By Jim Litke/The Associated Press
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The town he calls home and the team he took a beating for over the course of a decade finally made it to the Super Bowl. The quarterback on the other side is his middle son. Archie Manning will not mince words. He can find room in his heart for only one of them.
“It’s easy,” Manning replied Wednesday, when asked to choose between the New Orleans Saints and son Peyton’s Indianapolis Colts. “Very easy, anyway, when you’ve got a boy in the game.”
But not quite as easy as he makes it sound.
Manning was the glamour boy quarterback at Ole Miss who married the homecoming queen, then moved to New Orleans and learned firsthand how the other half lives. He got clobbered nearly every day of his professional life, first to last, 10 full seasons in all without a winning one.
He was there when fans began showing up at the Superdome with paper bags over their heads, too loyal to abandon their beloved “Aints,” yet wanting to remain anonymous lest the neighbors who stayed home questioned their sanity.
“The worst year was 1980 and that was the year we thought we’d do pretty good,” Manning said, chuckling softly. “Things just fell apart.
“We had lost the first 11 or 12 games and (oldest son) Cooper and Peyton were going to the games. They were 4 and 6 at the time, old enough to go, and they were enjoying it. Olivia is pregnant with Eli and I’m having one of those games.
“So ’round about the fourth quarter,” Archie paused, “Cooper turned to Olivia and asked could he and Peyton boo also.”
All the losing, bumps and bruises don’t hurt quite as much now. Manning put down roots in New Orleans’ historic Uptown neighborhood and raised his three boys there.
Today, they’re the Super Bowl’s first family. Peyton was MVP when the Colts won in 2007, and Eli did the same with the Giants the next year. That means for the third time in four years, one or the other has brought Archie to a place he didn’t dare dream about during his own playing days. And he will admit that maybe “there’s some justice in that,” given how bad the Saints were for nearly all 43 years of the franchise’s existence.
Archie swears the boys learned more from their coaches and each other than they inherited from him.
“I wasn’t in his category,” he said about Peyton. “I could outrun him — Eli, too — but that’s about all I could do.”
Yet their father’s professionalism, even in the face of all that adversity, rubbed off. So did the affection and respect Archie showed everyone in the Saints organization from top to bottom.
Manning often brought the two older boys to Saturday afternoon practices. They were allowed the run of the locker room after the games on Sundays, and Saints equipment managers Dan “Chief” Simmons and Silky Powell were deputized to keep an eye on them. Come this Sunday, Peyton will look across the sideline and be reminded again of his attachment to a town and its team.
“Cooper and I used to run those guys wild,” Peyton recalled, laughing. “We used to be a pain in those guys’ rears, I can guarantee you. They were always great to us, kind of looking out for us, taking care of the quarterback’s kids. It’s special to be in this Super Bowl, but to have those guys in the game as well.”
Peyton understands that just like his father, most of New Orleans will not have trouble dividing its loyalty. Yet that won’t be as easy as he makes it sound, either.
“My dad would always come out and get us on the field and take a little time to be with us,” Peyton said. “He’d always sign autographs for all the fans after the games, most of these times after tough losses. But I couldn’t tell at the time. I didn’t really know if they won or lost. I was 3, 4, 5 years old. He was always the same. So that always had a positive influence on me.”
Archie is signing still, just as active in the community as he was during his playing days. He later worked for the Saints as a broadcaster, and his involvement with a number of charities grew even stronger in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
“I’m just proud, very proud of what they’ve accomplished, and especially what this group of players have done in the community,” Manning said. “They don’t just put their names on things.
“We need that,” he continued. “We still got a ways to go, but the Saints just jump-started everyone’s attitude. And we really needed that during the recovery.”
Still, the old quarterback reminds himself that blood is always thicker than water, even when the current that sweeps him along has such a strong emotional pull. He remembers how his own parents and Olivia’s never got to see either of their grandsons win football’s biggest game, let alone a Super Bowl appearance by the team they cheered their entire adult lives.
“I had to come up with 30 tickets, but if there was anyone I would have wanted along, it would have been them,” he said. “Of course, if I’d ever told them the Saints would get to the Super Bowl one day, but they’d be playing against one of theirs, none of them would have believed it.”
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org