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Archie Manning Talks Football, Family and the National World War II Museum


Archie Manning, 68, is the genuine article. He’s a model American, in any era. He’s lived a remarkable life that has not been celebrated nearly enough. But that will change on June 8, when Manning is presented with the American Spirit Medallion from the National World War II Museum (tickets still available), an honor bestowed upon “individuals who demonstrate extraordinary dedication to the principles that strengthen America’s freedom and democracy. Through their work and philanthropy, American Spirit Medallion recipients exemplify the highest standards of integrity, discipline, and initiative while making unselfish contributions to their community, state, or nation.”

These days, Manning is known for the accomplishments of his three sons — businessman and TV personality Cooper, 44, and a pair of No. 1 overall pick, two-time Super Bowl-winning NFL quarterbacks in Peyton, 42, and Eli, 37. Archie represents the standard of fatherhood, although he’s quick to humbly deflect parenting praise to his wife of 47 years, Olivia, as well as the example set by his own parents.

Before Archie became the preeminent sports dad, he was an iconic quarterback in his own right and a good enough baseball player to be selected in the MLB Draft four times. He was such a good QB at Ole Miss — where he was named first-team All-America and SEC Player of the Year during a Hall of Fame career — that the posted speed limit on campus in Oxford, Miss., is 18 miles per hour in honor of his retired jersey number. He was the No. 2 overall pick in 1971 and had a 13-year NFL career, earning two Pro Bowl nods in just over a decade as the face of the struggling New Orleans Saints.

Since retiring, Archie has had successful runs in business and media. Throughout it all, he has been generous with his time and resources, serving as an ambassador to numerous charities and helping to raise money, awareness and the spirits of those in need. We were lucky enough to catch up with the Manning patriarch to discuss his upcoming awards ceremony, where to eat in New Orleans, and the intersection of football and family.

What does being presented with the American Spirit Medallion by the National World War II Museum mean to you? That's quite the honor.

I was surprised. And I'm extremely honored. I'm a big fan of the World War II Museum; very proud of it here in New Orleans. I'm honored. The people that have received the (Spirit Medallion) in the past, to be among them, and also among others that have been honored by the World War II Museum, the people that are involved with it on a national level, and the people here in New Orleans and Louisiana that support it so strongly.

I look forward to it and I'm really honored. I was down there just a few weeks ago. I did an interview for the event, and always love that. I think that's such a great idea, when you have an event and the comments and responses are videoed beforehand. Was fun to do that. And then I went back to make a picture. I don't always put on my tuxedo at 10:00 o'clock in the morning but I was glad to do it. I'm really honored and looking forward to the couple of days in June (7-8).

You have a long list of charities that you're involved in — the Louisiana Special Olympics, Salvation Army, United Way... Over the years, are there any particular moments that stand out from giving your time?

I moved here (to New Orleans), newly married (to wife, Olivia), just drafted by the Saints. We came to New Orleans and I got thrown to the wolves pretty quick, so as I became the quarterback of the Saints, we made a decision that we were so close to Mississippi that we wouldn't move back to Mississippi during the off-season like a lot of players did. We were through with school, so we wouldn't move back to our hometown, our college town, or whatever; that we'd say in New Orleans.

When you live here and you're the quarterback… It was the only game in town, there was no pro basketball in those days. You're just asked to be involved, and our owner, John Mecom, lived over in Houston. And since he wasn't here (in New Orleans), he asked me to do a lot of things, which I was glad to do and I think he was appreciative. I began to get involved. And then the years go by, you meet people and you get a little more attached to a charity or to a project.

Kind of a popular thing to do for a quarterback is to have your own golf tournament. Started that, and the cause was cystic fibrosis. And I had no relationship to that. The golf tournament was kind of ongoing and a good friend of mine named Johnny Pott, who was a professional golfer and was moving from New Orleans, he asked me to take it over. I took it over and got close to people — parents and children that had cystic fibrosis.

It was a wonderful project because through the years, we were making progress. We were identifying the gene, and kids who at one point were living to be nine or 10 years old were now living to be 20 years old, and then 30. That was rewarding.

