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The accident certainly didn't put a damper on what was otherwise a normal childhood. Michael spent hours and hours on his thick-tired, motocross bicycle, racing around a dirt track he and his neighborhood pals had built. At home, he engaged in long, thoughtful conversations with his mother. One day, he wondered aloud why he had been named Michael David instead of David Michael. Well, Carol explained, her brother David might like to name one of his own children David.
"But you know, Michael," she said, "one of the best things about being Catholic is that you can pick any name on your confirmation day."
Michael was overjoyed. "Gee, Mom, what should I pick?" he asked.
"Often people choose the name of their favorite saint," Carol said.
"O.K.," Michael bubbled, "I'll pick Archie Manning."
When Michael was 11, Steve and Carol were divorced. "I told each child separately," says Carol, who has since remarried and moved to California. "The three girls were easy, but Steven, our older son, was devastated. When I explained to Michael that his father was going to live by himself for a while, Michael walked over to me, hugged me and gave me a kiss. Then he went out to play, as if to say, life goes on."
The adjustment to living with his mother in a different neighborhood in New Orleans proved harder, and a few months later, Michael moved back in with Steve. But it didn't ease the hurt he had bottled up inside. When Michael was 12, Steve placed him in the John Curtis Christian School. He joined the seventh-grade football team but played halfheartedly. Then, to get attention from his parents, he rebelled.
"I had problems with discipline," Michael says. "I'd go late to school. I even said I didn't want to play football."
Michael repeated the eighth grade, which allowed him to better cope with the divorce and to mature physically. That did the trick; he became a solid student and an outstanding football player.
Coach J.T. Curtis Jr., son of the school's founder, was a strict disciplinarian. His varsity practices lasted at least two hours, followed by 45 minutes of film study and discussion in the school library. With Michael playing linebacker, the Patriots won three consecutive Louisiana state championships. In his senior year, Michael was the defensive MVP in both the state championship game and coaches' all-star game and was named the outstanding defensive player in Louisiana.