What the Kennedys are to politics, the Mannings are to football. Two generations have produced three NFL superstars: Archie Manning, the Ole Miss hero–turned–New Orleans Saint; his son Peyton, widely considered one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play the game; and Peyton’s younger brother, Eli, who won two Super Bowl rings of his own. And the oldest Manning child, Cooper—who was forced to quit playing sports after he was diagnosed at age eighteen with a rare spinal condition—might have been the most talented of them all.
In The Mannings, longtime Sports Illustrated writer Lars Anderson gives us, for the first time, the never-before-told story of this singular athletic dynasty—a story that shows us how finding strength in the face of catastrophe can be the key to success on and off the playing field.
Growing up, the three Manning brothers dream of playing side by side on the gridiron at Ole Miss. But with Cooper forced to the bench before his prime, Peyton must fight to win glory for them both. Meanwhile, Eli is challenged by his college coach to stop trailing in the footsteps of others and forge his own path. With Archie’s achievements looming over them, the brothers begin the climb to football history.
From the Manning family backyard to the bright lights of Super Bowl 50, The Mannings is an epic, inspiring saga of a family of tenacious competitors who have transfixed a nation.
Praise for The Mannings
“Anderson, an accomplished storyteller, writes about the Manning football legacy—warts and all—with style and verve, backed by an abundance of research and scholarship.”—Publishers Weekly
“An expertly written impressionistic account of the first family of football.”—Library Journal
“This is one of the most beautifully written and memorable books I’ve read in years—stunningly spectacular. I couldn’t put it down. Once again, Lars Anderson has shown why he is one of the seminal sportswriters of this generation. The Mannings is an absolute masterpiece.”—Paul Finebaum, ESPN college football analyst and New York Times bestselling author of My Conference Can Beat Your Conference
“Lars Anderson drills to the core of the Manning family. I love this book because it’s not just about football; it’s about how to raise a family.”—Bruce Arians, head coach of the Arizona Cardinals
“Anderson’s yarn never wobbles. . . . A winner for fans of modern football.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Anyone who has paid attention to the NFL over the last five decades understands the significance of the Mannings. They are to America’s best-loved game what the Holbeins are to portraiture, what the Bachs are to classical music, what the Kardashians are to mindless reality television, an unsurpassed dynasty. In The Mannings, Lars Anderson delivers an incisive, honest, and thorough chronicle of the first family of football.”—Jeremy Schaap, New York Times bestselling author of Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler’s Olympics
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Desperate for a Hero
Parchman Farm, Mississippi. Summer 1961.
It was one of the scariest places in the South, a vast acreage of cotton and corn deep in the Mississippi Delta.
Beyond the two massive iron gates that served as the entrance to Parchman Farm, the sinners worked the fields at the old penal plantation during the day and prayed they wouldn’t be attacked at night. They never knew what could leap from the shadows—a knife-wielding guard, an enraged bunkmate, a fellow inmate who had been driven to the brink of delirium. Slavery, the condemned said under their breaths at Parchman Farm, couldn’t have been this bad.
Located nine miles down the road from the town of Drew in northwestern Mississippi, Parchman Farm was the state’s oldest penitentiary. Built in 1909 on fifteen thousand acres, it was a prison that had no walls. Other than the maximum security unit that was known as “Little Alcatraz,” Parchman didn’t even have cells. Inmates were housed in military-style barracks they called “cages,” where they would collapse onto rickety bunks after toiling from sunrise to sundown chopping timber, clearing ground, and picking cotton.
For decades the prison was a working farm that resembled an antebellum plantation, filled with black field hands (prisoners) and white foremen (guards). The leather strap, known as “Black Annie,” was the ultimate symbol of discipline on the farm; when a convict didn’t keep up with the line in the cotton fields, an overseer would grab Black Annie—three feet long, six inches wide—and administer a hellish whipping, cracking open bare flesh for all to see.
To make sure the prisoners didn’t run, the guards had bloodhounds and specially trained German shepherds always at the ready. There were also gun-wielding marksmen who stood sentinel day and night. Called “headhunters” on the farm, the shotgun-toting guards rarely hesitated to fire on a fleeing convict. The only potential for escape came in the evenings when the chained inmates sang in unison about their backbreaking misery in the miles and miles of dusty, hot cotton fields. At Parchman, the blues came naturally.
One of the inmate-bluesmen was Bukka White, who, in the 1940s, served time for a shooting incident. One afternoon one of White’s nephews, a young man named Riley B. King, visited his uncle at Parchman. Upon entering the front gate, Riley saw the terror in the eyes of the inmates.
The images of his trip to the Farm would stick with young Riley and become his artistic inspiration. He soon moved to Memphis and began picking at the guitar and singing at the Sixteenth Avenue Grill, earning the nickname “Blues Boy.” He later shortened it to B.B. For the rest of his life B. B. King played the blues with the haunting desperation that he saw in the soul of his uncle at Parchman, as if every note he strummed was a scream for freedom.
