The boys used to go to the Superdome and sit among the fans wearing rumpled paper bags over their heads. This was 13 years ago, back when Elisha Archibald Manning III—the tall, redheaded fellow who happened to be their father—was quarterback of the New Orleans Saints.
Forget that Archie Manning was the NFL's Most Valuable Player a couple of years before, or that he was "a franchise player without a franchise," as his friend Hank Stram liked to say. Since 1971 he had been the leader of a team that had managed to break even only once with him behind center. And people simply had lost patience with him. The Aints, everyone called the team. Even Manning's sons, Cooper, 7, and Peyton, 5, were sick and tired of the losing.
So one Sunday afternoon Archie was down on the field, being terrorized. He was getting flushed from the pocket, forced to run for his life. And there was not a thimbleful of mercy left anywhere on this earth. "You suck, Manning," fans were beginning to shout.
They were booing, too, and it was all Archie's wife, Olivia, could do to maintain her composure. Poor Olivia. She was pregnant with their third child, the one who would be Eli. But if she just could've protected Archie, who was as fine and dear a husband and father as the Good Lord ever put on this earth, and who, if kind deeds meant anything, really shouldn't have had an enemy in the whole, entire universe.
"You suck, Manning! You...suck!"
Well, enough was enough. Olivia turned to confront the detractors, but she had been raised too well to put up much of a fight. And her voice was too soft, her accent too Southern. Every word evoked pictures of kudzu and porch swings, of funeral fans and mason jars filled with icy-cold lemonade. Olivia started to speak, but more voices rained down. These latest were little voices, and familiar to boot.
Olivia wheeled around to see where they were coming from, and there sat her own two sons, Mannings themselves. "Boo!" Cooper and Peyton were yelling along with most everybody else in the house. "Boo, Archie! Boo!"
To see him today you would never know that Archie Manning ever did anything but win. At 44 he lives with his wife and three sons in a big yellow house in New Orleans's Garden District, and it seems he's still the city's quarterback, even though he is from Drew, Miss., and also played for the Houston Oilers and the Minnesota Vikings before retiring eight years ago. As folk heroes go, none can equal Manning's status in the Crescent City, except perhaps for a Cajun chef or two and maybe the spook novelist Anne Rice, who lives in a mansion up the street from the Mannings. Archie and three partners own a couple of Gold's Gyms in the area and a third in Jackson, Miss. Each week he reports on the Saints as a radio color analyst, and he also serves as a spokesman for more than half a dozen companies.
If ever Archie were to surrender his crown as the city's quarterback, the most likely successor would not be the current man of the hour, Wade Wilson. Though he has played well for the Saints, the city still regards him with suspicion because he played for the Atlanta Falcons, the one NFL club Saint fans truly hale.
No, if anyone were to inherit Archie's mantle, it would be his own son Peyton, a senior quarterback at a small private school called Isidore Newman and one of the most coveted prep players in the country. Since spring, about 60 schools have been in touch with either him or his coach. Among those leading the chase for Peyton are Florida, Florida State, Tennessee, Michigan, Texas, Texas A&M, LSU and Ole Miss, the school where Archie first encountered fame and fortune two decades ago. Peyton plans to make five official visits and commit to a school the week before the Feb. 2 signing date.
Last year Peyton passed for 2,345 yards and 30 touchdowns, with only four interceptions. This year he's on pace to better those numbers. The only knock against him has been his foot speed, although he has improved on that. In the off-season Peyton trained with shoes designed to lengthen his Achilles tendon, giving his stride more spring. Last year he ran the 40-yard dash in 5.0 seconds; now he's at 4.8. Not that it matters much. As one recruiter said, "With a quarterback that big, who can throw the ball like he can, you'd be silly to have him running anyway."
Archie was known as a scrambler with a flair for improvisation; he could pass the ball underhanded if need be or run the blind bootleg unbeknownst to everyone on the field but himself. Although Peyton's physical resemblance to his father is uncanny, he's a classic drop-back passer more in the mold of a Namath or a Marino, and his arm, some contend, is already better than Archie's ever was.
"He's got great athletic ability," says Saint coach Jim Mora, who watched Peyton work out this summer. "If there's any better quarterback his age out there in the country, I'd just like to see him."
