvania coal country. Now, with his second Super Bowl Most Valuable Player trophy, golly-gee-shucks Eli Manning sits atop the American sports universe, and the local playground may never sound the same.
The hottest name in football right now is…Eli. Eli. As in Eli Whitney, the inventor of the cotton gin. As in Eli Thompson, another Eli who lived in the shadow of a more famous brother. It’s Hebrew for “elevation,” apparently, but in the 1990s, the name Eli was only the 321st most popular name in America. It couldn’t have been a coincidence when the name shot up to No. 160 in 2004, right after Manning was drafted first by the New York Giants. Or that Eli broke into the top 100 after Manning led the Giants to his first Super Bowl win in 2008. After last night’s performance, Edward and Jacob might be in real trouble, to say nothing of Aaron (Rogers) and Ben (Roethlisberger).
Of course, Eli’s parents, Archie and Olivia Manning, have a way with names. Their eldest is named Cooper, and you already know Peyton — or perhaps you know the four Peytons in your child’s first-grade class. Eli’s older brother practically owns his name, in the same sense as Tiger or LeBron.
I’m just not sure I’m ready for a fresh crop of drooling Elis. It’s not like Tom (Brady) or Andrew (Brees) — you meet a tyke with those more common names and you don’t immediately assume they’re named in honor of a famous athlete. But Eli is too specific. “Eli? Like the quarterback?” you’ll be forced to ask. (As if the blue and red stroller and matching mom-son Giants jerseys won’t give it a way.) I don’t intend to give in so easy, though. “Eli, huh? Niiiiice. I loved Hostel…and your kid does look evil.”