In the spring of 1961—just as an earnest, redheaded boy celebrated his twelfth birthday that May by tossing around a football with his daddy in the family yard only nine miles down the road from the Farm—a group of civil rights activists from several Northern states rode interstate buses into the Deep South. The so-called Freedom Riders wanted to challenge the nonenforcement of two Supreme Court cases that ruled racial segregation in restaurants and on public buses were unconstitutional. The state governments of Alabama and Mississippi ignored the rulings, and the federal government refused to enforce them. So the Freedom Riders traveled in droves to the South.
The wick on the powder keg was lit. Mobs of angry Southerners, viewing this as another act of Northern aggression, surrounded the buses in the Alabama towns of Anniston, Birmingham, and Montgomery and attacked the Riders. Ross Barnett, the governor of Mississippi, agreed to protect the Riders as long as he could arrest them for disturbing the peace once they reached Jackson, Mississippi. By late June of ’61 more than forty Freedom Riders were sent to Parchman. They were immediately assigned to chain gangs.
The Mississippi governor told the guards at Parchman to “break their spirit.” Once the Riders arrived at the Farm, they were strip-searched, were allowed to shower only once a week, weren’t given any mail, and slept in cells in which the lights were kept on twenty-four hours a day.
Twelve-year-old Archie Manning walked among the convicted at Parchman. A few of Archie’s closest friends at Drew Junior High had parents who worked at the prison as administrators and lived in housing on the grounds. Archie occasionally spent the night with his friends at the Farm, and he would see the condemned up close, watching them toil in the fields and perform yard work around the employees’ houses. One time Archie’s Little League baseball team traveled to the Farm to play a squad of convicts; Archie’s team won, but Archie understood the other team was on orders to lose the game.
Little Archie heard about the Freedom Riders at Parchman, but he was too young to fully understand why they were there. Archie was never scared of the prisoners—the boy had a fearless streak—but the mere presence of the prison was a daily reminder to Archie to always do right.
Citizens across the country were outraged at the treatment of the Riders at Parchman, where three hundred Riders would be imprisoned. Reporters and camera crews descended on the prison, which during the early days of the civil rights movement came to represent the brutality of the Old South.
America was beginning to boil. More than ever, Southerners were desperate for one of their own to rise up, for someone to spark those fading embers of greatness, someone to bring light to a place that was now growing dark, a hero to redeem them all.
They were looking for a kid from Drew.
The Pee-Wee QB
Drew, Mississippi. Summer 1951.
The bolls of soft cotton blew out of Parchman Farm. When a dry wind stirred the parched fields, the cotton would drift like snowflakes southward down Highway 49 for nine miles to the corner of Third and Green Streets in Drew, to the little white house of Buddy and Jane Manning.
Prisoners escaped from Parchman a few times a year—the announcements would blare over the radio in Drew: “A convict is out! Lock your doors!”—but Buddy always told his two children and wife not to worry. “If he’s out, he sure as heck ain’t stopping in Drew,” Buddy said. “He’s leaving here, not staying.” If Buddy’s only son ever did get scared, he would dash into his backyard clubhouse with a sign on the door that read “No Girls Allowed.”
In the 1950s and ’60s, life in this Delta town of about two thousand moved slower than winter. Drew had three stoplights, two cafés, three service stations, two drugstores—where the sodas flowed from hand-pumped spigots—a dry cleaner, three churches, and one school. In the summers a frozen custard stand opened, where kids smothered their faces in eggs, cream, and sugar while shooting marbles. Two policemen patrolled during daylight; one night watchman relieved them once the lampposts flickered on.
Virtually every resident knew all their neighbors, and kids of all classes of life played together on sandlots and lawns. Drew was a kind of Mayberry, a wholesome-as-milk place where an adult could grab anyone’s child by the arm, hand him or her a dollar and tell the youngster to head to the corner barbershop for a cut. It was a town where, after a rare winter storm, kids would sled around on top of old car hoods, a place where in the summers children would run around with toy walkie-talkies in their hands and play games like hide-and-seek and kick the can. If Drew was your home, no one was a stranger.
Drew was filled with farmers—at one point in the 1950s, Drew had more cotton gins than any town in America. The area was ideal for growing cotton. Lying in the heart of the Delta, Drew is nestled between the Sunflower River to the West and the Tallahatchie to the East. The land was as fertile as any in the South and flat as an ironing board. On a clear day in Drew, the locals swore you could see all the way to the end of the earth.
The farmers liked to gather at the Case farm machinery shop, where Elisha Archibald Manning Jr.—whom everyone called “Buddy”—was the manager. Sipping nickel Cokes, the farmers would sit on a few stools at “the Case Place,” as they called it, and trade gossip, offer predictions about the weather, and swap tales—some a little taller than others. Buddy wasn’t a big talker, but everyone seemed to like him. When the cost of a Coke ballooned from a nickel to a dime in the rest of the country, Buddy refused to raise his price. He didn’t want his friends to suffer.
Standing only 5'7", Buddy was country tough. He grew up in Crystal Springs, Mississippi, and was the youngest of five Manning children. Following the path of two older brothers, he played on the offensive line for his high school football team. Buddy was a scrapper, rarely shying away from a brawl. “When the fights broke out, Buddy was there,” his high school yearbook noted. Buddy didn’t share many stories about his football days—he believed life was to be lived, not reviewed—but all his friends knew that it was not a wise idea to raise a fist to the Case Place manager.
