First Family

Archie talked about the loss of his father between his sophomore and junior seasons at Ole Miss from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. And there were tears.

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Cooper talked about the spinal diagnosis and surgery which brought to an end his football playing days after his redshirt freshman season at Ole Miss. And there were more tears.

From Archie and Cooper, that is, and likely the audience as well.

It wasn't all sadness and dread. There was much laughter and delight during the new ESPN documentary "The Book of Manning" which debuted to a captive audience of mainly Ole Miss people Friday night at the Gertrude Ford Center on campus.

Some of the best moments were of young Cooper and Peyton, and later littlest brother Eli, playing sports in their New Orleans yard. And getting into a few tussles as young brothers will do.

Archie said he didn't know how to handle all that at first since he only had a sister, Pam, who also appeared in the documentary. But he soon learned brothers are supposed to roughhouse a bit in their younger days.

The approximately hour and a half documentary, with pauses enough to make one feel like this is a two-hour, made for ESPN film, had its audience spellbound throughout. Many of them had lived through all the years and games, moments of celebration and angst, as fans of Ole Miss or the Saints.

And also the moment Peyton said "Tennessee" and changed the story of the Mannings forever.

The Manning family in attendance
Jeff Roberson

But it was Eli, and rightly depicted in the film, that brought it all back together.

Truly the Mannings are likely to be a family of immense wealth. But their humbleness, from Mississippi roots and upbringing, remains with them and was clearly evident in the work done by ESPN.

Beyond all that, the event served as an announcement opportunity by Ole Miss for the indoor practice facility, opened in 2004 and under renovation and expansion, to be named "The Olivia and Archie Manning Athletics Performance Center."

Also of note is that $100,000 was raised for Blair Batson Children's Hospital at The University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson.

"I'm honored and flattered that Ole Miss wanted to make an event out of this," said Archie, joined at the event by his wife Olivia, several members of their family, and many former Ole Miss teammates.

Cooper and his family were there, along with Archie's sister, Pam, and her husband Vernon Shelton. Of course, Peyton and Eli, getting their NFL seasons started, were not.

Archie spoke for them all when he mentioned the awareness and importance of the children's hospital on the Jackson campus of Ole Miss.

"The real benefactor will be Blair Batson Children's Hospital in Jackson," he said. "That's something Eli has really been committed to. The Eli Manning Children's Clinic is there. That's going to help our sick children in Mississippi to get well and go home."

Mrs. Charlie Conerly (right) enters on the red carpet
Jeff Roberson

You know when you talk to them or are around them or hear from them in media settings that they didn't plan for all this to happen as it did. Much of it throughout the years was out of their control. They are a talented, athletic family that has been blessed to be able to fulfill some dreams.

But there were the difficult times, like Archie walking into their Drew home and finding his father deceased, then trying to make things right in the house before his mother, Sis, and sister, Pam, arrived.

And how tough it was for every member of the family to go through with Cooper his situation that ended his playing career, how Peyton once again admitted he would likely have attended Ole Miss had Cooper been able to catch passes from him. And the healing with Eli saying, "Yes" to Ole Miss in December, 1998.

There were stories of many kinds that brought laughter. Like when a very young Cooper, in a TV interview, said Roger Staubach of the Cowboys, not his own quarterback father, was his favorite player. And when an Ole Miss teammate of Archie said if you made it through freshman year of football under Wobble Davidson, "You could walk barefoot and naked through hell and not even get sunburned."

And a smattering of spontaneous applause, now some 15 years later, when a clip was shown from Eli's announcement that he would be attending Ole Miss, putting on a Rebel cap and saying his parents' school is his school.

There was more transparency. Eli's arrest early in his Ole Miss career on a public drunkeness charge was a turning point, the Giants two-time Super Bowl MVP admitted. After a bit of a line-drawing in the sand by David Cutcliffe and with the head coach questioning his future super star about what he really wanted out of all this, Eli then dedicated himself to be the best he could be.

Cutcliffe said in the film he knew there would be others who disagree, but he believes Eli Manning is the finest football player in Ole Miss history.

No matter the arguable points, one is not. And that is this.

The Book of Manning is an excellent documentary on a football family that Ole Miss people should absorb every second of – both the film and the opportunity to be a part of likely the most unique and accomplished family in the history of American football.

The Book of Manning can be seen on ESPN beginning Sept. 24.

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