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"No, Mr. Justice," said Archie, blushing. "Why, there are more people here tonight than live in my home town of Drew."
Like most of the other fine quarterbacks of this season, Manning is big, fast, strong and clever. Says Vaught, who started using the split-T more than 20 years ago, "He's the ideal sprint-out quarterback—as dangerous passing as any man there is, and fine running the ball, too." At 6'3½" Archie is tall enough to spot his receivers over the heads of charging enemy linemen. He runs the 100-yard dash in 10.2 seconds, which gives him speed to turn the ends, and he has built his once-scrawny body up to 205 pounds, which gives him strength to go up the middle. And his passing? "Archie has the arm to hit you with the bullet." says his favorite receiver. Split End Floyd Franks, "or he can float the long one up the field." Finally, Manning has the intelligence and football instinct to call the right play at the right time—and make it work.
"He has a great football mind," says Vaught. "I have now reached the point with Archie that anything he wants to do from any place on the field at any time is all right with me."
Beyond his ample physical and mental attributes, Manning also is blessed with something else—a clutch quality, one might say, that derives from his ability to snatch the Rebels from defeat, usually in dramatic fashion. Against Georgia last season, for instance, the Ole Miss fans were ready to toss in their Rebel flags after Archie hurt his neck late in the first half. But with the Rebs trailing 17-13 in the third quarter, Archie sprinted back on the field accompanied by a wild ovation—"That was the most embarrassing thing that happened to me all season," Archie says—and passed Ole Miss to a 25-17 victory. Against LSU, considered the strongest defensive team in the South, Ole Miss fell behind 23-12, but Archie scored two TDs and a two-point conversion to account for a 26-23 win—after which Frank J. Polozola, a Baton Rouge attorney and staunch LSU fan, filed a suit in federal district court seeking an injunction to prevent Manning from "further harassment" of the LSU team.
Says Vaught, "The team has tremendous confidence in him. They've seen him do so many things under adverse conditions to pull a game out."
Almost from the day he was born, May 19, 1949, Manning was groomed to become an athlete. He was given a tiny helmet and uniform as soon as he could walk, and his mother can remember him standing on the corner outside their home watching the Drew High football team practice on the school grounds across the street. His sister Pam recalls that Archie often slept with a football cradled in his arms, but baseball is what mainly interested him through his grade-school days. Taught by one of his uncles to bat left-handed, Archie became the starting second baseman on the high school varsity when he was in the seventh grade.
"I only weighed about 100," Archie recalls, "and the baseball team didn't have regular shirts, so we had to wear old football jerseys. That baby would just hang on me. I bunted and walked mostly, but I still hit .300."
Growing up in the hot, flat midsection of Mississippi known as The Delta, a boy's life tends to be centered around box scores read in the cool of early morning, The Sporting News, the St. Louis Cardinals on radio and TV—all that and church. For 13 years in a row Archie never missed a Sunday at the First Baptist Church in Drew, and an old friend. Attorney Frank Crosthwait, says, "To me he's still the little redheaded, freckle-faced kid who always wore that red blazer to church." His mother, an elegant Southern lady known to everyone as Sis, says Archie caused her no undue trouble, except for the fact that he was always too busy playing to stop and eat, an oversight that Archie would come to regret as he grew older—and thinner.
Until he went to college, Archie was so frail he was too embarrassed to go swimming without a T shirt. "I guess I developed a complex about it," he says. His sister puts it this way: "My Lord, that child was emaciated." His skinny frame did not prevent Archie from improving in baseball, basketball and track, but he had problems in football. His ankle was broken in the eighth grade, his right arm in the 10th and his left arm in the 11th. At the beginning of his senior year, in fact, Archie had played in 12 games, only one of which was a victory.
Somehow Archie managed to escape injury his senior year and pull Drew to a respectable 5-5 record, including an 18-14 upset over arch-rival Cleveland in his final game. Nevertheless, Archie received football scholarship offers from only three colleges—Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Tulane—and everybody figured he would pass up football to play basketball, which had been his best high school sport, or perhaps even sign a pro baseball contract. (A shortstop who covers a lot of ground, has a strong arm and hits with power, Archie was drafted in high school by the Atlanta Braves.)