Super Bowl a chance to erase memories, add more for Manning’s

Published 1:28 am Sunday, February 4, 2007

Archie Manning stood nervously in the tunnel leading to the field in Indianapolis during the final minutes of a comeback that would put his middle son in the Super Bowl for the first time.

He didn’t want the television cameras to see him, didn’t want to intrude on the spotlight.

He could barely bring himself to watch.

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The head of football’s most famous quarterback family had endured countless losing seasons as a player himself. Now he was just a proud father, peeking around the corner and praying that his son would succeed where he never had the chance.

Eli Manning, his youngest, paced next to him as the final seconds ticked off the clock and the RCA Dome erupted in jubilation.

The Colts were going to the Super Bowl. A Manning finally had won a big one.

In the bedlam, Peyton Manning looked for his dad and his brother. The quarterback father and his quarterback sons embraced in a hug born of jubilation and relief.

“Maybe,” Archie Manning said, “there was a little fate there.”

If any family deserved some good karma on the football field, it might be the Mannings.

And, if any father deserved a good moment from the NFL, it surely would be Archie Manning.

“Obviously my dad knows how difficult it is to get there,” Eli Manning said. “He played 15 seasons and never made it to the playoffs. He knows it’s not easy. Everything has to go the right way.”

Nothing ever seemed to go the right way for Archie Manning in the NFL. In a decade and a half, he never played for a winning team, never came close to sniffing the postseason.

His team had records like 1-15 and 3-13. Winning a handful of games in one season was cause for celebration.

Things were so bad in New Orleans that fans began wearing paper bags over their head because they were embarrassed to be in the same stadium with their Aints. The Super Bowl wasn’t a goal for this gang of misfits, merely something to watch while grilling burgers on a Sunday afternoon.

The losses came early, and they came often. By the time Manning finished 15 years in the NFL in 1984, he had walked off the field with the losing team 139 times.

He did it with his head held high.

“I don’t look back on it like that, but people do it for me,” he said. “Why do that? When I was a kid all I wanted to do was play. I wanted to be a ball player. And I got to do it for 14 years, through the good, the bad and the injuries.”

Still, Manning wanted better for his quarterback kids.

They have had their own struggles, despite playing on teams loaded with the kind of talent that only came to New Orleans for an occasional Super Bowl in Archie Manning’s day.

Peyton Manning labored for years with the label “Never Able to Win the Big One” seemingly plastered directly over the No. 18 on his uniform. He has his father’s arm and talent, but in eight years as quarterback of the Colts the Super Bowl was always tantalizingly just out of reach.

Eli Manning came into the league with great fanfare, but the results after three years so far have been mixed. New Yorkers grumble about his inconsistency as quarterback of the Giants and he often seems flustered on the field.

Could there be such a thing as a Manning curse?

“Nobody has ever asked me that,” Archie Manning said. “I’d say absolutely not. I was one of those kids who just wanted to play and I did it for 15 years. I wouldn’t look at anything Peyton did in his career, whether high school, college, or pro, as any kind of curse. And Eli, well, it’s just his second year as the starter.”

Peyton Manning seemed similarly surprised.

“I didn’t know there was one until this question,” he said. “I have always believed that I would have a chance to play in this game, and hopefully more than one. Obviously, I thought that it would have happened sooner, but we had some chances in earlier years.”

Actually, the idea of a curse seems almost laughable on the surface. Eli Manning, after all, is already rich, thanks to a fat signing bonus from the Giants. Peyton Manning is even richer, earning more money than any other player in the NFL and starring in more television commercials than Tiger Woods.

Archie Manning, meanwhile, is not only a proud dad but still revered in New Orleans, though more so as a lovable loser than a franchise savior. That’s what happens when your career was spent behind an offensive line that leaked like a rotted rowboat and a long line of receivers seemed to have hands made of stone.

Like any father, Manning feels for his sons when they struggle because he knows something about losing. He has sometimes found himself feeling for the players on the other side, too.

“Back when Peyton was in college I used to think about that because Peyton was on a good team that won most games,” Manning said. “I kind of thought about the daddy of the quarterback on the other team, especially when he had a tough day.

“Because I know what it’s like. I have empathy.”

Manning, of course, is the only former NFL player to ever have two sons follow him into the league. It could have been three, because his oldest son, Cooper, was also a promising player before his career was cut short because of a back condition.

In family videos, the boys are shown in helmets at an early age running plays against each other in the backyard. But Manning said he never pushed any of his boys into playing the game.

“I wasn’t a big advocate of organized football for kids. I was scared of that,” Manning said. “I never coached. I never tried to be their offensive coordinator. I saw daddies do that, some former players. I always thought that was scary and dangerous.”

That didn’t mean dad didn’t prepare his sons to be their best. Often he would do it by pegging quotations to the bulletin boards in their rooms.

“I hate to lose more than I like to win,” was one offering, courtesy of tennis player Jimmy Connors.

“Pressure is something you feel only when you don’t know what you are doing,” was another, from former Pittsburgh coach Chuck Noll.

Manning was far more circumspect when discussing his own career with his sons. That was apparent when Peyton Manning was asked this week whether his appearance in the Super Bowl would make up for his father’s failure to ever make the playoffs.

“He and I have never talked about anything like that,” he said. “I know people ask him that question and my dad played 15 years in the NFL as a professional quarterback which, and here I am in my ninth year, and there is not a day that goes by that I am not more and more impressed with how long he played.”

Peyton Manning hopes to do some impressing of his own Sunday against the Chicago Bears. He says he doesn’t feel as though he has to win the big one and isn’t trying to win it for his father, but it can’t be that far from his mind.

Watching nervously from a suite above will be Archie and the rest of the family. That’s their designated spot, anyway.

Keep an eye late in the game on the tunnel leading to the field. That’s where one proud papa will more than likely be, peeking out to see his son.