The Mannings insist there was nothing extraordinary about their upbringing, no special formula or secret methodology meted out inside the palatial 19th century Greek Revival home in New Orleans’ historic Garden District.
They prepared well, worked hard and basically lived their lives by the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. “Nothing earth-shattering,” Peyton Manning says. “Pretty simple parental advice.”
The results, though, have set the standard by which all athletic families will be judged.
Peyton, the middle son, just might be the best player in NFL history. The Indianapolis Colts’ quarterback has won an unprecedented four NFL Most Valuable Player awards.
Eli quarterbacked the New York Giants to the Super Bowl XLII title, vanquishing the previously unbeaten New England Patriots. He was named the game’s MVP a year after Peyton was.
Cooper, the eldest, is a former receiving star, a proud father of three and a successful businessman at an energy investment firm in New Orleans.
Archie, of course, is the patriarch, perhaps the greatest player ever to be stuck on perennially bad teams. The matriarch, Olivia, has been by Archie’s side since their days at Ole Miss when he was the star quarterback, she a cheerleader.
“The Mannings are known as the First Family of Football,” says Darryl Berger, whose sons played football and basketball with the Manning boys at Isidore Newman School and became a family friend. “But at Newman they were equally known as the First Family of Families.”
Indeed, the success of the Manning clan is rooted in family. That’s where lessons are taught and values are learned. “Growing up Manning” was a combination of moral principles, physical gifts and academic and athletic opportunities — along with a healthy dose of old-fashioned discipline — that helped make the Manning boys who they are today, as athletes and as people.
“As great as the public image is, I think all their friends would tell you that the reality, if anything, exceeds the image,” Berger says. “They’re great parents and did a terrific job with the boys.”
The Manning boys are extensions of their parents. Archie was the authoritative disciplinarian. Olivia was the good cop, the quiet, steady conscience of the family. From an early age, they instilled in their children the principles of work ethic, discipline, ambition, modesty and family they learned from their parents in rural Mississippi. Archie’s loyalty and commitment to family are rooted in his own upbringing. His father, Buddy, committed suicide when Archie was 19. His mother, Sis, was the rock of the family, a ubiquitous presence at all of his games, no matter the sport or level.
Archie and Olivia made sure they supported their sons the same ardent way. They didn’t push their kids into sports; they let them find their way. Above all, they wanted them to enjoy sports and have fun. There were no Marinovich-like training sessions or specialized instructors.
The Manning boys were competitive and driven from an early age. Backyard basketball games between Cooper and Peyton became bloody battles of wills. The losing brother often would start a fight before the contest reached game point. The older brothers picked on Eli, five years younger than Peyton, and made him tougher.
Olivia insisted the boys attend Newman School, the prestigious college prep school not far from the Tulane campus. Newman aims to produce Ivy League graduates, not All-America football players. “Newman brought so much to the table,” Archie says. “Balance and association with the other kids, the diverse enrollment, playing other sports, the whole package. It was really, really special.”
In this nourishing environment, the Manning boys thrived. Cooper was an all-state wide receiver and earned a scholarship to Ole Miss before a condition called spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spine, ended his football career. He never played a down at Ole Miss. Peyton followed at Newman two years later and was an All-America quarterback who also lettered in baseball and basketball. Eli did the same.
Berger, whose four children graduated from Newman, says he can’t remember either Archie or Olivia ever missing a junior high or high school game of any of the three boys. At their peak, it was common for Archie to attend one of Eli’s games at Newman on Friday night, fly the next morning to see Peyton at the University of Tennessee, then jet back to New Orleans for his color commentary duties on the Saints radio broadcast team on Sunday. “We had very unselfish parents,” Cooper says. “And they made sure we had fun. You have to enjoy it. Learn how to win and learn how to lose and to compete and make friends. That’s what it’s all about.”
When they started to play organized sports, the Manning boys transferred this sense of loyalty and commitment to their respective teams. Their innate leadership skills emerged. Teammates naturally gravitated to them.
The influence of Archie’s pro career can’t be discounted. Whenever possible, Cooper and Peyton spent Saturday mornings at Saints camp. Archie taught his sons the intricacies of reading defenses and watching game tape, but mainly he was a resource. They learned football through osmosis.
