The smell is different now. Players are celebrated as much for their projected draft positions as for their college exploits. All the games are televised, which demythologizes the participants. The difference between Archie's era and Peyton's is only highlighted by the fact that Archie played at the smallest university in the SEC and on a team made up entirely of Mississippians. "That's how I heard college football was, listening to my parents," says Peyton. "I'm trying to get the whole experience, but the game has changed a lot. We've got guys on our team from all over the country. They're all great guys, but everybody does his own thing. It's different, that's all."
And it's no reason to weep for Manning. It just turns out that in the throwback business, success is accompanied by a touch of disillusionment. "I think sometimes I talked too much," says Archie. "I never knew he was setting it in his mind that just because things were a certain way for me, they would be the same way for him. Something is missing for Peyton. He's on top of college football, and it's different from what he expected."
Peyton had long imagined a route that would have brought him closer to the path that his father followed. In the fall of 1992, Cooper entered Ole Miss as a full-scholarship wide receiver. Peyton was beginning his junior year at Newman, and it was plain to see that even as a gawky teenager with a modest arm, he had vast potential. The letters from college football programs had already begun to arrive, including one handwritten by Florida State coach Bobby Bowden. Many more would follow, but Peyton had already made his decision. He would go to Mississippi, and he would play with his brother.
They had always complemented each other. Cooper, two years older, was carefree and cool. Peyton was intense and serious. (The third and last of the Manning children, Eli, 15, is a sophomore at Newman, where he will start at quarterback this fall.) Cooper kissed off his schoolwork and made decent grades, says Peyton, "because all of his teachers fell in love with him." Peyton treated every class as if it were contract law with Professor Kingsfield. "Here he was, hammering away at his homework in seventh grade," says Cooper. "I'm saying, 'Relax, you don't have to stay up till 1 a.m. over this math.' "
In the fall of 1991 Cooper and Peyton played their one season of football together, Peyton as Newman's sophomore quarterback, Cooper as a senior wide receiver. "That year made us buddies," Cooper says. Newman was 12-2. In the Louisiana Class 2A semifinals, against upstate power Haynesville, Newman lost 27-21 after Peyton was intercepted with 30 seconds to play. Cooper hung an arm around his little brother. Told him everything was fine.
In truth, everything was not fine. Cooper had played half the season with numbness in his right hand. He went to Oxford in August 1992, participated in two-a-days and even dressed for a game. But the numbness had spread to his right leg. Archie took Cooper to specialists, and in late September, Archie was told that his son had spinal stenosis, a congenital narrowing of the spinal cavity. Football was out of the question.
Archie and Olivia broke the news to Cooper on a Friday night in New Orleans. It is a subject that moves Peyton nearly to tears. Three days after Cooper was told of his condition, he went back to Oxford. Peyton had written him a short keep-your-chin-up note. And Cooper left Peyton a note that would help redefine their relationship. It said, in part:
I would like to live my dream of playing football through you. Although I cannot play anymore, I know I can still get the same feeling out of watching my little brother do what he does best. I know now that we are good for each other, because I need you to be serious and look at things from a different perspective. I am good for you, as well, to take things light. I love you, Peyt, and only great things lay ahead for you. Thanks for everything on and off the field.
In June 1993, Cooper had corrective spinal surgery that left him almost paralyzed. Three years later his right arm and leg are still weak, and he has no feeling at all in his left leg. Last spring he sat in his Oxford apartment and hit his left leg with the heel of his left hand. "Nothing. Can't feel it at all," he said. "The doctors told me after the surgery that [the feeling] would come back in two years or it wouldn't come back at all." After the operation he had to relearn how to walk. His hands had been quick and sure, but now he can't have a serious game of catch with Peyton or play pickup basketball. Cooper graduated from Ole Miss in four years and worked last fall on Rebels coach Tommy Tuberville's television show, taking a microphone into the audience like Phil Donahue. "I call him Mr. Oxford," says Peyton of his brother.
Cooper has passed on to Peyton some of his roguish charm and has chipped away some of his little brother's seriousness. It was as if Cooper's blithe spirit had inhabited Peyton during the mooning incident. "Cooper moons everybody," says Peyton. Last fall Cooper attended the Ole Miss-LSU game in Baton Rouge, and when a passerby saw him walking near the stadium with a group of people, beer in hand, the guy shouted, "Peyton, what are you doing?" Cooper laughed and shouted, "Just drinkin' whiskey and chasm women is all."