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Genetics, athletics mesh for Mannings

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It was not like Archie and Olivia Manning set out to create a quarterbacking dynasty 30 years ago when they began to raise a family in New Orleans.

There was no master plan to become football's first family, no diabolical scheme to dominate the NFL draft, no grand design to change the concept of offense as we know it.

It just happened.

Plain old hard work meshed with good athletic genes, pedigree dovetailed with opportunity and there you have it.

Peyton Manning, 28, a co-Most Valuable Player with the Indianapolis Colts a year ago, stands poised to shatter the league's single-season record for touchdown passes, perhaps as early as today.

Eli Manning, 23, who makes his fourth start for the New York Giants in Baltimore against the Ravens today, joined Peyton (1998) as a first-pick selection in the NFL draft this year.

And that doesn't count Cooper Manning, 30, who, according to Archie, was the best athlete of the bunch before a congenital spine condition closed out his budding football career soon after his arrival at the University of Mississippi.

After surgery for spinal stenosis, Cooper had to learn to walk again. Today, he's an institutional broker in New Orleans, trading oil and gas stocks for an energy research firm.

"Cooper had a tough break," the elder Manning said. "I'm just as proud of Cooper for the way he dealt with that, and the way he's run his life. Everybody loves Cooper."

Archie's ability

All this athletic prowess makes sense against the backdrop of Archie's football career, first at Ole Miss and later with the New Orleans Saints. He was the second pick in the 1971 draft behind Jim Plunkett and the best player on one of the NFL's worst teams.

A sprint-out quarterback at Ole Miss, Manning ran out of desperation with the Saints, who always ran out of luck. In a 14-year NFL career that included brief appearances with the Houston Oilers and Minnesota Vikings, he threw for 23,911 yards and ran for an additional 2,197. He totaled 125 touchdown passes and 173 interceptions.

He was one of the league's best players never to make the playoffs, or even see the plus-side of a .500 record.

What might he have accomplished on a good team?

"The Hall of Fame, no question in my mind," said Ernie Accorsi, the Giants general manager who pried Eli Manning loose from the San Diego Chargers in a draft trade last April. "I thought Archie was a great player, he just never had a prayer there. Plunkett got a second chance, but not him. They both got brutalized because they were not protected."

So, at least the genes were there.

Ask Manning, now 55, how he produced this stable of all-stars and he effectively shrugs his wide shoulders.

"Because I didn't try to do it," he said, finally. "I firmly believe some parents - if they go out and try to do that - I'm not going to say they would fail, but they probably are going to screw their kids up along the way.

"I can't explain it."

The closest Manning will come is to talk about the mind-set he applied to his own career.

"I had a good work ethic," he said, "because I played on bad teams. I wanted to win some, and I wanted to get better. I didn't have good mechanics, and also I got hit a lot. My thoughts always were if I wanted to stay healthy and answer the bell, I had to be in good shape. So I worked hard."

Practice makes Peyton

There probably is no player in the NFL today who works harder than Peyton Manning. Renowned for his film study and practice habits, he has spent seven years in the same offense with the same coordinator (Tom Moore) and many of the same receivers (including Marvin Harrison).

This season, it's paid off like no other. Manning takes 44 touchdown passes into today's game against the Houston Texans with a chance to break Dan Marino's single-season mark of 48. Next week he faces the Ravens in Indianapolis.

He also leads the league with a .681 completion percentage, 3,621 yards and a 9.41 average gain per pass attempt.

Listen to former Colts teammate, linebacker Marcus Washington, now with the Washington Redskins: "Peyton's such a student of the game. He puts a lot into it. The thing I admire most about Peyton is that when we had things that weren't mandatory and a lot of the 'big-time players' won't come, not only will Peyton be there, he'll be taking notes. He pays such attention to detail."

Arizona Cardinals defensive end Bertrand Berry, another former Colt, pointed to Manning's preparation.

"I don't know if I've ever played against a guy who knows where everyone on the field is supposed to be more than him," Berry said. "All 21 other guys, he knows exactly where they should be.

"His knowledge and preparation is pretty remarkable. It's no surprise how successful he is because I know he's one of the first guys at the complex in the morning and the last to leave. He's a product of his own work ethic."

'Everything right'

That work ethic was readily seen in Archie's adolescent years in tiny Drew, Miss., in the 1950s and 1960s.

Archie's sister, Pamela Ann Shelton, remembers a younger brother who devoted his full energy to whatever projects he took on.

"Archie always worked very hard at everything he did, whether it was school or sports," Shelton said from her home in Oxford, Miss. "I think he was just a good child. He did everything right."

One example Shelton gave was a church pin Archie received for not missing Sunday school over an extended period. "It was like 14 or 15 years he didn't miss," she said, still marveling.

Archie played sports nonstop - "I was one of these ball-all-day type of kids," he said - and was a good enough shortstop in baseball that he was drafted four times, including twice by the Chicago White Sox. He averaged better than 20 points a game in basketball and also ran track.

Growing up in a family-oriented farm community helped shape Manning's personality as well. Typical of the era, life revolved around children, church and school.

"In a small town like that, all the families did things together," Shelton said. "We had two or three churches, one school and everyone knew everyone else.

"We followed every sport he was involved in. You went and supported family. I was always proud of him."

Even after Shelton went to Delta State, she still returned each Friday night to see her brother's games.

The most traumatic event of Archie's young life also helped define his future relationship with his sons.

After Manning's sophomore year at Ole Miss, his father, E.A. "Buddy" Manning, committed suicide. Archie, in fact, was the person who discovered his father's body.

"He was so young [20] and he wanted to protect our mother [Sis] and me," Shelton said. "Here he was, involved in a scholarship, playing football. He later said, 'I think I grew up in a few minutes.' "

Manning told his mother he would quit Ole Miss, get a job in Drew and support the family. His mother, who died in 2000, would have none of it, however, and he returned to college.

In a book Archie later wrote with John Underwood - Manning: A Father, His Sons, and a Football Legacy - Archie told of how his father's death affected him.

"I know without a doubt that I'm a lot closer to my kids than I was to him, and maybe that's a generational thing," Manning wrote. "I look back and remember most of the kids I palled around with had daddies that were much the same as Buddy. Maybe that's why I'm so much closer to mine."

Staying off the sideline

Manning's best decision as a father, though, was to stay away from coaching his children.

"I didn't push sports on them," he said. "I did encourage them to get out and play in the neighborhood, though. I was always reluctant to do coaching. They had good coaching. They worked hard, they were pretty natural [athletes]. If they asked me questions, or to go out and throw the ball, I'd answer or go out.

"[But] I tried hard to be a father and not a coach."

The result is the hottest quarterback in the league today, and another who is one of the most promising. It's a veritable quarterback dynasty.

Accorsi said Archie doesn't deserve all the credit for that, however.

"It's Olivia, as well," he said. "As a family, it's not just great quarterbacks. They produced great people, too."

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