Manning family holding annual football camp in Louisiana

Published 12:07 am Sunday, July 9, 2006

oon enough, Peyton and Eli Manning will be trying to outdo one another in prime time on the opening Sunday of the NFL regular season.

This weekend, however, they’re working together in south Louisiana’s summer heat, helping young players like Tahlako Williams and Mike Smith get their minds off the sagging, gutted homes that surround their practice field back at flood-damaged St. Augustine High School in New Orleans.

“Everybody who lives in this state was affected by the hurricanes, whether it affected you or you know somebody who was affected, so we’re proud to have this camp again,” Peyton Manning said Friday between sessions of the Manning Passing Academy at Nicholls State University. “I think in small ways, sports plays a role in the recovery process.”

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The academy, started by former Saints quarterback Archie Manning, has been helping high school-age players from around the country work on passing, running and receiving skills for 11 years. Archie Manning’s sons and a host of coaches and college players come in to help out.

But for a number of players at Nicholls’ idyllic, tree-lined, red brick campus about 50 miles southwest of New Orleans — a place that narrowly escaped the devastation caused by hurricanes Katrina and Rita — this summer’s camp represents more than a chance to improve football skills.

“It’s good to be out here because, man, back home, as we’re doing the practices we’re seeing how devastating (Katrina) was to our city,” said Smith, who will finish his high school career at St. Augustine after spending last season in Missouri City, Texas. “So it’s good to come out here and see things where just living is like, 100 percent. It’s good to be out here and work with these people. They take time with us and I appreciate it.”

It’s a special time for the Mannings as well. Archie Manning still lives in New Orleans, where long after his career he has retained celebrity status on par with hockey great Bobby Orr in Boston. Since the Giants’ season ended in January, Eli Manning estimates he has made at least a half dozen trips home, giving time and money to his native city.

Meanwhile, Peyton Manning’s PeyBack Foundation has given more than $100,000 to about a dozen New Orleans-area nonprofit groups that work with children in recent months.

Even during the 2005 football season shortly after Katrina, the two star quarterback brothers were among the first celebrities to be seen on the ground in Louisiana, unloading relief supplies.

“This is where we grew up, so I always enjoy coming back,” Eli Manning said. “It’s a tough situation and I’m just supportive of New Orleans. A lot of things need to be done, but I have faith they’ll get it back.”

Today, the Mannings’ hometown is a mixture of grace and gloom coexisting within blocks of one another. A few nights ago, the Manning family dined at Clancy’s, a popular restaurant in a converted historic Uptown house, where diners love the soft shell crab and lemon icebox pie.

The brothers also go for drives to survey the rebuilding progress, or lack there of, in some cases.

Over at St. Augustine High School, the weight room has been cleaned of muck but the weights, rusting from weeks submerged in salt water, have yet to be replaced. Williams and Smith said they make do with the old equipment.

It’s better than nothing, which is what it looked like would be left to Williams when he was rescued by helicopter from the roof of his house after Katrina.

The quarterback, who’ll be a senior this season, spent last fall playing wide receiver in order to get on the field at the Woodlands High School near Houston. Smith was able to remain a running back at Hightower High School in Missouri City, Texas, where he moved in with relatives and found himself playing for a team called the Hurricanes.

“I thought somebody was playing a joke on me,” Smith said as he recalled being told the team name.

Neither Smith nor Williams have been able to move back into their flood-damaged homes, but both have returned with their families to New Orleans.

Smith said his coach in Texas tried to persuade him to stay put for his senior year.

“He offered to help find my parents a house and everything, but no place is like New Orleans,” Smith said. “I tell people that all the time. It’s so unique. I’m so glad I’m home right now. I know a lot of my friends want to come home right now and there’s nothing to come to.”

This fall, Smith and Williams will return to a still-damaged but reopening St. Augustine, a Catholic school known for its Trojan marching band — a crowd-pleasing staple of halftime shows and Mardi Gras parades.

By then, Peyton Manning, 30, will be back in Indianapolis with the Colts and younger brother Eli, 25, will be in New York with the Giants. When their teams meet on Sept. 10, it will mark the first time the brothers have played against each other in any game other than “pick up in the front yard or whatever,” Eli said.

“It’s going to be exciting, but it’s not like I’m really going against Peyton as if he were playing defensive end and I’ve got to watch his technique,” Eli said.

Peyton said the brothers often talk football and work with each other on technique and conditioning, but don’t talk much about the personnel or game plans of their respective teams.

“He’s my little brother I pull for him every single week, but no question when you’re playing against him you’ve got to play well for your team and help your team win,” Peyton said.

And once the game’s over they’ll be pulling hard for one another again, even if it means another intrafamily showdown in the Super Bowl.

“Maybe we’ll meet twice then,” Eli said, grinning slightly at the thought.