Archie and Olivia raised their children in a large house in the Garden District, an affluent neighborhood crowded with century-old mansions and popular with tour groups. One of their neighbors on First Street is best-selling author Anne Rice, whose gothic novels so impress some of her readers that they show up in front of her house dressed like vampires. Tours regularly stop for a look at the Mannings', too, which means that several times a day a crowd of 20 or more gawks at the handsome Greek Revival house as a guide lists the accomplishments of Archie, Peyton and Eli, rarely mentioning the other brother who grew up there.
One day not long ago Cooper stopped by to pick up Archie and Olivia and take them to a movie, and as they left he lowered his window, stuck his head out and faced a group of tourists gathered on the sidewalk. "Front door's open," he announced. "Go on in and make yourselves at home."
"Cooper used to come up to Tennessee when I had a game," Peyton says, "and on Friday night we had a 10:30 curfew. Cooper would go out to a bar and sit around drinking beer and smoking a cigar. It's one in the morning. Before you know it, some Tennessee fan walks up to him and says, 'Hey, Peyton! What are you doing out? It's one o'clock!' And instead of correcting the guy, Cooper says, 'Hey, we're just playing Kentucky tomorrow. What's the big deal?' "
All three brothers attended the Isidore Newman School in New Orleans, a small private institution with high academic standards and, when the Manning boys were there, some of the most exciting football teams the city had ever seen. Cooper was a promising reserve quarterback for the Class 2A Greenies until his junior year, when he helped persuade his coach to replace their antiquated wing T offense with a more pass-oriented attack, featuring Cooper himself as the top wide receiver. His most extensive duty at quarterback had come late in his sophomore season. Against Redeemer, Cooper replaced the injured starter and his injured backup and threw a 99-yard touchdown pass, but it was his only completion in 14 attempts. In a later game, against Belle Chase, he threw five interceptions. "I waited up for him to come home [that night]," Archie says. "I thought he might need consoling. I can remember games when I had five interceptions—at least three times in my career—and I wanted to jump off a bridge afterward. When Coop came in the door, I said, 'You didn't beat me. I threw six against Tennessee in Knoxville one afternoon.' Cooper always had great self-confidence. He looked at me and said, 'Well, they weren't my fault, Dad. I'm a receiver, anyway.' "
Two years later Cooper was first team all-state. By then he stood 6'4" and weighed 185 pounds, and he ran the 40-yard dash in 47 seconds, a fair time for a late-developing receiver of his size but hardly the land to attract more than a handful of major-college recruiters. Even so, he was strong and crafty, and he ran routes that turned defensive backs in circles. Like his brothers, Cooper had the advantage of being the son of involved parents, one of whom happened to be a 14-year NFL veteran.
On weekends Archie regularly took his three sons to Newman's field and worked them out. With Cooper he played a game called Ten Balls. Standing 10 yards away, Archie would throw passes to the teenager as hard as he could, aiming some high, others low. If Cooper missed a ball, they'd start over. They couldn't return home until Cooper had made 10 straight catches.
Cooper's hands were so good that during his junior year at Newman he didn't miss a pass thrown to him. The next year, 1991, Peyton graduated to the varsity and won the starting job at quarterback. Though only a sophomore, he was already a superb leader with a big, strong body and the ability to throw deep accurately. On the first pass play of the year Cooper was wide open on a post-corner route after faking out the cornerback. Peyton delivered the ball to him in a soft spiral, and from those in attendance who'd been waiting for this moment, a roar went up. History was being made: Peyton Manning was throwing his first pass in a high school game, and it was to Cooper Manning. But the ball fell through Cooper's hands.
Newman fans who witnessed the play were so unaccustomed to seeing Cooper drop a pass, even in warmups, that they wondered if he'd done it on purpose, as a way of getting at the upstart Peyton and starting the season with a laugh. "Nope, he just missed it," says Archie. "We all sat there stunned. There's no doubt that something was going on with his hand."
Cooper says he simply misplayed the ball, but he missed other passes later in the season, and he blames those drops on the weakness he was beginning to feel in his right hand. His pinkie and ring fingers occasionally went numb; other times they felt as if they were being pricked with needles. When the weather turned cold, his right hand felt frozen and he could barely squeeze with it. Rather than tuck the ball under his right arm when he ran with it, he tucked it under his left. Unable to squeeze the ball to throw it, he learned how to throw lefthanded. He held for the kicker on field goal and extra point attempts, and once on a fake field goal he threw the ball with his right hand. It went up in a wild wobble but still found its target for the touchdown. The hand "just didn't feel right," Cooper told Archie after the game. But Archie says he never imagined a medical problem.
Cooper said nothing about the problem to his coaches or teammates, including Peyton, and it seemed that no one noticed the difficulty he was experiencing, perhaps because he remained a dominant presence on the field and superior to any defensive back he faced. He and Peyton communicated with hand signals at the line of scrimmage and with glances familiar to each other since they were children playing games on the front lawn on First Street. "I'm-open-I'm-open-I'm-open," Cooper badgered his brother in the huddle. If Peyton threw an incompletion his way, Cooper always demanded another try. "Throw it again," he'd say. "Hey, come on, throw it to me again, Peyton."