Somehow the dream has never died, and that is surely the most incredible part of the story of Archie Manning.
Sometimes, when the dream burns brightest, the New Orleans Saints' quarterback will shake his head and his face will light up in a little-boy grin, and he'll say, "The Astrodome...when they play that Oilers' song...it gives me goose bumps. But can you imagine what our place, the Superdome, would be like if we were ever a winner, if we had a playoff game here? They'd blow the lid right off the place. Nothing could hold a candle to it."
But there are times—they occur more now than they used to—when the fires are banked low and the dream is obscured by reflection. "Success, you know, is a relative thing," Manning will say. "I've enjoyed so little success as a professional player. I've sat around with Bradshaw and Griese and Stabler, and I couldn't open my mouth. They'd be saying, 'Remember the '75 playoffs?' or 'Remember that pass I threw in the Super Bowl?' and I'd be thinking about our 8-8 season, or our wins over Minnesota in '78 or Tampa Bay in '79. It's all relative. Those things stick out to me, but what am I going to say?"
And it's then that you realize that Elisha Archie Manning III, the most famous athlete ever produced by the state of Mississippi, one of the finest quarterbacks ever to come out of the deep South, is 32 years old, and in 10 years with the Saints he has yet to experience a winning season. And time is running out.
Manning was a scriptwriter's dream, the redheaded, freckle-faced kid who grew up in a little farming town in the Mississippi Delta, who became a sports hero at the high school across the street. Valedictorian, senior class president, perfect Sunday school attendance record. Then it was on to Ole Miss, where, after suffering a deep personal tragedy, Manning became an All-America quarterback and married the homecoming queen. He was drafted No. 1 by a ragtag NFL team that was the shame of the South. Surely, he would lead the Saints out of the wilderness.
But it was at this point that the scriptwriter lost his mind, or maybe he went out on a coffee break and never returned. The Saints haven't won, and amid an ever-changing array of players and coaches and administrators, Manning has remained the one bright spot in the team's dreadful 14-year history, the only deal that hasn't gone sour. He has never threatened to jump ship, never held the club up for more money, never faked an injury, never given it anything less than his best shot in any game. "Too good to be believed," says Dean Kleinschmidt, the Saints' trainer for 11 years. "Too good for this place."
Manning has been surrounded by madness—absentee ownership based 300 miles away in Houston that has been one beat off the pace, an astronaut, Richard Gordon, in the general manager's chair for five years, trades that backfired, first-round drafts who couldn't play and an unmatched record of 14 years without a winner. It bottomed out at 1-15 last season, and when you mention Manning's name around the league you strike an uncharacteristic vein of compassion. Or worse, you find he has become an object lesson, a textbook argument against rushing a baby quarterback into combat: "You think your kid ought to play right away? Well, look at that Manning with the Saints. They turned him into a basket case down there."
"Yeah, I know I'm the example," Manning says. "I got hurt a lot, sacked a lot, beat up a lot. But I learned a lot, too. You throw 40 times a game when you're first starting out, it's a crash course. And I'm far from a basket case." He stretches to his full 6'3" and flexes the muscles that have been built from a yearly program of 100 carefully monitored and annotated off-season workouts. "I feel guh-reat!" he says.
He was written off a couple of times in the mid-1970s, when it took two operations to get his throwing arm to work right. He has had his fingers mangled and the bones in his left elbow chipped. Wally Chambers, then with the Bears, tore a cartilage in Manning's left knee in '74, Atlanta's Jeff Merrow broke his jaw in '77 and Chicago's Alan Page broke his nose last year. And there are the two dozen or so injuries Manning never told anyone about. He has been sacked 317 times in his NFL career.
"Ever since last season ended," he says, "the number one question people ask me is, 'Why don't you leave? Why don't you get out of here?' It's kind of hard to explain. I've put in 10 years here, this team, this city. My kids are happy in school here, my wife is happy in New Orleans. Sure I want to win, but I want to win here, in this city."