Peyton let go a perfect spiral, and Cooper held up his hands to grab it. But the ball sailed right through his fingertips.
"What was that?" Olivia asked Archie up in the stands. Later she said, "Cooper didn't miss a single pass the year before. I think he did it on purpose."
Cooper went on to make nine catches in the first half alone, but Peyton didn't let him forget the miss. He brought it up at breakfast the next morning, and by all accounts it's still under discussion, more than two years later.
Despite playing half the season with numbness in his right hand, Cooper ended the year with 73 receptions, 1,250 total receiving yards and 13 TDs—all from the rocket arm of Peyton. Cooper became one of the most celebrated players in the state in what would be his final season. As a freshman last fall at Ole Miss, Cooper was found to have spinal stenosis, a congenital narrowing of the spine, and in June he had corrective surgery. Doctors told Archie and Olivia that one hard blow could leave him paralyzed; the Mannings insisted he give up the game.
"I don't feel sorry for Cooper," Olivia says. "Anybody who has as many friends as he does...well, that will take him so much further in life than football ever could. But Peyton, if it had happened to Peyton...."
"Peyton wouldn't have been able to handle it," Archie says.
The Mannings had Peyton X-rayed this summer, and doctors found that while his spinal column was narrow by some standards, he was in good shape to play football. This pleased no one as much as Cooper, who now is his brother's biggest fan.
"For a while," Cooper says, "I was searching for how I was going to replace football. But that doesn't happen anymore. I accept it, and with Peyton doing so well, that makes everything easier. I concentrate on him."
It's the Friday of the Newman-Country Day game in mid-September. Archie arrives at the stadium about an hour before kickoff and walks up to the front gate with his wallet in hand. "Who do I pay?" he says, speaking to an empty chair. "Do I pay here? How's this work?"
The teams are on the field, loosening up. After a while he goes and sits at the top of the bleachers, easily the best seat in the house from which to watch Peyton.