Archie remembers an adolescent Peyton crawling in his lap while he watched game film at home. “He was mesmerized,” Archie says. “He asked a lot of questions. Even when I wasn’t watching film, he’d say, ‘Daddy, Daddy, can we watch film?’ When Peyton was a teenager, he watched film every day. I’d say, ‘Son, get a girlfriend. Go to a movie. You need to get out more.’ And he’d say, ‘Daddy, I’ve got to watch film.’”
Eli had a reading problem when he was in the first grade but worked hard to overcome it. At Ole Miss, he became a National Football Federation scholar-athlete, one of only 15 so honored nationwide. He scored a 39 on his Wonderlic test at the NFL Scouting Combine, the highest score of any quarterback in his draft class.
Peyton’s film-study regimen has been well documented. He spent as much time in the film room in college as his coaches and would sometimes have pizzas delivered for late-night study sessions. In Indianapolis, Manning had a high-tech video system installed in his home.
“If Peyton were a lawyer, he’d be the best lawyer in the country because no one would outwork him,” says Richard Montgomery, a childhood friend and former Newman teammate. “Obviously, they’re talented and have great heads on their shoulders, but work ethic is definitely the common denominator.”
As are their superior genes. The Manning boys owe their prototypical NFL quarterback height — Peyton is 6-5, Eli 6-4 — to their parents. Archie stands a sturdy 6-3 and was extremely athletic for a big man. Olivia is tall (5-11) and thin with beauty-queen legs.
“I don’t think there was another position for us,” Eli says. “We weren’t very fast … and we could throw it pretty good, so it’s just kind of a natural fit.”
The Mannings also encouraged their kids to think for themselves. Peyton and Eli each made their own decisions on college, and Peyton shocked Ole Miss fans by pledging to Tennessee. Both took the unconventional approach and played four years of college football. Then Eli, in the face of widespread criticism, took a stand against the San Diego Chargers and informed the organization he would not play for them if they selected him in the 2004 NFL Draft. They did anyway, then quickly traded him to the Giants for a king’s ransom.
It all adds up to perhaps the greatest football family in U.S. history. Among them they have 13 Pro Bowl appearances. No other family has produced three top-five draft picks — with Peyton and Eli going No. 1 overall and Archie “falling” all the way to No. 2 overall.
And few have committed so much time to charity. Peyton’s PeyBack Foundation has raised millions for a variety of worthy causes in the New Orleans and Indianapolis areas, including the Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital on Indy’s north side. Eli has raised more than $2.4 million for children’s health clinics in the Jackson, Miss., area with his annual “An Evening with the Mannings” fundraiser. Peyton and Eli also supported post-Katrina relief efforts in New Orleans, mobilizing a plane full of supplies and flying it to Baton Rouge in the days immediately after the storm.
Nearby Thibodaux, La., is home to the Manning Passing Academy, an offensive skills camp for high schoolers during which the three quarterbacks get together, along with Cooper, every July. For that week, the Manning men live in the same apartment. Cooper and Archie shared one bathroom this year; Peyton and Eli shared another. As always, Archie was the foil of their practical jokes, like the time Eli changed the language on his cell phone to Japanese.
“I always tried to create an atmosphere where we liked to be around each other,” Archie says. “I’ve told my boys if they ever want to disappoint me, it’ll be if they don’t get along.”
The Norman Rockwell image of the Manning family is not entirely accurate, the Mannings insist. The boys were far from perfect — typical teenagers, really. They had fake IDs, went to the French Quarter and were grounded when they broke curfew.
“We got in trouble, we got grounded and we got spanked — a lot,” Cooper says. “We fought. We fight today. It’s not this utopia people think. We’re normal people.”
“You love your children. You spend time with them. You try to teach them the difference between right and wrong. And you pray a lot. That’s how you raise children,” Archie says. “We had our problems. There were bumps in the road all along the way. It hasn’t been perfect the whole way.”
Olivia’s advice to the mothers of athletes: “Be there, always support them, cheer for them.”
Simple stuff. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a pair of more successful parents.
When it comes to producing male progeny, Archie and Olivia Manning have batted 1.000. And with a couple of grandsons already in Little League, the Manning Dynasty appears far from finished.