Archie Manning reminisces on the emotional adventure of having two sons in the NFL

SUPER DNA: In this January file photo, former NFL quarterback Archie Manning stands on the field prior to the start of the Allstate Sugar Bowl at Mercedes Benz Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana. Archie Manning is the father of Peyton and Eli Manning, both former NFL Pro Bowl quarterbacks. Sean Gardner/Getty Images/Tribune News Service

Olivia and Archie Manning finally can get a good night’s sleep.

For the first time since 1997, they don’t have a son playing quarterback in the NFL.

That’s not to say they didn’t cherish the experience. It was an incredible ride, all those years of Peyton in Indianapolis and Denver, and Eli with the New York Giants. Both boys No. 1 overall picks, and both winning a pair of Super Bowl rings. The Mannings were the first family of football.

“It was unbelievable,” Archie said over the weekend from the family’s home in New Orleans.

And the journey began long before Peyton and Eli got to the NFL. In fact, the family’s favorite fall was 1991, when eldest son Cooper, a senior, was a returning all-state receiver at Isidore Newman School, and sophomore Peyton was his quarterback.

“It was a little embarrassing,” Archie said, “because Peyton never threw to anybody but Cooper. About the the middle of the season, I said, ‘You know, Peyton, those other two receivers are seniors too. Maybe you ought to spread that ball around a little bit.’ He said, ‘Dad, Cooper tells me he’s open on every single play.’”

When you’re the parent of an NFL player, every week is an emotional adventure, whether your kid is a star or not. And Archie has a deep understanding of the rigors of the job, having played quarterback for 13 seasons with New Orleans, Houston and Minnesota. Once, when the boys were young and sitting through a particularly bad Saints game, Cooper asked Olivia, “Mom, can we boo, too?”

So it’s not all laurels and Lombardi Trophies.

“In the old Giants Stadium, I just couldn’t sit,” Archie said. “It was, ‘I gotta go walk around.’ I became a pacer. I’d shoot into a tunnel, the little walkway there, to watch the play. I’m walking, but I’m not going to miss a play. So I’d jump in there, and all of a sudden we’d complete a pass. Obviously, I’m going to wait until the next play, and we get a first down. Wait ‘til the next play, and we drive on down and score a touchdown.

“Well, I’m not going anywhere. And the usher is kind of saying, ‘Sir, you just gonna stand here?’ And I’d say, ‘Yeah, if you don’t mind.’ So I went back to that little tunnel a lot of Sundays. And that usher and I got to be buddies. He found out who I was. He was kind of waiting on me a lot of Sundays. We got to be good buddies. It was my lucky spot.”

Clearly, the Mannings found lots of lucky spots, and have many lifetimes of wonderful football memories. Then there were the three times Peyton and Eli faced each other. For the family, those memories weren’t wonderful.

“We didn’t like that at all,” Archie said. “The first one was the return of ‘Sunday Night Football,’ and they made it a big deal. I told Olivia that I wouldn’t go and I’d rather stay home, but somebody would have made a big deal out of that.”

So they went. But the Mannings didn’t sit in their typical end zone seats with the rest of the Giants families, instead accepting an invitation to sit in the Reebok suite, as that company sponsored their sons.

“We’re about to kick off and I tell Olivia, ‘Listen, those cameras are going to be on us tonight. They don’t get right in your face, so you don’t know when you’re on camera,’” he said. “I don’t react much during a game anyway, but I wasn’t smiling, cheering, doing anything that makes it look like I’m pulling for one son over the other. Olivia said, ‘Good idea. I’m not either.’”

So they sat there stoic, with the cameras trained on them all night. The Colts won, but both sons played well.

“That next week,” Archie said, “if I ran into one person, I ran into a hundred who said, ‘Boy, those cameras were really on y’all, and y’all looked so miserable.’ “

Typically, the Mannings would go to four home games per son during the regular season.

“If you’ve got somebody playing quarterback out there, it’s no fun to go to an away game, what some of the fans call your son,” Archie said. “(Hall of Fame quarterback) Roger Staubach’s one of my good friends, and he always says, ‘You’ve got to come over to Dallas and sit in my box.’ Everybody in that box is pulling for the Cowboys. If I’m there, it kind of makes them a little bit uncomfortable, and also it makes me a little uncomfortable when somebody says, ‘Kill Eli! Get Eli! Get his ass!’ That’s not fun. I’ve got a good TV. I’m not going to an away game.”

The parents never missed a playoff game, but sometimes had to split up so both sons were covered.

“When I was playing, there used to be parents that would come to every game,” Archie said. “It may have been fine with that player, but to me it looked like you smother him if you come to every game.”

Some cities were more welcoming than others. Archie remembers when the Peyton-led Colts went back to Baltimore for a playoff game, and the reception was less than warm.

“Oh my gosh,” he said. “The media all week just gets everybody worked up, because here comes that team that sneaked out of town in the middle of the night. So Olivia and I, we’re alone. We’re just walking with the crowd. I never owned a jersey or a sweatshirt. The only thing I ever wore is I had me a little cap with a horseshoe on it.

“So we’re walking and there’s some Colts fans behind us. There’s about a dozen of them, and they’ve got on No. 88 and 87 and 18, and the Ravens fans are wearing them out. This is going to be ugly. So I’ve got my head down and I’m walking and Olivia said, ‘Are you going to keep that Colts cap on?’ And I said, ‘No. Matter of fact, I’m fixing to go over there and buy me a Ravens cap.’”

Not surprisingly, the couple watched a lot of games at their home in the Garden District of New Orleans. They used split screen on their den TV to watch both sons. Archie preferred to watch on mute; Olivia liked to hear the announcers when her sons’ teams were on offense.

“With my pacing, I’d go into the kitchen and watch,” Archie said. “We have DirecTV everywhere else in the house, but we have cable in the kitchen, because DirecTV can go out with bad weather. I’d go in there and the cable is about 10 seconds ahead of DirecTV, so I’m in there going, ‘Ooo,’ or ‘Awww.’ And she’d say, ‘Shuddup!’ She didn’t want any warning about what was coming. It’s hard when you’ve got children out there playing that game. It’s big-boy football.”

For the moment, the Mannings have pushed the pause button on the NFL. They’ll watch their hometown Saints, but only as casual fans. They’re emotionally invested in football at Isidore Newman, where all three of their sons were stars, and their grandson, Arch — Cooper’s eldest — is a highly touted quarterback who started on a 9-2 varsity team as a freshman last year.

“You forget how pure high school football is,” Archie said. “I get a little nervous for him. He was a freshman, and now people are making a big deal. I want him to just have fun and not be pressured. Cooper’s really done a good job with that and so has his coach at the school. It’s like a yo-yo. You go up and down.”

And there’s more news. The Mannings finally have an offensive lineman in the family. Arch’s younger brother, Heid, is a 5-foot-10, 190-pound freshman and backup varsity center.

“There’s a real premium on center in high school football now because everybody runs a shotgun,” Archie said. “Gotta get those snaps in. During this pandemic, Arch has had to get his receivers on his own to go throw. I tell people that they’ve been kicked off every playground in New Orleans. But Heid went with him every time.”

A new wave of Mannings. The grandparents are ready.

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