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The boys used to go to the Superdome and sit among the fans wearing rumpled paper bags over their heads. This was 13 years ago, back when Elisha Archibald Manning III—the tall, redheaded fellow who happened to be their father—was quarterback of the New Orleans Saints.
Forget that Archie Manning was the NFL's Most Valuable Player a couple of years before, or that he was "a franchise player without a franchise," as his friend Hank Stram liked to say. Since 1971 he had been the leader of a team that had managed to break even only once with him behind center. And people simply had lost patience with him. The Aints, everyone called the team. Even Manning's sons, Cooper, 7, and Peyton, 5, were sick and tired of the losing.
So one Sunday afternoon Archie was down on the field, being terrorized. He was getting flushed from the pocket, forced to run for his life. And there was not a thimbleful of mercy left anywhere on this earth. "You suck, Manning," fans were beginning to shout.
They were booing, too, and it was all Archie's wife, Olivia, could do to maintain her composure. Poor Olivia. She was pregnant with their third child, the one who would be Eli. But if she just could've protected Archie, who was as fine and dear a husband and father as the Good Lord ever put on this earth, and who, if kind deeds meant anything, really shouldn't have had an enemy in the whole, entire universe.
"You suck, Manning! You...suck!"
Well, enough was enough. Olivia turned to confront the detractors, but she had been raised too well to put up much of a fight. And her voice was too soft, her accent too Southern. Every word evoked pictures of kudzu and porch swings, of funeral fans and mason jars filled with icy-cold lemonade. Olivia started to speak, but more voices rained down. These latest were little voices, and familiar to boot.
Olivia wheeled around to see where they were coming from, and there sat her own two sons, Mannings themselves. "Boo!" Cooper and Peyton were yelling along with most everybody else in the house. "Boo, Archie! Boo!"
To see him today you would never know that Archie Manning ever did anything but win. At 44 he lives with his wife and three sons in a big yellow house in New Orleans's Garden District, and it seems he's still the city's quarterback, even though he is from Drew, Miss., and also played for the Houston Oilers and the Minnesota Vikings before retiring eight years ago. As folk heroes go, none can equal Manning's status in the Crescent City, except perhaps for a Cajun chef or two and maybe the spook novelist Anne Rice, who lives in a mansion up the street from the Mannings. Archie and three partners own a couple of Gold's Gyms in the area and a third in Jackson, Miss. Each week he reports on the Saints as a radio color analyst, and he also serves as a spokesman for more than half a dozen companies.
If ever Archie were to surrender his crown as the city's quarterback, the most likely successor would not be the current man of the hour, Wade Wilson. Though he has played well for the Saints, the city still regards him with suspicion because he played for the Atlanta Falcons, the one NFL club Saint fans truly hale.
No, if anyone were to inherit Archie's mantle, it would be his own son Peyton, a senior quarterback at a small private school called Isidore Newman and one of the most coveted prep players in the country. Since spring, about 60 schools have been in touch with either him or his coach. Among those leading the chase for Peyton are Florida, Florida State, Tennessee, Michigan, Texas, Texas A&M, LSU and Ole Miss, the school where Archie first encountered fame and fortune two decades ago. Peyton plans to make five official visits and commit to a school the week before the Feb. 2 signing date.