ARCHIE MANNING Interview: A Saint From Mississippi

Manning Reebok ShootBy: Dave Hollander

Note: This is one of the classic interviews conducted by Dave Hollander, our special guest contributor on Sports Shorts.  It’s particularly timely because Archie Manning’s sons are making pro football headlines – Peyton for his touchdown passes and Super Bowl this weekend, Eli for his…not so much, at least not this season. Here’s a great visit with the original Manning master.

The former 2-time Pro Bowler, NFL Most Valuable Player and quarterback patriarch of Peyton and Eli, discusses real life implications of Voltaire’s Candide, didn’t let neighbor Ann Rice tell his sons ghost stories, Candide has not been approached by the NFL for a gene sample — yet.

DH:  I know you are the only Ole Miss player to have your number, 18, retired but is it true that the speed limit on the University of Mississippi campus is 18 miles per hour?
AM: That’s what they tell me. I guess they just couldn’t decide on a speed limit. 25 was too fast and I think our chancellor up there said we got one number retired up here so why don’t we just make it 18. Maybe that was my annual number of interceptions.

DH:  You are the first New Orleans Saints player in the history of the franchise to be inducted into the “Wall of Fame” in the Louisiana Superdome, voted quarterback of the 25-Year All-Saints Team and voted Most Popular Saint in franchise history. In addition you’ve  been inducted into the Louisiana and Mississippi Sports Halls of Fame and the National Football Foundation College Hall of Fame. In 1992 you were voted Mississippi’s All-time Greatest Athlete and named quarterback for The Team of the Century at the University of Mississippi. Of all these honors, you say being inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame is your favorite. Why is that?
AM: All those things are really something special to me but I think my first real dream as a youngster was to play college football at Ole Miss. To be able to do that and then several years later to be inducted into he College Hall of Fame –  it’s just special to me.

DH:  That’s not bad considering the two years (1969, 1970) you quarterbacked Ole Miss, they didn’t win a national championship, or even an SEC title and had an okay 15-7 record. Maybe you cherish the College honor most because in the first ever prime time national telecast of a college football game and people all across the nation saw you perform in one of the greatest games in college football, throwing for 436 yards and three touchdowns and rushing for 104 yards in the 33-32 loss to Bear Bryant’s Alabama. What did that game mean to you?
AM: It hurt, because we had a 700 yards total offense and we got beat. So it really hurt. But when I reflect on it, I’d have to say that game put me on the national map. It was real disappointing and I guess they showed most of my disappointment walking off the field. But I got over 5,000 pieces of mail at Ole Miss from people all across the country so ABC did discover something that night in prime time college football on television. People were watching.

DH:  The south sure loves its football but you were also drafted four times by major league baseball teams (Atlanta, Chicago White Sox (twice) and Kansas City). Ever have any second thoughts about choosing football?
AM: Maybe a couple of Sunday nights after a Saints game. (laughs) I thought maybe hitting a curveball would be easier than this.
DH:  The mega-bestselling author John Grisham was a state senator in Mississippi and also played college baseball. Did you guys ever compete against each other?
AM: No I don’t think so. I’m older than John. I know John. He’s a good friend and he is big time baseball guy. He’s pretty good writer, too. Problem with John is he just isn’t making any money.

DH:  How many times have you been approached about running for Governor of Mississippi?
AM: Every now then I get offers for Mississippi and Louisiana. I used to tell people I’m way too honest to run for Governor of Louisiana.

DH:  Perhaps you developed a keen political perspective in June 21 1964 as Meridian Mississippi became the political focus of the country when civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner disappeared and were  later found buried under a nearby earthen dam. You were just a teenager then but what was going through young Archie Manning’s mind in that Summer of ’64?
AM: It was kinda scary.  I remember in the little town where I lived, our National guard went to Oxford. As a youngster you’re saying to yourself “Why is this happening?” It was just an ugly time in Mississippi. But Mississippi got through it and had come a long, long way since then.

DH:  Being an athlete, did you have more contact with blacks than most of your peers?
AM: No, not really. Not until almost I got out of college. In the Southeastern Conference when I was playing college football, two or three teams that were getting their first black players. Ole Miss got black player the years that I left. So the first time was really pro ball.
DH:  Wow.

DH:  I am sure that nothing could have been a more difficult life situation than at 19 years old, when you left early from a wedding , leaving your mother and sister behind, only to find to very personal tragedy at home.
How did that change you?
AM: I guess when you’re nineteen you ought to be becoming a man but I was a boy. And I had to become a man that night. All my focus and responsibility went immediately to taking care of my mother and sister. I was a good person and behaved myself but I really grew up that night. I became an adult.

