The Manning Room in the Starnes Center on the campus of Ole Miss is chock full of memorabilia of the Manning family, most prominently Dad Archie and youngest son Eli.
Poppa Rebel sat on one of the plush couches surrounded by a shrine for him and his family preparing for some local media members to quiz him about his recent experience with middle son Peyton, the winning quarterback from Super Bowl 50 last Sunday.
From a physical standpoint, time has been kind to him, but football has not. The sport that has given him and his family so much admiration and riches has also taken a toll on his body. In recent years, Manning, 66, has had a knee replaced and needs the other one done as well. He has had neck surgery and walks in a slow, tedious gait that depicts discomfort.
He doesn’t complain – old football warriors never drop the veil of toughness, but you know there’s some physical pain he’s gallantly dealing with.
Archie, however, diverts all that into the joy he has received in having a son in six of the last 10 Super Bowls and having won four of those.
“We have been so blessed. To have a son in 60% of the last ten Super Bowls, and to have won four of those, it’s something you never imagine,” Archie noted, “but what I usually remember more are the conference championship games. They stand out to me because they are all so hard. The boys have been blessed to have won six out of seven of those.”
Each Super Bowl has its own earmark, its own identity for Archie.
“This one was different because of the difficult year Peyton went through and that this might be the end of the line for his career. For it to end like that, by winning the biggest game of the year, is very special,” he stated. “I was in San Francisco for five days and unless you had an affiliation with Carolina, it seemed like everyone was for the Broncos and for Peyton.
“Our prayers were answered and what was amazing was the party afterwards. There were people from New Orleans, Mississippi, Knoxville, Indianapolis – people we had not seen in years, there to support Peyton. At least a dozen of his high school teammates were there. It was amazing. I’m still exhausted from it but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It was a lot of fun.”
Archie said winning beats the alternative.
“Losing a Super Bowl hurts. When Peyton lost, he said he felt like they were the 32nd team in the NFL, that even though they were the second best team in the league,” Archie continued. “I never had much empathy for the losing team in a Super Bowl until then. That is why I am giving Cam (Newton), who I really like, a pass on how he handled things after his loss Sunday.
“I saw my son go through it twice and I don’t wish that on anyone. Peyton left the field without shaking hands with a lot of people after they lost to the Saints that year, but he text the New Orleans coaches and players immediately. Cam did the same thing and he did reach out to Peyton on the field. I understand both sides. It’s hard to lose that game.”
Fortunately, Archie hasn’t had to see that side of things too often. Eli and Peyton are 4-2 in Super Bowl appearances, and he is grateful for that.
“I have never lived through them, but as a parent, I almost feel greedy, I am so blessed,” he said. “I have some good friends whose sons play and I want them to feel the joy I have felt to have sons to win a Super Bowl. It is a great family experience and our cup truly does runneth over.”
All of this has made he and his wife, Olivia, reflect in amazement.
“When we had kids, I was playing at New Orleans in a high profile position. Our attitude was to support them no matter what they chose. If they liked sports, fine. If not, we’d support them playing the piano or whatever they chose,” Archie stated. “There was no plan for them to play even college sports.”
He said he did not recognize his boys had special talents until after everyone else did.
“My daddy hat made me delay thinking they were very good until late in the process,” he noted. “Cooper was a receiver and he told me he wanted to play college ball. I tried to steer him to Division III by telling him they have the most fun on that level because I didn’t think he’d be good enough for D1, but he was. He got recruited.
“Then Peyton came along and my friends were coming to me and saying ‘he’s got it.’ I’d tell them to shut up. I would not acknowledge it. His junior year, he grew, his mechanics were good and he worked hard at it, but I still didn’t want to admit it until lots of schools started coming around. Even then, though, I never thought about him playing pro football until his junior year in college. Even after his sophomore year.”
Archie laughs now at something that happened after Peyton’s sophomore year.
