Archie Manning faces family history
Archie Manning doesn't cotton to the notion that he and his wife Olivia are the heads of the First Family of the Southeastern Conference. For one thing, it's a presumption of self-importance, and Archie wasn't raised to be anything but humble.
"I've always said, in the era that I played, all those years with the Saints, you don't come out with a big ego," Manning said.
For another, Manning is the chair of the National Football Foundation and the College Football Hall of Fame. To his well-developed sense of propriety, appearing to favor one conference over another is downright unseemly, like belching in church or not throwing the checkdown.
Of course, Manning also understands that to ignore his family's ties to the SEC is to ignore the fusion of history and reality, of myth and memory, of what makes college football a family heirloom. There's a reason that 4-year-olds in Manning's home state of Mississippi know the words to "Hotty Toddy."
"I love the conference," Manning said on the phone the other day. "I cherish my time at Ole Miss. I cherish those four years. I've said publicly, and it's true, I've had a lot of wonderful things come my way. But personally, the greatest thing I ever accomplished was when I was named the starting quarterback at Ole Miss. That was my childhood dream, as it was thousands of kids in Mississippi. Every kid I knew wanted to be a quarterback at Ole Miss. They were such heroes in those days, Ole Miss quarterbacks. They were to me."
In the SEC Storied documentary "The Book of Manning," which debuts Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN, the story of Archie and Olivia is told -- how they met and fell in love at Ole Miss, the folk hero quarterback and the homecoming queen. The film tells the story of the hero worship that Manning endured until it went away, of how Archie and Olivia settled down and raised three boys in New Orleans as normally as they could, right down to the VHS camera on Archie's shoulder.
And it is a story of how those three boys -- Cooper, Peyton and Eli -- followed in their dad's footsteps and signed to play football in the SEC.
"I get invitations to go speak," Manning said. "They want to put a title on there -- 'How to Raise an All-American.' No, no, no, no, no. ... We tried to raise kids. Not NFL quarterbacks."
Archie and Olivia managed to do both. Peyton became an All-American at Tennessee. Eli went to Ole Miss like his dad and became the first pick in the NFL draft like his brother. But you know that. Everybody knows that. The Mannings have managed to live their lives in the public eye without being curdled by the attention.
If it were easy to do, every NFL player would be doing it.
"I really don't think I have lived my life as an open book," Manning said. "It's just the boys are so high profile. People ask questions. Things are out there. ... We've just been blessed. But I know Ryan Leaf used to call Peyton, 'Peyton Perfect.' Well, Peyton wasn't always Peyton Perfect, and Cooper wasn't always Cooper Perfect, and Eli wasn't Eli Perfect. There are always hills there in raising kids, and we've had ours. We've just been fortunate to get through them."
The Mannings have had their hills. Only after Archie's mother passed away did he begin to speak publicly of the suicide of his father, who ran a farm machinery business in Drew, Miss. Elisha Archibald Manning Sr. had health problems, and business problems, and in small-town Mississippi in the late 1960s, men didn't ask for help.
"He was stubborn," Manning said. "He was tough. He had a stroke! And he didn't go to the doctor for two weeks! ... He smoked, like everybody. Smoked Chesterfields. He wore to work, every day, a pair of khakis and a shirt. And he had to have two front pockets. If you gave him a birthday present, and it had one front pocket, it was never going to come out of the wrapper. One pocket for his pens, and one for his Chesterfields."
In the film, Cooper's chin quivers as he talks about how the discovery of a congenital spinal condition swept away his football career at Ole Miss before he ever played a down. The hate mail that Peyton got from Rebels fans when he signed with Tennessee, the public drunkenness citation that turned Eli's career around at Ole Miss -- the hills are apparent.
It may sound nonsensical, a man known for humility agreeing to participate in a documentary about his life. Archie turned down the film. Then he said yes. Then he pulled out of it. Six months later, Olivia asked him how the documentary was going.
"I nixed it," Archie said.
"Well, you're going to call them back and tell them you're going to do it," Olivia said, "because your grandchildren need to see your story."
The rest is SEC history.