DH:  Drafted number two overall by the New Orleans Saints in 1971, you were brought in to save a perennial NFL doormat. You tried. Despite leading the league with 448 passing attempts and 230 completions in 1972, the Saints only won two games. In twelve years with the Saints you never had a winning season. As an athlete, how important is team loyalty to you?
AM: The thing about it is that sometimes people reflect on my career and you say gosh you had 12 years of just misery in New Orleans. It wasn’t 12 years of the same general managers, same coach, same players, or same plays losing. We changed all the time – actually about every three years – coaches and players etc. I was one of the few that kind of stayed through it all. You gotta remember when there’s change, this new sanguine feeling takes over. There’s optimism. This time it’s gonna work. This is gonna be the right combination of management coaches and players. And things would happen and you’d get bright spots but then it just didn’t happen. There were a few times we got to .500 but it just didn’t work. So it wasn’t as miserable as everybody makes it sound because we’re trying and working and we had goals. When I reflect on it wasn’t the brightest side of professional football, certainly. But you know what? It’s what I wanted to do when I was kid.  And I got to do it. So I don’t look at it as just 14 years of misery, sacks and losses. I look at as there weren’t but 28 starting quarterbacks in the league and I was one of them. I’m grateful for the experiences and the memories.

DH:  Have you ever read a book by Voltaire called Candide?
AM: I have not. Should I?
DH:  It’s a book where a guy walks through life and only bad things happen to him. At the end, his arms get torn off but he continues insisting that it’s the “best of all possible worlds.”
AM: Maybe I should read that. As a friend of mine said, I’ve got a good “tude.” I don’t look at the bad. People do that for me. But I don’t look at my career that way.

DH:  In New Orleans you played behind some of the worst offensive lines in NFL history. No doubt you’re still feeling the pain. Yet you had to sit out the entire 1976 season with tendonitis from over-throwing. Did you ever imagine you’d get hurt from too much passing?
AM: I had to practice hard in the off season because we were trying to win and get better and we always had new receivers. In those days off-season work wasn’t nearly as team-organized as it is now. It was much more individualized. I probably overdid it.

DH:  Who was your favorite offensive teammate – your favorite target — on the Saints?
AM: In my early years it was Danny Abramowics and then it became Wes Chandler. But we had some other good receivers – Ike Harris and Henry Childs. Tony Galbreath was one of the best receivers out of the backfield ever play pro football. For a  few years we scored a lot of points but we just couldn’t stop anybody.

DH:  You were the NFL’s Most Valuable Player – 1978 – and the Saints they were 7 – 9. That must have felt pretty good.
AM: I was taught early that team sports isn’t about individual awards but I think at the time it felt good because we went 7-9.  People today say that’s horrible, that wouldn’t happen in the today’s NFL – go 7-9 and get the MVP. But I was excited because I thought we were making progress. I thought next year we would go 11-5. Now all it means when I get introduced to speak somewhere and nobody, except my kids, has ever said “Oh yeah, and he was MVP in 1978.”

DH:  You still reside in Louisiana, and I hear Ann Rice is your neighbor. She ever spend any time telling your boys ghost stories?
AM: No, but a lot of people walk by my house and want to know where her house is. She lives about a nine iron away. Although she’s selling her house.
DH:  But you’re not scared.
AM: No , I’m not.

DH: Two of your sons, Peyton and Eli are NFL quarterbacks and your eldest son, Cooper, was a a two-time all-state football player in high school and a fair receiver at Ole’ Miss until he got injured. It’s really incredible. Do you think great quarterbacks are born or bred?
AM: Oh I think they have to work. You might think it’s a gene thing but I tell people these guys really had to work at it. They had big goals and worked real hard.

DH:  Some dads want their son to be quarterback a little too much. I’ve read all the nightmare stories about how Todd Marinovich’s father wouldn’t let him eat a Big Mac and Kerry Collin’s dad made them live out of a  hotel room just so Kerry could play for a different high school. What type of special training did you give your sons?
AM: I was a quarterback in an NFL city so our whole deal was to try to be normal and for our children to grow up normal. My deal was just to show up and watch. I wasn’t the coach. I was always scared of getting a little too involved and being pushy. I remember my kids saying to me “Dad , why don’t you push us.” I said no, that scares me.
DH:  So, there’s no special diet you feed future quarterbacks at the Manning Passing Academy held each summer on the campus of Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, LA?
AM: We just teach ‘em basics and really try to teach ‘em hard work. We don’t think we can make ‘em better in three days but think we can show them how get better. We talk about fundamentals. Peyton and Eli and the other coaches do a great job of stressing that if they want to get better they got to do it in the summer. They can’t wait until fall practice. They got to do it in the spring and summer. We talk a lot about hard work and values and mental preparation and just have a heckuva lot of fun with some great kids.

DH:  Seriously though, have you ever thought that you possess a special genetic make-up that produces quarterbacks who become first round NFL draft picks?
AM: No, no.  Really, no.

DH:  Has the NFL approached you to do some stem cell research or freeze your DNA for replication?
AM: I run into the commissioner pretty often and he’s never said anything to me about it. (laughs)

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