More than once, Archie Manning backed out of doing “The Book of Manning,” the documentary on his family that’s the latest entry in ESPN’s “SEC Storied” series.
It premieres Tuesday.
Even though it had been the first project conceived for the series more than two years ago, Manning was a reluctant participant.
“There was a lot going on in my family,” Manning said Wednesday before an advance screening at his Fulton Street restaurant. “It was when Peyton was going though his neck surgery, and everybody was pretty distraught about it.
“And I certainly wasn’t looking for attention or publicity.”
But Olivia Manning, Archie’s homecoming queen sweetheart at Ole Miss and his wife of 42 years, had other ideas.
“One day Olivia asked me how the ESPN documentary was coming along, and I said I got out of it,” he said. “And she said, ‘Well you’re going to do it. Your (seven) grandchildren need to see it.’ When my wife says to do something, I usually do it, and so here we are.”
The show focuses on the Manning sons — Cooper, Peyton and Eli — and how Archie was determined not to let the demands of a 14-year career in the NFL plus a broadcasting and business career thereafter take away building a strong bond with his sons.
However, following their father’s path into football (Cooper’s career was cut short by the discovery of a spinal condition shortly after he began his freshman season at Ole Miss) was never a planned thing — even though Peyton and Eli went on to have stellar careers at Tennessee and Ole Miss, respectively, and, among other things in the NFL, were back-to-back Super Bowl MVPs.
With a liberal use of home movies — both of the boys and those contributed by Archie’s sister, Pam, from his childhood in Drew, Miss. — it is a mixture of the lighthearted and poignant.
“I’ve seen it four times now, and I can’t get through it without crying,” Olivia Manning said.
“When Cooper had to give up football and had some complications with his surgery, it was a really difficult time for all of us.
“And then there were things like my riding in a car during the homecoming parade and footage of Archie playing that I don’t think we’d ever seen. But I knew it was a story worth telling for our grandchildren.”
“I know it’s a template for how to raise my boys,” said Cooper Manning, now an investment banker with Howard Weill while his younger brothers are coming off their third Manning Bowl on Sunday. “And maybe it will be for others.”
Cooper, whom Archie calls “the spirit of our family,” provides the most emotional part of the show. He begins crying as he talks about the support he received from his Ole Miss teammates when he had to give up football after coming out of Newman as one of the nation’s best wide receivers.
“That wasn’t my intent,” he said. “But they caught me right at the end of a long interview. It was a little embarrassing.”
Cooper said to him, the most poignant moment was Archie talking about the suicide of his father shortly before Archie’s junior year at Ole Miss — a subject Archie said he would not have gotten into had his mother still been alive. It is still considered a touchy subject in the family more than four decades later.
“I didn’t know much about Dad’s growing up in Drew,” Cooper said. “I’m glad he shared it.”
But Cooper also provides the humor highlight — picking on Peyton, his younger brother by two years, during their backyard football games so much that Peyton went crying to Archie, who was holding the camera.
“I was a typical older brother,” Cooper said. “I never thought of it as bullying.”
And, like his mother, Cooper said he enjoyed seeing his father at Ole Miss where he brought an athleticism to the quarterback position his sons have never matched.
“My son, Arch, calls my dad ‘Red,’ ” Cooper said. “And the first time he saw the show, he said, ‘Dad, Red could really run.’ That was something for him to see.”
Archie said he also enjoyed the scenes from Ole Miss — particularly when the documentary was shown last week in Oxford with many old teammates in attendance.
Now 64 and recently sidelined for six weeks by major back surgery, Archie said that part of the show reinforced how much he cherished his time at Ole Miss, when he reached folk hero status but, according to his teammates, never placed himself above them.
But in the end, the show comes back to a story of father and sons.
“The boys said some very sweet and wonderful things,” Archie said. “Everyone has adversities in life, but we’ve been truly blessed. And we’re very proud of this project.”
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