"Nothing but genetics can explain how that boy looks," says Jim Poole, a former college teammate of Archie's.
Is Peyton really that good, worthy of his place at the top of virtually every recruiting service's list of high school talent? Or was he simply born with the right pedigree? "When I first heard that Peyton was Archie Manning's son, I admit that operated negatively in my evaluation of him," says Allen Wallace, publisher of Super-Prep magazine. "I wondered whether the hyperbole used to describe him had something to do with the fact that he was the son of a former great player. But I've talked to more than 20 different programs, and they all say the same thing: Peyton is simply a great player. And that's why we've listed him Number One."
Two years ago Peyton and his brother Cooper, then a senior at Newman, formed one of the most prolific pass-and-catch tandems in Louisiana. It was, Archie says now, "the greatest fall I ever spent in my life. The only problem was that after the games I had to cover my head and hide from the other receivers' parents." When Cooper earned a scholarship to Ole Miss, it seemed a lock that Peyton would follow. But as a freshman, Cooper was found to have a congenital spinal condition that resulted in surgery and the end of his football career. With the Manning-to-Manning scenario at Ole Miss no longer a possibility, Peyton's future suddenly was less certain. "I honestly don't know where I'm going," he says.
The debate among those who follow the Manning saga now goes like this: Should Peyton attempt to resurrect the glory that has eluded Ole Miss since his father's days, or should he choose a school like Florida State or Michigan, where he would be certain to compete for the national championship and personal awards such as the Heisman Trophy?
"Peyton doesn't take much crap," Cooper says with no small hint of pride. "If somebody were to tell him that he betrayed Ole Miss [by choosing another school], he's the type who'd get right in his face and tell him to shut up."
Archie is determined to let Peyton decide for himself, and Olivia, herself a former Ole Miss homecoming queen, is trying to do the same. "Some of my buddies have called and said, 'You make him go to Ole Miss,' " Archie says. "They're real hard-core about it. And though I'm sure they mean well, they aren't thinking about what they'd do if Peyton was their son."
The quest for Peyton, frantic since last spring, peaked in mid-September when he started telling some schools he wasn't interested. By this point Tony Reginelli, Peyton's coach at Newman, had dubbed so many highlight tapes for recruiters that he had nearly worn out the school's heavy-duty VCR. And the Mannings were under siege at home, where they had installed an extra phone line to handle the crush of recruiting calls, 23 of which came the first day college coaches were allowed to contact high school players, in August.
Peyton doesn't seem to mind the recruiting pressures or even acknowledge them. Football is his passion and always has been. As a kid of four he could execute a seven-step drop back and fling a Nerf ball clear across the living room. When he was a little older, he could discuss the nuances of the game, having spent long days studying film of his dad.
Peyton enjoys the string of calls he receives each night because it gives him a chance to probe the minds of some of the best coaches in the game. As a matter of fact, he complains only when recruiters shower him with too much praise or try to suck up to him. Earlier this season one Atlantic Coast Conference coach called after his team had lost a game and said, "Will you love me tonight, Peyton? I really need you to love me tonight."
Startled, Peyton answered, "Well, I don't know about that."
"I really do need a hug," the man continued. "I'm hurting."
It wasn't long before Peyton scratched that school off his list.
"We gotta get him," Cooper Manning's fraternity brothers at the Ole Miss Kappa Alpha house tell him all the time. "We've just gotta get him. Hey, Coop, can you help us get Peyton?"
It's not just the campus Greeks, either. Mississippi people in general seem somewhat frenzied these days at the notion that another of Archie's sons—and a quarterback at that—has come of age. To understand the reason, you have to first understand Archie's importance to the place. This spring Archie was named quarterback for the Team of the Century at Ole Miss, and a year ago a newspaper poll rated him Mississippi's All-Time Greatest Athlete. These selections surprised no one. Back when he was playing for the Rebels, Archie was so idolized that even fans from Southern Mississippi and Mississippi State wrote him sweetheart letters. Had some civic group sanctioned a contest for the state's Most Desirable Redheaded Male, you could bet Archie would've taken home that trophy, too, even though he has officially resided in Louisiana for more than 22 years.
