Raising Champions

UPDATED: October 6, 2010
PUBLISHED: October 6, 2010

In the sweltering bayou country of southern Louisiana, four accomplished men reunite every summer, bunking together as roommates in the cramped living quarters of a small college.

“As a fan of the game, I’m pleased the two sides have reached a deal and, as a professional, I want to get back to work.” –Peyton Manning on the July 25 resolution to end the 2011 NFL lockout.

One of them, a surefire Hall of Famer, is destined to be the highest-paid player in the history of the National Football League, according to his team’s owner. Another is the star of the biggest draw in the NFL’s biggest market. The third was considered even more talented than the others until health concerns ended his career. The fourth—the legend—is one of the greatest players ever to don the jersey of the NFL team for which he played. The first family of football—as Archie Manning and sons Cooper, Peyton and Eli have been called—gathered for their annual football camp, drawing more than 1,000 young hopefuls to the campus of Nichols State University in tiny Thibodeaux, La. On practice fields and parking lots, the young players run routes and ask questions of the Manning Passing Academy’s teaching staff.

For the Manning sons and their father, the four-day event isn’t just an opportunity to teach a high-school player the intricacies of the seven-step drop. For them, “it’s like old times, where we get to have a great time together, to laugh and live together as family,” says Cooper, the oldest Manning son.

“We don’t get times like Christmas and Thanksgiving like other families to spend some time together, so that’s why this is a great time and a great experience for us,” Eli says.

Peyton agrees. Even with the triple-digit temperatures common this time of year, he looks forward to this week as one of his favorites all year. “Everything is here. Football, family. It’s just great.”

The Mannings have left their mark all over the world of sports. Archie was the all-pro quarterback for the New Orleans Saints. Cooper was an all-state high-school wide receiver who accepted a scholarship to play at his father’s alma mater, the University of Mississippi. His promising career ended as a freshman when doctors diagnosed him with a narrowing of the spine. He now works as a partner at energy investment firm Howard Weil Inc. in New Orleans. Peyton is the only four-time Most Valuable Player in NFL history and won a Super Bowl championship with the Indianapolis Colts. Eli is the quarterback of the New York Giants and has a Super Bowl ring of his own.

The only mark this family hasn’t left is a black one.

A Sense of What’s Important

“Among the many things you have to appreciate about that family is what a positive impact they make in every community where they’re involved,” says former Louisiana State University basketball coach Dale Brown, who shared the state’s media spotlight with Archie when Manning was with the Saints. “The way they helped after Hurricane Katrina—all of them—was really special. And you never hear anyone that has worked with or around them say anything negative about them. That’s tough to do, to be that high-profile and never have any hint of bad news. Archie has a lot to be proud of.”

And proud he is. “We’ve certainly been blessed,” Archie says. “All three [sons] have done well and know what’s important. They have had that since they were young. When Cooper was born, we bought our first house in a neighborhood in New Orleans. We wanted our children to have as normal a life as we could. I was the quarterback of the Saints, and they weren’t as good as they are now. But they were the only game in town so it was kind of a big deal. As a family, we didn’t get into the celebrity thing. That’s not what we wanted for the boys. We wanted them to play everything they could, be involved in as many school events as they could. When I grew up, we played in vacant lots. But in New Orleans, not a lot of houses have yards, so we borrowed the lot across the street to play football and then we put up a basketball goal in the driveway.”

It was on that tiny basketball court where each son honed a now-famous competitive streak.

“We definitely played more basketball than anything else,” Peyton says. “One-on-one, two-on-two…. It was always a battle. Nobody wanted to lose and those games would get tough.”

The Desire to Win

“Cooper is two years older than Peyton,” Archie says. “So on the court, Peyton could hang in there a little, but usually Cooper would abuse him and that would make Peyton mad.”

