It's a fool's task to guess how good he might have been. But consider his father's career and who his brothers are, and you might conclude that he would've made something halfway decent of himself. You might even decide that Cooper Manning, now 29 and more than a decade out of football, would've been one of the best players of his generation. If nothing else, he'd have been a college All-America and a first-round NFL draft pick. And young parents all across the Deep South, smitten with his good looks and winning personality, would be naming their newborns after him. Better still, someone who calls himself a balladeer would've written a really bad song about him. Like Vie Ballad of Archie Who—which mythologized the exploits of his father as an Ole Miss Rebel—the song would be a cult favorite played in juke joints all over Dixie, from the Delta clear down to the Gulf Coast, and the sound of it would raise gooseflesh on anyone who knows anything about love and Mississippi.
It's not Coo-per, by the way, but Cupper. No, it's not Cupper either. His Southern roots are deep, so the name sounds more like Cooker. You need to practice saying it a few times before trying it out on him. Get it wrong and he'll correct you before your tongue can reset itself. "You don't eat a chocolate-chip coo-kee, do you?" he asks. "No, you eat a cookie. My name is pronounced the same way. It's Cuh-pah. Cuh-pah,"
And he's probably the one Manning you've never heard of. In New Orleans, where he lives, people recognize him wherever he goes as one of Archie's boys. He's tall and gangly, and his hair has a subtle undercoat of the family's trademark red, and he carries himself with such confidence that it always seems as if he's just orchestrated a game-winning touchdown drive. But which one is he? Is he Eli, the quarterback at Ole Miss? Or Peyton, the quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts? Is he even a quarterback? Or a football player, for that matter? If he doesn't play football, then how come?
"You wouldn't believe the things people say to him," says his wife, Ellen. " 'Hey, your brothers are so good, why aren't you anything? Why aren't you in the NFL? What happened to you?' Whenever it happens—and it happens a lot—I'm like, 'Hey, let me tell you something, mister! He's just....' And that's when Cooper steps in and makes me stop. 'Aw, come on,' he says, 'they don't know anything. Don't worry about it.' "
There are ballads, and then there's Cooper's ballad. It would be a heartbreaker if he weren't one of the funniest guys alive. Cooper's ballad tells the story of a gifted 18-year-old receiver who seems destined for the big time until doctors inform him that he suffers from a congenital narrowing of the spinal canal—spinal stenosis, they call it—and his football career abruptly ends only months into his freshman year at Ole Miss, in 1992. He endures three major operations, one of them a harrowing spinal surgery that leaves an eight-inch-long scar along the back of his neck. His chest and shoulders lose their once muscular form. His right hand becomes atrophied and disfigured and has a constant tremor, and he can't control the fingers well enough to throw a football or type except by the old hunt-and-peck method. His left leg is numb; his right leg is sometimes so sapped of strength that he drags it.
As the memory of his athletic excellence grows dim, and as people stop speculating about what he might have been, his kid brothers mature into two of the finest talents in all of football. After a brilliant career at Tennessee, Peyton becomes an All-Pro with the Colts, earning millions en route to establishing himself as one of the most popular and respected players in the game. Eli develops into an All-SEC quarterback and a certain top pick in next year's draft. You grow up a Manning, and it seems to be your birthright to gorge on the sweet nectars of fame and glory—unless your first name is Cooper, that is.
"If one of us had to lose football, I'm glad it was me," Cooper says. "When people ask why I don't play and my dad or one of my brothers is around, he's more uncomfortable with the question than I am. And he kind of jumps to answer, like he's trying to protect me. I say, 'Well, I've run out of eligibility.' Or I'll whisper, 'I'm the smart one in the family, can't you tell?' I'll also say, 'I'm a bowler.' Or I play piano.' Or 'I like ballet.' In other words, I'll say just about anything I think I can get away with."
Before Ellen and Cooper moved to their new address on Webster Street, they lived several blocks away in a house on Pine Street. They were paid regular visits by a neighbor who liked to ring their doorbell just so he could talk to Cooper, son of the great Archie, brother of the great Peyton and Eli. It's the price one pays for being a Manning in the land of Mannings, even when you're the one who didn't make it. People gawk in public. They also gawk in private, as did this man, who never could get Cooper's name right. Cougar Manning, he called him.
Rather than correct him, Cooper let the man continue to call him by the wrong name, getting a perverse satisfaction each time he heard the pronunciation mangled.
See you later, Cougar.