You were making a difference.

Yeah. So we had it here in New Orleans, and then we started one on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, which is not far away, but you know my involvement with Mississippi. And then we started one in Lafayette, Louisiana and it was popular; it's not very far and wonderful people there, great, great people. And I even spent a lot of time with the one that went on in Jackson, Mississippi. I never really put my name on it.

So anyway, that got to be kind of my primary cause. And I did it 25 years here, and then I did it something like 12 or 13 on the Gulf Coast, and 12 or 13 in Lafayette, and I just hit a point — it was after I retired from football and so forth — I thought 25 was kind of a good number and I was going to turn that over to somebody else. But I was hands-on; I was hands-on with it.

That's great. The National World War II Museum is in New Orleans.  And New Orleans is such a great food town. Where do you like to eat when you're in New Orleans?

When you live here, people want to know. And it's just mighty doggone hard to start. They want to know what's your two or three favorite places. That's hard to do in New Orleans. It's hard to do. And I'll tell you what. Since Katrina, we got so many more new restaurants. But I'm kind of funny. Olivia probably tries the new ones with her girls' group more than I do. It takes me awhile. I like the old ones and the ones that have been so nice to me; the people that have been so nice to us through the years that if you don't go in three or four months, they're kind of like 'Where you been?'

But you can't go with all of them. Commander's Palace was always, and is still, great. Galatoire's is always great. One of my favorites. There's a place here called the Bon Ton Cafe that is unbelievable. I start naming and I can go right down the line with 30 of them. And then, of course, I got in the restaurant business.

Yeah, tell me about that…

Five years ago, we opened up Manning's. Very original name for a sports-themed restaurant. And it's really been fun. I kind of dig it, to get off the road a little bit and have something here. It's really been fun. We've got your 40 TVs and your wings and your cheeseburger and so forth. But it's good.

What's your favorite thing on the menu? What's your go-to?

When we opened the restaurant, we decided, “Okay, we're not going to be a sports bar. We're going to be a sports-themed restaurant.” This is New Orleans, you've got to have good food. I mean, we're not Galatoire's or Antoine's, but we've got some dishes. After about a year, year and a half, we called and said, “All right, what's everybody ordering?” Well, they're ordering cheeseburgers and French fries and nachos and chicken wings. I said, “We are a sports bar.” Our burgers are good. I love our wings. People come to see the games on our big screens and all our TVs and have a good time. “Eat-Drink-Cheer” is our theme.

How is New Orleans doing since Hurricane Katrina?

Katrina knocked all our socks off. Everybody has a story. And we were fortunate; we certainly weren't near as bad off as most people. We did stay gone for eight months, though. We stayed up in Oxford (Mississippi) for eight months.

To come back from that. I think anybody from New Orleans that went through all this, it's such a memorable part of your life. Even if you were lucky, you've got some close friends who weren't so lucky, and people that moved away or people that lost their home, to try to help out with that was important for everyone.

I'm very proud of the World War II Museum in New Orleans. It is really, really special.

Your father served in World War II?

My dad was in the War. And he was like all those guys; they didn't talk about it. I was 19 years old, almost 20 years old when I lost my dad, so that was devastating, of course. I always said I had to become a man overnight. What do they say, 19 you're almost a man? But, I don't know.

I was rolling along, I'm playing college football, I'm going to Ole Miss, I'm a big man on campus. I think I was a good person and everything, but I mean I wasn't a man. All of a sudden, I got this responsibility I feel like I've got to my mother and my sister, and then school and football, and just dealing with everything. I was dating Olivia fortunately, so that whole thing had a big effect on me. I don't know if you saw the (ESPN documentary) Book of Manning.

Yes, I did.

I really didn't want to do it. I would have never done that if my mother was still living. But I'm glad we talked about that. I was giving a speech and this lady from down in south Florida, she said, "That Book of Manning had such an impact on me. I lost my dad kind of the same way."

