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As Archie remembers it, "I wasn't sure I wanted to play football. I really love basketball, and I was averaging about 30 points through our first five games. One night the coach from Mississippi State. Joe Dan Gold, came to watch me. I made the first basket in the game and I thought, 'Oh, man I'm really going to show him something.' But then I went cold and I couldn't hit anything. And every time I missed I'd go slap somebody. I fouled out with four minutes left in the first half, and after the game I told Coach Gold not to come back, I was going to play football."
He was signed by Ole Miss Coach Roy Stinnett on Dec. 10, 1967, between the semifinals and finals of a basketball tournament ("Coach Stinnett was refereeing the tournament," says Archie, "and I must have shot 50 free throws that day"). The following summer, after lifting weights and working for a bricklayer to build himself up, Archie dispelled any doubts about his ability. Playing in the North-South All-Star Game before he entered Ole Miss, he came off the bench after starting Quarterback Bob White was injured and threw four touchdown passes to George Ranager, now a star receiver at Alabama. Archie was on his way.
The rest is history, with one tragic footnote. On Aug. 16, 1969, the summer after his sophomore year and only a week before Archie was to report to Oxford to begin practice for his junior season, his father, Buddy, killed himself with a shotgun. Not only did Archie come upon his father's body, he cleaned up after the police had removed the remains so that his mother and sister would be spared the sight. Almost immediately those closest to Archie could see him change.
"He grew up in a matter of two minutes," says his sister. "Any decision made in our household after that, Archie was the one to make it."
Says Archie, "Your first reaction is that you don't want to do anything, but that's not right. I think it gave me more determination to play harder for him."
His maturity, perhaps, has been one reason why Archie has been able to withstand the pressures of Archie Fever. Unable to explain or control the phenomenon any more than anyone else, Archie has tried to keep his perspective, to accept whatever comes his way with as much grace and understanding as possible.
"But sometimes my patience gets short," Archie admits. "Like when I'm introduced to somebody, especially women, and they say, 'Archie who?' and then laugh and laugh like they're the first person to ever say that. And sometimes when I sign an autograph I'll only sign my first name, not to be cocky, just to get through them all. Then people come back griping, wanting me to sign my last name, too, and that kind of hacks me off."
Mostly, however, Archie is just plain embarrassed. He forbade his mother and his fiancée, a dark-eyed Southern belle named Olivia Williams (from Philadelphia, Miss.), to wear an "Archie" button or to put an "Archie of Drew" bumper sticker on his car. He blushes profusely when his teammates play and sing The Ballad of Archie Who at parties or around the dorm. He declined offers to run for president of both the senior class and the lettermen's M-Club. And he vetoed—to no avail, as it turned out—a proposal by the Drew town council to erect highway signs identifying the community as the "Home of Archie Manning of the Ole Miss Rebels."
Besieged by autograph-seekers and hero-worshipers everywhere he goes, Archie has found that he can relax and be himself only among his friends and classmates in Oxford. At the annual Roaring '20s party thrown by his Sigma Nu fraternity, for instance, Archie was just one of the brothers, wearing an "Archie Who?" button himself, singing with the band, riding around on teammate Jim Poole's shoulders, then carrying Poole. Mostly, however, Archie likes to escape to the house outside Oxford that he rents with three teammates and a fraternity brother. He also prefers Oxford because of the relatively tranquil, essentially apolitical mood of the campus. Although he wears his hair so long that it curls out from beneath his helmet, the only way Archie likes rebels is as a nickname for the football team.
"I get real disgusted with some students," he says. "I've always gone along with whoever is running the show, like a coach. I might not think he's right sometimes—I get hacked off at Coach Vaught every now and then—but he's the one running things. I'm kind of proud of Ole Miss. We've had a few incidents, but it's all been minor." What Archie Fever means ultimately, of course, is that Manning will go into this season under a mountain of pressure. To provide some measure of relief, Vaught personally screens his mail and contacts, hoping to weed out the fast-buck artists and opportunists. This gives Archie more time to think about football, and he admits there is plenty to think about as Ole Miss prepares to open its season.