Is it a hereditary problem? was a question at the top of Ellen's list. No, said Donald Richardson, a neurosurgeon at Tulane University Medical Center. It was congenital.
Congenital, she learned, means you're born with it. Hereditary means you pass it down. Both Peyton and Eli tested negative for spinal stenosis. Only Cooper had to live out his life with the condition.
Is Cooper going to end up in a wheelchair one day? What can we do and what can we not do? Can we go waterskiing? What about snow skiing? What if we get in a car accident? If his head snaps back, will he be paralyzed?
Richardson reassured her: Cooper should live a good, long life, but he was at a higher risk for injury than other people, and he needed to be careful. No skiing of any kind. And he should avoid roughhousing.
After she and Cooper had been married for a while, somebody asked Ellen, "Suppose the doctor had said, 'It's more serious than Cooper has told you. He will he bound to a wheelchair by the time he's 40.' "
Ellen didn't hesitate. "I'd have married him anyway," she said.
Today Cooper trades oil and gas stocks for an energy investment boutique called Howard, Weil, Labouisse and Friedrichs. His office, on the 35th floor of the Energy Centre in downtown New Orleans, has sweeping views of the Louisiana landscape and the Mississippi River, but Cooper rarely has time to look. He spends his days at his desk watching the market on computer monitors and talking to clients on the telephone. When he gets up, it's usually to swing a golf club and vent nervous energy.
"I've talked to Archie and Olivia about Cooper," says his boss, Bill Walker. "I wanted them to know how good he is at his job. While they can clearly see Peyton's and Eli's success, I'm not sure they fully understand Cooper's. He's the absolute best at what he does—like his younger brothers, an All-America by any standard."
He is a long way from football and the athlete he once was. But some days you will see him playing basketball by the 8�-foot goal in his driveway, neighborhood kids gathered around as he entertains them with jokes he recalls from long ago. Among his most prized possessions are the letter Peyton wrote to him in 1992 and a videotape with highlights of their famous season together, their only season together. In his wallet he carries his Ole Miss freshman I.D. card showing him with a shaved head, a thick neck and broad, muscular shoulders. The photo has a special poignancy, because only weeks after it was taken he had to give up football and his life was changed forever.
In the evening, after work, Cooper takes his daughter, May, in her stroller to Audubon Park and back, limping as he moves under the old leafy trees. He was delighted when the baby, his and Ellen's first, born last year on Dec. 10, turned out to be a girl. No one will ever ask her what position she plays or what jersey number she wears or why, if she didn't make it, she isn't like the other Mannings. At every opportunity Olivia and Archie drop by to see little May, and when Peyton and Eli are in town, a visit to their niece is one of their first stops.