Eli, five years younger than Peyton, was too little to play. “So when we would play two-on-two, my wife would join us. Olivia is pretty tall and athletic. So it would be me and Peyton against Olivia and Cooper. The games would go back and forth. Then we’d go one-on-one, and as their father, you don’t want to let them just win, but you do want them to feel like they can compete. When the games got close, we’d have trouble finishing a game to 20 because by the time you get to 18, no one’s going to get a shot off. They’d hack you to keep you from scoring. A competitive nature was something they all had.”

The drive to win remains part of the Manning DNA. But other than the occasional round of golf, the brotherly competition has morphed into a family cheering section today.

“I am so proud of Eli,” Peyton says, glancing over at the youngest Manning. “I keep up with him. He does the same with me. I pull hard for him and the Giants every Sunday. As soon as we’re finished playing, I come in and check the score to see if the Giants have won. If we play a 1 p.m. game, I go back to my house and try and catch their 4 p.m. game. I enjoy his success. He and I talk, usually on Sunday night after the game, and then again usually on Thursday during the week about the upcoming opponents, about challenges. He and I will share notes about common opponents.”

“How can you not root for Peyton?” Eli says in response. “He’s what all of us who play the position want to be. And he’s always been a great help to me as I’ve moved along in my career. There are lots of times when only someone else who plays the position knows what you’re feeling and really knows what to say. We try to be that for each other.”

And each week Cooper calls both brothers, bringing his trademark levity to the relationship. “When I call, I don’t talk football,” Cooper says. “I know they get enough of that from everyone else. I call and make sure that no matter what happens, they take time to laugh.”

Lucky to Be Brothers

The affection among brothers is real, and the root of it is easy to see.

“I enjoy that each of them are serious competitors, but I always wanted to make sure that when they were done that they remember they are brothers first,” Archie says. “When I see siblings in some families not get along, I just struggle with that. My wife says I need to be more real about it, but I just can’t believe it when it happens. Sometimes money is the root, sometimes spouses bring friction. I’ve told each son, ‘if you ever want to really disappoint me, I mean really disappoint me, stop getting along.’ No matter what happens—and things will—you have to recognize how lucky you are to be brothers.

“So far, so good,” Archie continues. “That’s one thing I’ve told my boys over the last several years.… ‘I most admire the relationship y’all have, the way you get along.’ People ask how I feel when Peyton and Eli have won Super Bowls, and certainly that makes you proud. But if they did that and didn’t get along, if they didn’t have great fun with each other, it wouldn’t mean as much to me.”

Their father’s words have resonated with the Manning brothers. “I don’t think any of us want to ever disappoint our parents, even today,” Cooper says. “They’ve just shown us so much. And as many times as Dad’s said it—‘You are so lucky to be brothers’—it just had to stick.”

Ask Archie to pick his favorite football season during the course of his 61-year life and you’ll find it isn’t any of his 13 NFL seasons or either of the Super Bowl championships won by his sons. Instead, it would be Cooper’s senior year of high school.

“Cooper and Peyton had the chance to play together for one year in high school and it was great as a father,” Archie says. “Cooper was a senior—he was all-state as a junior and was returning as a receiver. Peyton was a sophomore and won the quarterback job. They had a good year, went deep in the state playoffs. The boys got a lot of attention, but I was proud that they knew how to spread that attention to the team. Now there were times it got a little embarrassing because there were a couple of other good senior receivers and Peyton didn’t throw to anybody but Cooper. Cooper was just that typical receiver…. He always said he was open. I’d say ‘Peyton, a good quarterback will spread that ball around,’ and he said, ‘Dad, Cooper always comes back and tells me he’s open. He’s always open.’”

‘Life’s Not Fair’

Sometimes the Manning family story sounds like a storybook; in fact the Mannings did write an illustrated children’s book, Family Huddle, released in 2009. But their own happy ending didn’t always seem certain.

