"Saturday Night Live" producers invited the New York Giants quarterback to host after he won his first Super Bowl in 2008. One of the many reasons he declined was that Peyton Manning had hosted the show a year earlier after his own championship.
"Peyton had done so well the previous year, I thought it might be a little fresh in everyone's minds," Eli said Wednesday. "I did not want to have to go up against a tough competition and the great job that he performed."
Manning recalled he sent word back that perhaps he'd host if he won another title. Sure enough, he said yes after his second ring and will star in the late-night sketches this Saturday.
"I had not proven myself as much as I wanted to," he said of that initial offer four years ago.
Manning and SNL chief Lorne Michaels took part in a conference call Wednesday, hours before the quarterback would start acting out 40-45 skits to whittle down to 12 or 13 to be potentially performed in front of that live television audience.
He made the short trip into Manhattan from Hoboken, N.J., on Monday and Tuesday afternoon to meet with writers and cast members at NBC's Rockefeller Center studios. Wednesday afternoon would be the first time Manning saw the scripts and rehearsed, and he was eager to get going.
He sat in the audience, laughing along, when Peyton hosted in 2007, an episode that included a memorable sketch lampooning the NFL's United Way commercials. Eli sought his brother's advice before accepting his own invitation.
Peyton told him: "The one thing you are used to doing is live -- that's something you do every week during the football season."
"We know how Eli reacts both under pressure and also with changing things quickly," Michaels said. "I don't think we're making any other kinds of concession because it's an athlete over an actor, comedian or singer -- or politician, for that matter."
John Madden, who hosted in 1982, called Manning on Wednesday and offered the same counsel that Peyton did, encouraging him to savor working with the writers and cast members during the week. Eli said he and his brother were comfortable poking fun at themselves.
"The good thing about `Saturday Night Live' is you can come in and maybe express the different sides that people don't see," he said. "Maybe that's not you at all times, but for this night you can kind of let loose."
The Mannings grew up watching SNL, and Eli said he owned several "Best of" DVDs for former cast members, particularly liking the clips of their auditions for the show.
"That style of humor, I appreciate it," he said. "It's what I enjoy to watch."
His favorite all-time SNL skit is probably the one in which Chris Farley and Patrick Swayze gyrated as Chippendales dancers. Manning's teammates keep asking about what rehearsals are like and planning their watching parties.
Rihanna is Saturday's musical guest and Michaels said he'd like to include her in a skit. Asked which Manning brother is funnier, the SNL creator replied, "We won't really know that til Saturday."
Michaels described Eli as "charming and radiates a certain kind of intelligence."
"You sort of believe he doesn't take himself that seriously," he said. "I think he takes his work very seriously. But there's a sort of central modesty to him. That plays well with what we do. If the host is spending a lot of time protecting an image, it's exhausting -- particularly for us."
With impeccable comedic timing, Manning interjected, "I'm blushing, Lorne."