The Last One: Annie Apple shares her top five moments of son Eli’s rookie season

About six weeks after Eli was drafted, we were invited to the Giants’ facility, where we got to meet the owner, John Mara, and the general manager, Jerry Reese. This would be black Eli’s first time meeting the men who had drafted him 10th overall.

Eli greeted coach Ben McAdoo, who was happy to see him and couldn’t stop staring and smiling at Black Eli as they talked. Eli hadn’t been to the facility to interview with the Giants during the combine and draft process. He hadn’t met the coach or the general manager before the draft or even talked to them on the phone. Now McAdoo stared, smiled and shook the hand of the guy they’d gone against the wishes of the fan base to draft. He looked at our Eli with that pleased look you get when you buy something online and, once it’s delivered, find that it fits, it works.

We then went upstairs to meet Jerry Reese. I’d never met Jerry but I’d spoken to him via email about eight years prior when a former player who was the son of an NFL legend wanted to get back in the game. I, a woman living in south Jersey, emailed the general manager of the Giants, and he emailed me back with great insight. He didn’t have to, but he did. 

Now I was standing in his office with my 20 year-old son, whom he drafted in the first round. Jerry greeted our family as you would an old friend you hadn’t seen in decades: with controlled excitement. The first thing I noticed was his smooth skin, flawless complexion and those hazel eyes that randomly turned green. A small man in stature, charged with a large task of managing the Giants, he was personable and confident.

He shook Eli’s hand firmly but quickly, a business handshake. He was relaxed. He didn’t want the moment to overwhelm his new draft pick. Jerry looked at Eli and said, “You’re here because we wanted you. You were our first choice.” That felt good to hear. Not wanting Eli to feel overwhelmed, he calmly said, “Remember you’ve played against these guys, A.J. Green, Dez Bryant; they’re the same guys you went up against in college. If you make a mistake, shake it off and move on.” 

Seven months later, the Giants are playoff bound for the first time since 2011. This is no accident. Reese put together a defense in a way Edward Scissorhands carved a lawn, with quick precision: You stand on the sidelines questioning what he’s doing or what it will look like, but Scissorhands is determined to see his vision through, tuning out all the noise and simply working. All of a sudden, disbelief and frustration give way to a smile, as the defense you’ve cultivated leads your team into the postseason.

So many rookies have played well for their teams this season. But to have your son headed to the playoffs in his rookie year with a shot at the big prize is definitely a proud, exciting achievement. I have enjoyed and grown so much while organically and authentically sharing this journey with Sports Illustrated readers. I’ve bared my soul and shared my awkward, random but honest insights and experiences. This year has been one for the Apple record books. This rookie year has been filled with lots of changes, some great, some different. The following are my top five moments of Black Eli's rookie year so far.

1. Draft Day

Having the opportunity to watch other kids you love and have watched grow up get drafted all in one weekend was magical. When Joey Bosa’s name was called with the third pick, we all ran over to share in his joy. Then Ezekiel Elliott at four and Taylor Decker at eight. We got to share that moment with the guys and their families, and then Eli Apple got called at No. 10. It’s a day that still lives on in my heart and makes me smile.

2. The season opener

Watching your son play in his first regular season NFL game is a massive moment; doing so on the 15th anniversary of 9/11 is surreal and humbling. Seeing George and Laura Bush take the field in Dallas for the 9/11 remembrance and national anthem was epic. It was like my life had come full circle, from working at NBC News on the day of the worst terror attack on U.S. soil to watching my son stand on the same field as the former president as we all remembered a moment of heartbreak and resilience in U.S. history. Along with the heavy moments of the day, I got to see two former college teammates play on the same field together as professionals, as Black Eli and Ezekiel Elliott squared off in their first pro game.

3. Eli turning 21

On Aug. 9, my Eli, my youngest son, turned 21. Since his freshman year at Ohio State, his birthday had always fallen during training camp. I’d always bring a cake to the team hotel, which he wouldn’t eat because he said he was training, so the linemen would have to eat it. So this year we showed up at training camp with just birthday balloons but no cake. He texted me later that night asking why I didn’t bring his cake. I was like, ‘You never eat it!’ He said he and his teammates would’ve eaten it. Eli is the kind of kid who never makes a big deal out of anything you do until you don’t do it. So next year, expect a massively obnoxious birthday cake and a marching band, if I can get them by security.

4. The ESPYs

Being at the ESPYs with my family in Los Angeles was an unforgettable experience. Being there when Eli met his favorite athlete of all time, Kobe Bryant, was great. Watching Craig Sager give an amazing acceptance speech will live in my heart forever; the calm, confident, courageous and peaceful way he did so while fighting a war with cancer was beyond admirable. Watching it all with Eli was surreal. Seeing the stars he’d grown up watching sitting near and all around him was great to experience. He was chill and cool, but I know meeting Kobe was life goals for him.

5. Opportunities to humanize the pro athlete

One of my proudest moments of this rookie year was the opportunity to humanize pro athletes. They’re more than just a number on a jersey or a helmet. They are sons, brothers, uncles, husbands and fathers. Though they work in the public, have a few dollars more than most and their very lives are often scrutinized in the media, they are human just like everyone else. They make mistakes. They grow. They hurt. They laugh. They cry. They deserve the same compassion and respect we demand from others.

Sharing my perspectives, insights and experience through this column and my work with ESPN has been a wonderfully evolving time. Sharing stories of athletes as one of us has resonated with fans, and I am humbled and grateful. Hopefully this is a small but wonderful step toward shedding the lazy narratives about pro athletes. After all, lazy narratives are for small minds.

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