New Orleans Sports Fans Love the Mannings

by Quin Hillyer
Archie, Olivia, Cooper, Peyton, and Eli hold a place of honor in the Big Easy.

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!!”

Cooper, aghast, put a big mitt on his brother’s shoulder, pushed him back down in his seat and said, “Shush up dummy, that’s Daddy you’re booing!”

Peyton, suddenly understanding, looked somewhere between crestfallen and mortified. It might have been the very last “audible” he ever got wrong.

Fast-forward nine years. Cooper, a superb athlete with a large and engaging personality, started his sophomore year at Isidore Newman High School as the third-string quarterback. In one game, the other two QBs went down with minor injuries late in the game with Newman nursing a lead but on its own one-yard line. On his very first snap, Cooper threw a pass into busted coverage, and it went for a 99-yard score, cementing the win.

I was a stringer for the Times-Picayune, covering the game. It wasn’t on our editorial budget as a featured game; I was only supposed to send in the box score and at most a single sentence of summary. But this was the first varsity touchdown pass, on the very first varsity snap, of Archie Manning’s son! So I hustled to Archie as soon as the game ended, seeking a quote. Archie just shook his head, jokingly rueful, and then laughed. “Oh Lord, I dread going home: I’m gonna be facing a tenth-grader with a mighty big head!”

(The sports desk editor, on deadline, wasn’t impressed. The quote never got published.)

Cooper’s head never did get too big, though. Cue forward two more years. I’m managing editor for Gambit Weekly in New Orleans, mostly focusing on politics and culture/entertainment, but I’ve decided to do a sports column on two high school teams that have spent years trading state volleyball championships in much the same way, a decade later, Tennessee and UConn would trade women’s basketball national titles. One of the schools is Newman, and it is hosting the other, Sacred Heart, in a make-or-break game.

Now this is still a few years before girls’ sports, especially in high school, started attracting crowds approaching those for boys. But when I get there, the Newman gym is rocking. There in the front row of the bleachers, exhorting the other Newman fans to make some real noise in support of the girls, are Cooper and Peyton Manning, now a senior and a sophomore, respectively, along with basketball wunderkind Randy Livingston (who also eventually went pro despite a horrific leg injury). They’re not acting like the three “big men on campus,” too cool for school; they’re acting like the Booster Club, doing anything for school spirit. And they’re obviously having a blast.

Talk to Peyton’s high-school classmates, even all these years later, and you’ll hear two refrains about him. First, he was a good-natured prankster (with a wit that often shows in his multitudinous TV ads). Second, and even more strongly, “he’s very loyal, just a very loyal person” (as is witnessed, in Sports Illustrated’s telling, by his continued devotion to Indianapolis charities even after that town’s Colts cut him loose).

Alas, Cooper’s own football career, as has been widely reported, was cut short due to extremely dangerous spinal stenosis, necessitating surgeries that risked permanent paralysis. (Cooper didn’t mope. Two decades later, he is a wildly successful energy investment trader worth, by some accounts, $15 million.)  But he still reportedly is a legendary life of any party, with all the same antic energy he showed in cheering his female classmates on to victory.

Anyway, as Peyton Manning breaks record after record on the gridiron in one of the greatest NFL careers of all time (he set the single-season touchdown record yesterday), and as little brother Eli (sorry, no Eli stories here) continues in his own intermittently brilliant football endeavors, and as Cooper builds success upon success in business, the parent Mannings still — it is said — remain as approachable as ever, justifiably proud but without airs or pretensions.

Archie may now be the father of the national Sportsman of the Year, but he surely remembers when he was throwing passes to a guy named Jubilee Dunbar while a lineman named Wimpy Winther tried to block. It is for their enduring those years with spirit intact that Saints fans loved Archie and Olivia. Long before Sports Illustrated weighed in, the Mannings had been our Sportsmen of the Past Four-Plus Decades. That they’ve produced such world-beating winners — well, that’s just more powder on the beignet, from a seemingly endless supply of Sugar in the Bowl.

— Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor of National Review and a senior fellow of the Center for Individual Freedom. He served during the “Gingrich Congress” as press secretary for the House Appropriations Committee.