“We were having this great dinner together. Out of the blue, Cooper says 'Peyton you need to challenge the NFL and come out.' I almost reached across the table and slapped him,” he laughs. “I gave him the look, believe me. We laugh about it now, but I was late with recognizing how good he was at all levels.”
Then, the “baby,” Eli. . . .
“Then Eli came along and he was five years younger than Peyton. We dragged him to so many baseball, football and basketball games his brothers were playing in that we never thought he’d want to play any sport, but he did,” Manning said. “I thought he’d hate all sports, but that wasn’t the case.
“Quietly, in his own way, he followed right in their path.”
Eli is now in a transition heading into his 13th NFL season.
For the first time in his career, he will have a new head coach as Tom Coughlin was relieved of his duties after the 2015 season. It was an emotional time for Eli.
“He and Tom have a special relationship. They have been through a lot of ups and downs. One year they won the Super Bowl, I didn’t know who was going to be run out of New York first, Tom or Eli,” Archie noted. “Eli feels partly responsible for Tom being fired because of how many close games they lost the last two years and it eats him up.
“On the other hand, he has blossomed the last two years under OC Ben McAdoo, who is now the head coach. Ben blew them away in the interview for the head coaching job. He’s more than an offensive coach, but his system fits Eli perfectly. It is a thinking man’s offense. They get the ball out quickly instead of relying so much on the receivers making reads way down the field. I think Eli is in for some good years, but they need help on defense. They have not been able to stop anyone.”
Archie has seen a new spark in Eli the last year or so.
“He really enjoys the system he’s in now. They won two Super Bowls in another system, but it’s hard, very hard. Eli is in the best physical condition of his life and he threw the ball better this year than he ever has at 34 years old,” Archie added. “He’s excited about moving forward.”
Archie has not kept up too much with the NCAA issues Ole Miss has had due to his trust and faith in AD Ross Bjork and Coach Hugh Freeze. In fact, he says he has not talked to either about it, but he is miffed by the narrative that for Ole Miss to be doing well, they must be cheating.
“Ole Miss is doing well because those guys are selling Ole Miss and selling themselves and showing recruits how great this place really is,” Archie stated. “When people experience game day and campus life, they want to come. That’s the truth, but there is always jealousy involved from the outside.
“I know the integrity of Hugh and Ross and that’s all I need to know in order to not worry about it too much.”
Near the end of Denver’s victory over Carolina, when the Broncos scored to go ahead 22-10. The Manning family was flashed on national TV. Eli was looking stoic while others danced around him. Social media went off, claiming Eli was jealous of his big brother.
Archie laughs at that notion. . . .
“Eli is a quarterback. At that moment, he was talking to me about what they should do – go for two,” Manning said. “His head was in the game. It was like he was playing. He would celebrate later. Remember, this is a guy who lost seven games last year in the last two minutes. It was on his mind.
“I was with Eli all week and, trust me, nobody wanted Peyton to win that game more than Eli. Now they may not give each other a two-foot putt. They may draw blood playing one-on-one basketball, but when it comes to football, they are each other’s biggest fans.”
So, is Peyton done?
“I don’t know, but I have to believe he is leaning that way. This whole season was sort of that narrative, but now that he has won a Super Bowl, I do not know for sure,” Archie allowed. “Whatever he does, you can bet it will be thought out long and hard.
“It’s hard to give up something you have been doing since the fifth grade, but he’s almost 40 now and the time is near whether it is right now or not. All I know is that Peyton will have great options with what I call his second life. He can broadcast. He can coach. He can do a lot of things. I’m thankful he has those options.”
As for Archie, he expects to spend more time in Oxford in the coming years.
“I saw six Ole Miss games this year and hope to be able to see even more in the future. I love Oxford and coming back to Ole Miss. I’m grateful I am getting that chance more and more,” he closed. “I’ve got to get another knee replaced, but besides that life is good.
“I’ve got healthy grandchildren, everyone in my family is OK and we are looking forward to the future.”