I was a kindergartener in spring 2004, and, in my short life as a New York Giants fan, I had known only suffering. After a playoff choke akin to Super Bowl 51 Giants ended the 2003 season with a 4-12 record, prompting the firing of Head Coach Jim Fassel.

Today, 13 years and seven months after my fateful T-ball game, the Eli Manning era has likely ended. Benched amid an ugly 2-9 season and replaced by the unheralded backup, Geno Smith, Eli has been shown the door for this season. Considering his age and the direction of the franchise, it’s more than possible that he will never start another game for the Giants.

I could dissect the decision the same way the entire sports world will for weeks and months to come, but I would rather not. Eli, the athlete I grew up watching, might be finished in New York, but he deserves a proper tribute.

Eli Manning has had an unique career. Pundits cannot decide if he is destined for enshrinement in Canton or for the embodiment of mediocrity. He has won two Super Bowl MVPs and has led the league in interceptions three separate times.

Watching Eli was not always easy, but that’s why he resonates with me so strongly. Aaron Rodgers can make a far sharper pass under pressure. Tom Brady’s resume and winning pedigree is peerless, and Eli’s own brother, Peyton, sure did collect gaudier stats, but Eli served as a role model for me in my formative years.

True, it sometimes became hard not to laugh at Eli, with his herky-jerky mechanics, mindless interceptions and vacuous expressions — the “Eli face” is a national meme at this point. And indeed, in his first few seasons, he was nothing but a laughing stock for the league. After his two magical Super Bowl runs in 2008 and 2012, however, I appreciated more deeply what set Eli apart.

Eli never boasted or bragged, never made outlandish predictions, certainly never threw his teammates or coaches under the bus and rarely even made fiery speeches. In today’s NFL, these qualities may seem antiquated, but count me among those who will miss them. After all the ridiculing, it turns out that Eli’s reserved, sometimes expressionless demeanor helped him flourish in the crucible of the New York sports media, where hot-under-the-collar athletes are built up before wilting under the pressure.

Of course, there’s also Eli’s longevity. Giants fans are so lucky to have watched the same quarterback start for 210 straight games. 210. The Jets, on the other hand, will likely have a new quarterback by the time I am finished writing this column. Through thick and thin, the Big Blue has had a complete rock at the most important position. Eli’s durability has ironically saved time and effort over the years for the very management that now elects to move in another direction.

If a sports fan is lucky, he can latch onto a hero during his youth, a star athlete who perfectly coincides with his or her adolescence. My grandpa had Jackie Robinson. My dad had Tom Seaver and, later, Phil Simms. I had Eli. From age six to age 19, I have watched the same leader captain my favorite team in the world, and it’s been a pleasure.

Here’s to you, Eli.

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