Of late, people in Mississippi have shifted their focus from Archie to Peyton. How much would Peyton mean to the school? This season he received a letter from the Ole Miss football office detailing the Top Ten Advantages of Becoming a Rebel. The list would make David Letterman proud:
1. You can continue the Manning family tradition of success and happiness at Ole Miss.
2. You will afford convenience for your grandparents, mom and dad and brothers to see you play college football.
3. Your decision to attend the University of Mississippi will generate unequaled interest and enthusiasm among Ole Miss alumni, fans and supporters.
4. At Ole Miss, you would be exposed to a perennial top-10 school in America for beautiful women.
"You would enjoy that," his mother said one night after reading No. 4. "Ole Miss does have a lot of beautiful girls."
"Yeah, but I can't tell them apart," Peyton said. "They're all blonde and tan."
On and on the list went, ending finally with a declaration that if Peyton became a Rebel, the coach who recruited him would not only be "elated and ecstatic," but also would "ask for (or demand) a raise and probably get it."
The calls start every night at around seven and continue until 10. As soon as he puts the receiver down, another recruiter checks in. Peyton gives his parents a rundown after each conversation. "Hey, Dad, that was Tennessee."
Olivia, seated with her husband in the den, looks up from her crossword puzzle. "What if he goes to Tennessee, Archie?" she asks with weary consternation. "He really likes Tennessee, doesn't he?"
"Tennessee's a great place," Archie replies.
Archie might've been a good football player, but as a father he turned out to be Hall of Fame. After the Saints traded him to the Oilers, in 1982, he leased an apartment in Houston and sometimes got so lonesome for his family that he would hop on a plane after practice and fly to New Orleans for dinner. He would eat, catch up on the news, then fly back to Houston.
The Oilers traded him to the Vikings in 1983, and he retired two years later. Upon his return to New Orleans, he took a position with a brokerage firm but soon found his time being gobbled up by work. Tired of the boys coming second to a job, he left after four years. "When your children get older," he reasoned, "they're going to leave you. I wanted to spend all the time with them that I could...before they were gone."
Archie and his own father were somewhat different in this regard. Buddy Manning had attended his share of Archie's games, but his job as manager of a farm machinery dealership in Drew had always seemed his top priority. "I don't know if I'll be able to make it tonight," he would say. But then you would see Buddy at the game, standing off to the side with a little straw hat on his head, a smile on his face.
Buddy committed suicide one Saturday in August 1969, just a few weeks before Archie began his junior year at Ole Miss. He had suffered a stroke a few years before, and his health had been poor ever since; also, the business was struggling. Archie came home from a wedding reception and found his father in a bedroom, blood on his chest. He called a doctor and a friend. He wanted to keep his mother and sister away until he could clean things up. Archie was only 19, but people will tell you he had never been more a man.
So Buddy missed out on Archie's glory—not just the football glory that began in earnest that year, but the family glory that always meant far more to Archie. He missed Archie and Olivia's big church wedding in 1971. And he missed the births of their three boys and all the magic that came with them.
Back when he was still playing for the Saints, Archie returned home from practice each day and organized games for Cooper and Peyton and their neighborhood friends. Archie often filmed the games with his camcorder, pretending they were being broadcast on national TV. One day the boys lined up for pregame introductions, each stating his name, age and favorite team and player.
"Cooper Manning. Six years old. My favorite player is Roger Staubach. And I really like the San Diego Chargers."
Peyton stepped up, gave a smile, and said, "Peyton Manning. Age of four. And my favorite team is Wes Chandler."
Everyone laughed and pointed a finger at him, and Peyton knotted his soft, dimpled hands and started swinging. Just out of diapers and already he was mean and feisty, and he hated to lose. "You need an attitude adjustment," Archie had to tell him time and again. One day they got into a tiff, and Peyton said, "If you don't stop it, I'm going to tell Mama what you got her for Christmas." Archie stopped it. He knew the boy was serious.