More than anything, Buddy valued hard work. He sold and leased farming equipment. He rarely missed a day of work, and always showed up wearing a straw hat and a shirt with two front pockets. He’d stuff one pocket with pens and the other with a lighter and his pack of Chesterfields, which Buddy smoked constantly. Buddy was particular about his work apparel: if he received a shirt with only one pocket as a birthday present, it wouldn’t get hung in his closet; he’d exchange it for a two-pocket shirt. The man knew what he liked, was stubborn in his ways, and craved routine.
Sometimes Buddy’s wife, Jane Manning, would accompany him when he made the rounds to customers’ houses to collect debts. Nine years younger than her husband, Jane, whom everyone called “Sis,” was an elegant woman who enjoyed writing letters to friends and family members in her immaculate longhand. A graduate of Union University in Jackson, Tennessee, Sis also could be as persistent as kudzu. No matter what anyone told her, she always left the keys in the ignition of her unlocked car in the driveway, because she’d rather a thief or an escaped convict from Parchman steal the car than enter the house to search for the keys.
Buddy earned about $6,000 a year. His income could have been higher, but Buddy despised shaking down his friends to force them to honor their payments. It wasn’t in Buddy’s bighearted nature to play the role of the heavy. By all accounts, when it came to friends, he could be too nice for his own good.
When Buddy and Sis drove to the different farmers to collect the debts, the visits were as much socials calls as work. Sis would politely try to nudge Buddy’s farming pals into opening their wallets, looking them dead in the eyes and asking them to pay for what her husband had leased to them. But many of the bills went unpaid because the farmers had spent their crop money on other things, like a brand-new television set that featured what in the late ’50s was the newest innovation: a color picture. Sis would ask Buddy’s customers to do the right thing and pay what they owed for their combines or tractors, but many didn’t flinch at taking advantage of Buddy’s good nature. Buddy chalked it up to the culture of the Delta, where some farmers viewed debt as a problem that could be dealt with down the road—or, if they were lucky, never at all.
Still, Buddy and Sis, a stay-at-home mom, managed to get by. They devoutly attended Drew Baptist Church—God was the center of their lives—and they were happily in love when they started a family. In 1947 Pamela Ann was born. Two years later, on May 19, 1949, Sis gave birth to a boy, Elisha Archibald Manning III. They called him Archie.
Almost as soon as he could crawl, that child had some sort of ball in his hands.
In Drew in the 1950s the seasons on the calendar were defined by athletics—fall was football, winter was basketball, spring was track, and summer was baseball. Games were the pride and passion of the folks in Drew, the common heartbeat in the community. And so it was fitting that shortly after Archie was born, an old high school football coach who lived nearby walked over to the Manning house one evening and presented Buddy and Sis with a gift: a tiny football helmet and uniform for their eighteen-month-old son. In the sprawling story of the Manning football dynasty, this was the moment of genesis.
The Mannings’ modest three-bedroom, one-bathroom home sat across the street from the high school, a small white stucco building. Soon after he could walk, little Archie would stand on the corner in his yard and watch members of the Drew High football team play games of touch football during P.E. class. The action mesmerized Archie, holding his gaze. He began to go to bed each night with a football cradled in his arms.
As Archie grew, his face conveyed a rural innocence—his freckles, his slight squint, and his red, combed-over hair gave him a Huck Finn quality—but there was also a sadness in his eyes, as if he was waiting for heartbreak. Yet when he flashed his little-boy grin—one so bright it would melt every heart in the room—suddenly he would appear to be the happiest child in all of Sunflower County.
Table of Contents
Prologue: Peyton's Final Pass xi
Chapter 1 Desperate for a Hero 3
Chapter 2 The Pee-Wee QB 7
Chapter 3 "My Boy Will Be There" 18
Chapter 4 The Redheaded Show-off 36
Chapter 5 The Cerebral Signal Caller 42
Chapter 6 A Storm Gathers 62
Chapter 7 Why Now? 67
Chapter 8 The Birth of a Folk Hero 71
Chapter 9 The Best I Ever Saw 92
Chapter 10 The Fear of Failing 99
Chapter 11 What Might Have Been 108
Chapter 12 A Married Man Becomes a Saint 119
Chapter 13 "I'll Always Be from Drew" 128
Chapter 14 The Beat-up Quarterback 135
Chapter 15 Archie One and Archie Two 141
Chapter 16 The Commuter QB 155
Chapter 17 Teaching Life-and Football-Lessons 167
Chapter 18 The Most Magical Fall 176
Chapter 19 A Note for Peyton 188
Chapter 20 "The Bad Thing Happened to the Right Guy" 197
Chapter 21 The Decision 203
Chapter 22 The Mamma's Boy 220
Chapter 23 Easy Rider 226
Chapter 24 "I Only Had Dogs and Cats Named After Me" 234
Chapter 25 A Coach Just Like Archie 255
Chapter 26 The Past Is Never Dead 261
Chapter 27 A Combination of Archie and Peyton 280
Chapter 28 The Thinking Man's QB 291