But the good news is I had my dad for almost 20 years, and if I ever get a compliment, if Olivia and I get a compliment about our children, I always give the credit where it's due. First, to Olivia. And Olivia had great parents and I had great parents. I think we all try to raise our kids similar to the way our parents raised us, if you did have a good childhood. I'm very fortunate that I had my dad for that long. I have some good values. And I got them from him and my mother.

You and Olivia seem to have such a beautiful relationship and obviously a lovely family. Talk about your marriage to Olivia…

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We met at Ole Miss our freshman year. It was what they call a 'swap'; a fraternity and sorority have a one-night little dance, if you will, a one-night little get-together. And we met and dated a little bit, and then we kind of both went separate ways that summer. That was our freshman year at Ole Miss, which was 50 years ago, 1967. Then we started back dating when we got back to school our sophomore year and dated and then got married our senior year.  

I played in my last college game on January 2nd (1971) in the Gator Bowl. And I went to the Hula Bowl, came back from the Hula Bowl, took exams, and Olivia and I were married on January 21st. It was semester break. And we went on a little honeymoon and returned on January 27th. And we were moving into an apartment and doing all the chores you do to move into an apartment, scrubbing floors and moving and stuff like that, and I get a call from the Ole Miss athletic department. It was the SID and he said, "You know, you might ought to come over here in the morning. It's the NFL draft and we've had calls this week from the Patriots, who have the first pick, and the Saints, who have the second pick, and the Oilers, who have the third pick. They all want to know where you're going to be in the morning to be able to talk to you, in case. It seems to be that one of them's going to draft you."

We made a plan, and I went over to the athletic office at 9:00 o'clock. The draft was starting at 9:00 o'clock. To refresh your memory, the Patriots took Jim Plunkett with the first pick. So about 9:15, maybe a couple of minutes before, I get a call from the Saints. I talked to the owner, John Mecom, for a couple of minutes. I talked to the general manager, his name was Vic Schwenk. I talked to him for a couple of minutes, and then I talked to the head coach. His name was J.D. Roberts, and I visit with him for a couple of minutes. I hung up and an AP writer came in and took my picture. I left and went to a 10:00 o'clock class. And that was my draft day. That was it.

You had just gotten married and just gotten back from your honeymoon? Where'd you go on your honeymoon?

We went to Acapulco (Mexico). That was the happening place in 1971.

That was a whirlwind couple of weeks for you, man…

It really was. And we got married. Olivia was from Philadelphia, Mississippi, so that's where we got married, in a Baptist church there. It was standing-room only. The Governor of Mississippi at the time was a guy named John Bell Williams, and he loved to tell people that he scalped his invitation. He did provide me with two highway patrolmen and an unmarked car that stayed with me for two or three days, a couple of days before, and drove us to the airport. I was finishing up my career at Ole Miss, so the Governor was very nice to me.

You know, in small towns you don't send out invitations to the people; you put it in the paper and everyone's invited. The paper was called The Neshoba Democrat. It's in Neshoba County, Mississippi. Olivia had eight or 10 bridesmaids, so I had that many groomsmen and maybe a couple more ushers, extra. They didn't usher in one person — when the doors opened, they crowded the church.

It was on a Thursday night, which Olivia has often said we're the only people that ever got married on a Thursday night. But that's when it needed to be because we got through the exams, I think, on Tuesday, and were getting this (semester) break. And so we'd go on our little trip, and then we got to come back and we had a semester each of school, so that's the way the days worked. We planned it.

The people in Philadelphia came but then the people we did invite, the Ole Miss family and people from my hometown of Drew (Mississippi), so there was really no place to have a reception. The country club was very small, so we had our reception in the National Guard Armory in Philadelphia, Mississippi. It was the only place big enough, and I've always said Olivia's mother and these women in Philadelphia, they had an armory looking about as good as you could get it to look.

What advice would you give for a successful marriage? What's been the key to you and Olivia's long-running success?

Oh, I think always give and take. I am the luckiest guy in the world to find Olivia, because she's been a great wife, she's been a great mother, she was a wonderful football wife. And it's not easy, especially when you're the quarterback of the New Orleans Saints during that era. And then she's just been an unbelievable mother to three boys.

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