After home games Cooper and Peyton joined Archie in the Saints' dressing room and visited with their favorite players. "We'd hang around with all these naked guys," Peyton recalls, "and it was real normal." Later he and his brother went out on the Superdome floor, fashioned footballs from strips of discarded tape and played rough-and-tumble the length of the field. The contests almost always ended in a fight, with Archie stepping in as peacemaker. "The day you two can finish a game without a fight will be a great day in my life," Archie told them.
That day didn't come until Peyton's sophomore year at Newman when he won the starting quarterback job and Cooper, a senior receiver, realized that he had to make peace with his brother or never see another pass thrown his way. In the first game Peyton rolled out and spotted Cooper wide open on a corner route. It was his first pass as a varsity player, and it looked certain to be a touchdown.
Peyton let go a perfect spiral, and Cooper held up his hands to grab it. But the ball sailed right through his fingertips.
"What was that?" Olivia asked Archie up in the stands. Later she said, "Cooper didn't miss a single pass the year before. I think he did it on purpose."
Cooper went on to make nine catches in the first half alone, but Peyton didn't let him forget the miss. He brought it up at breakfast the next morning, and by all accounts it's still under discussion, more than two years later.
Despite playing half the season with numbness in his right hand, Cooper ended the year with 73 receptions, 1,250 total receiving yards and 13 TDs—all from the rocket arm of Peyton. Cooper became one of the most celebrated players in the state in what would be his final season. As a freshman last fall at Ole Miss, Cooper was found to have spinal stenosis, a congenital narrowing of the spine, and in June he had corrective surgery. Doctors told Archie and Olivia that one hard blow could leave him paralyzed; the Mannings insisted he give up the game.
"I don't feel sorry for Cooper," Olivia says. "Anybody who has as many friends as he does...well, that will take him so much further in life than football ever could. But Peyton, if it had happened to Peyton...."
"Peyton wouldn't have been able to handle it," Archie says.
The Mannings had Peyton X-rayed this summer, and doctors found that while his spinal column was narrow by some standards, he was in good shape to play football. This pleased no one as much as Cooper, who now is his brother's biggest fan.
"For a while," Cooper says, "I was searching for how I was going to replace football. But that doesn't happen anymore. I accept it, and with Peyton doing so well, that makes everything easier. I concentrate on him."
It's the Friday of the Newman-Country Day game in mid-September. Archie arrives at the stadium about an hour before kickoff and walks up to the front gate with his wallet in hand. "Who do I pay?" he says, speaking to an empty chair. "Do I pay here? How's this work?"
The teams are on the field, loosening up. After a while he goes and sits at the top of the bleachers, easily the best seat in the house from which to watch Peyton.
"I hope Country Day scores a couple of touchdowns early," Archie says. "That way Peyton'll get to put it up some."
Newman jumps ahead 34-7 at the half, mainly behind the pinpoint passing of Peyton, and at the start of the third quarter the coach for Country Day begins to holler at the ref. "Hey, stripes! Why don't you stop watching Manning and start watching the game? You'll get to watch him the next four years on TV!"
The final score is 46-7. Peyton plays little in the second half, but he does produce one surprising moment when he fakes to a running back, holds the ball against his hip and sprints up the sideline for a long gain. "The blind bootleg," Archie says, standing and applauding. "Did you see that, Olivia? It was the blind bootleg."
No one has seen the play, not at a Newman game, anyway. The team, somebody says, doesn't have it in its playbook. "I guess he got that from me," Archie finally says. "From one of my old game films. Watch, when I go down to see him, it'll be the first thing he brings up."
The game ends, and Archie walks down to the field to shake his son's hand. "Did you see my blind bootleg?" Peyton asks, wiping grime from his face.
Archie takes his hand and gives it a long shake. "I sure did, Peyton. I saw it, all right."
Long after most everyone has left, a group of kids run up to Archie, gives him a football and asks if he wouldn't mind throwing a few. The first runs a sideline pattern; Archie drills him as soon as he makes his break. The second simply flares out to the right, and Archie finds him, too. The third, a speedster, claws through the sod and goes long. "Keep going," Archie says. And then he lets loose with a wondrous spiral. The ball sails in a high clean arc, off toward the trees. It's just how he used to throw them, this one. And how Peyton throws them now. The pass goes straight up and comes straight down and somehow it's the most amazing damn thing anybody ever saw.