During Cooper’s senior season, he experienced some tingling in his arm. Doctors originally thought the problem was confined to a nerve issue in his elbow. He went on to finish the season and signed a scholarship to play at Ole Miss. The next year, while in college, doctors recognized the problem was much more serious. He was diagnosed with spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal column, and needed surgery to relieve pressure on the spinal cord.

The doctor who made the diagnosis said Cooper was lucky on many levels—that they caught the problem in time to avoid permanent paralysis or worse, and that he hadn’t gotten hit in such a way that could’ve resulted in paralysis in his teens. Cooper never played a down of college football and his football career was over.

“When Cooper got hurt, it impacted Peyton more than anyone,” Archie says. “For a while there, he was just so angry. He’d say, ‘This is just not fair. Life’s not fair for football to be taken away from Cooper.’ And I know that as he plays, even today, he always has Cooper in mind. We were grateful that he was projected to live a normal life, that with surgery he’d be fine. But Peyton, it affected a lot for him. I think they had a pact that when it came to college, they were going to play together. If Cooper got a scholarship, Peyton would come to the same place. I think Cooper getting hurt released Peyton to go somewhere other than Ole Miss. If Cooper had been there, I think Peyton would have gone there, even though it probably wasn’t the right place for Peyton at the time. Cooper getting hurt probably sent Peyton to Tennessee, where things went pretty well for him. A lot changed in that moment.”

Nothing for Granted

Peyton acknowledges that Cooper’s injury still has an impact on him today, 16 years later.

“I know how lucky I am to get to play this game professionally,” Peyton says. “I don’t take it for granted at all. I think what happened with Cooper’s injury, when he had to stop playing because of something that was out of his control, that reinforced the priorities for me and not to take football—not to take anything, really—for granted.”

Cooper says he knows his brother was, and is, affected by his injury, even though the two have seldom discussed the subject.

“I don’t talk to him about it as much as I hear him talk about it,” Cooper says. “I knew it definitely had a big impact on him. What happened with me has, in some way, motivated Peyton to be that extra-effort guy, to always play each play like it’s his last. I think it is why Peyton can’t wait for the start of training camp each fall. He knows he’s going to get another chance to play the game. I think what happened helps remind him this is supposed to be fun, that it is a job, but it is supposed to be fun.”

Asked, then, if he felt his injury had any bearing on Peyton’s drive to succeed, Cooper dead-pans, “Actually, I take complete credit. And for Eli, too. Don’t forget him.”

To the public, Cooper is usually the forgotten one, and he seems totally at ease with his role in the family—and at the Manning Passing Academy.

Memories to Hold On To

“I know a lot of these kids are here because of Dad or Peyton or Eli,” Cooper says. “Most of them probably don’t know I ever played. But being here isn’t just for them. We love the idea of giving back, but if this week didn’t bring our whole family together, the camp would never have made it to its 15th consecutive year. It is special to the campers, but it is even more special to us.”

“For Eli and I, this is one of only about four times a year we get to see each other,” Peyton says, standing in the camp’s media room. “Once August 1 comes, we won’t see each other again until February. My dad and Cooper maybe get to come to about two games a year, and even then you don’t get to see them until Sunday night after the game, and it’s kind of rushed. So to be here and to have this time together and to be in the dorms together, to be roommates kind of like the good old days, that’s special.”

Archie agrees, though he also acknowledges that his three sons have a bit of fun at his expense when the four of them are thrust into close college quarters.

“I’ve always been the neat freak and they give me a hard time for that trait,” Archie says. “And during camp, if they know I’ll pick up behind them, they’ll throw things down just to watch me clean up. They’ll see me pick something up and go right behind me and throw something else down because they know I’ll pick it up again. They think I don’t know they’re messing with me. I do, but moments like those are the memories I’m lucky to hold on to.”

When he hears what his father has said, Cooper breaks into a huge grin.

“I have to admit that this year, I found myself picking up a little, too,” he says. “At one point I thought to myself, ‘Oh my, I’m becoming my father!’ But then I thought of what a great job he did and I realized that would be a pretty good thing.”