For Peyton Manning’s fellow native New Orleanians, Sports Illustrated’s wise selection of the famed NFL quarterback as its Sportsman of the Year was long overdue — but many in Peyton’s native city wished the magazine had expanded the honor to cover the whole Manning family. We all have Manning stories to tell, and at the risk of my sounding far too familiar with a family of good people who probably wouldn’t know me from Adam, please consider my own vignettes as fond supplements to the considerable mass of excellent prose SI just published.
New Orleans loved Archie Manning even before he became a Saint, and it loves his children even though none has ever taken a single post-high-school snap for a Louisiana team. The city’s first direct exposure — and my own — to Manning mania came in the New Year’s Day 1970 Sugar Bowl, when Archie’s Ole Miss Rebels took on the heavily favored Arkansas Razorbacks. Not yet six years old, I remember riding a city bus toward the game and being somewhat intimidated by a group of loudmouths wearing gaudy pig hats, only to be reassured by my dad that somebody named “Archie Who” was going to silence the “Pig Sooies” soon enough. Sure enough, Archie Who did, leading the Rebs to a 27-22 upset with such flair that — even with a full senior season still ahead of Manning — almost every fan of the woebegone New Orleans Saints virtually salivated in thinking of Archie as the NFL team’s quarterback of the future.
In anticipation of an NFL draft still a full year away, people started wearing “Archie Who” buttons around town. Somewhere along the line, my elementary school coach adopted a cocker spaniel — its coat the approximate color of the Saints’ gold pants — and named the pooch Archie Who as well. True to form, the dog had a specialty of comforting playground losers and coaxing them back into the games.
I sat in the Tulane Stadium stands for Archie’s first real game in a Saints uniform and watched him run for a winning touchdown on the game’s final play — fumbling the ball just after crossing the goal line — to upset the powerful Los Angeles Rams and their Fearsome Foursome. In an otherwise horrendous Saints season, Archie again led an upset later that year as the Saints beat the eventual Super Bowl–champion Dallas Cowboys. The entire city was smitten.
But oh, were the Saints awful! Seven years of horror ensued. Yet no matter how bad the team was, no matter how poorly his line blocked, no matter how beaten and bruised Manning ended up after every game, he kept getting back up, kept scrambling, kept trying — and kept showing up for every civic engagement imaginable. Charity gala — he’d be there. Children’s hospital — there, too. Up at 8 a.m. on a Saturday for a 5K race raising money for cancer research or some such cause: There would be Archie, smiling, waving the honorary starter’s flag.
And when the Saints organization finally put some talent around him on offense (the defense still was lousy), he was the UPI Player of the Year, even though two freak plays kept the Saints from the playoffs.
The Mannings soon moved across the street from my closest friend. In 1980, as Archie posted gaudy personal numbers again, much of the team was riven by what later turned out to have been cocaine-fueled discord. The relatively strait-laced Archie had been oblivious to the causes of the misery, but the effects were plain to see: a toxically warring locker room and a 1–15 season. Olivia Manning, pregnant with Eli and exasperated by the horrors on the field, gave their tickets one week to my friend and me to take Cooper, age 6, and Peyton, 4, to the game.
In their dual autobiography, Manning, Archie and Peyton briefly mentioned a story similar to an incident that happened at that game — but their story takes place a year later, and it wasn’t the first such occurrence. Here’s what really happened:
Necessary background: Many working-class New Orleanians actually sport accents that sound more like Brooklyn, or maybe New Jersey. They readily accepted the designation of “Yats,” based on their usual greeting where “Hello, how are you” was replaced by a friendly “Hey, man, where ya’at?” As it was, a world-class, prototypical Yat — except that he was mean, not friendly — sat a few rows behind our seats. Clearly, he didn’t realize these were Archie’s kids in front of him. As the Saints predictably fell behind, Fat Yat increasingly berated the quarterback (even though Archie wasn’t playing badly). “Ah-CHEE, yoo STINK!” he’d yell, distinctive accent prominent, syllabic emphasis askew. “Yoor a bum, Ah-CHEE!” All game long it went on.
Now, the Manning kids were smart. But they grew up in a house where the parents spoke in Mississippi drawls. Four-year-old Peyton knew darn well who “Daddy” was, and knew who “Manning” was, and he knew who it was that his mother called, with perhaps a longish vowel thrown in, “AARCH-ie” (or however one phonetically spells a Mississippi “Archie”). But he obviously wasn’t quite clear about whom it was that this Yat was castigating.
Thus it was that, somewhere early in the final quarter, after yet another outburst by Fat Yat, Peyton suddenly stood up and yelled for all he was worth: “Boo ah-CHEE! Boo ah-CHEE!!”