Commentary

Friends: Archie's in a win-win situation

The Saint of lost causes years ago, Archie Manning should savor Sunday, locals say

Originally Published: February 5, 2010
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

NEW ORLEANS -- Long before Peyton Manning and Eli Manning won back-to-back Super Bowls -- and MVP awards to go with them -- there was Elisha Archibald Manning III.

Things didn't go so swimmingly for their father, who played for some genuinely horrific New Orleans Saints teams from 1971 to 1982. Archie was a strapping quarterback from Ole Miss, the second pick of the 1971 draft, but he never, ever had a winning season. Somehow, the city of New Orleans never held it against him. Oddly enough, he emerged more celebrated than sullied, more beloved than besmirched.

"He had the misfortune of playing with one of the worst franchises in history," explained Archie's friend, Mike Kearney. "He always held his head high, whether he was being sacked four times, eight times, 12 times."

Archie, despite a dearth of talent around him, remains the Saints' all-time leader in passing attempts (3,335), completions (1,849) and yards (21,734). He's also No. 1 with 156 interceptions, by a wide margin over Aaron Brooks. Current Saints quarterback Drew Brees seems positioned to surpass Archie in the first three categories, anyway.

[+] EnlargeOlivia & Archie Manning
AP Images for Sears Holdings Corp.Former Saints QB Archie Manning (at podium) and his wife Olivia (second from right) are New Orleans icons.

There are seven men affiliated with the Saints in the Pro Football Hall of Fame -- defensive end Doug Atkins, running back Earl Campbell, general manager Jim Finks, head coach Hank Stram, fullback Jim Taylor and head coaches Mike Ditka and Tom Fears, who were inducted after their playing days. All of them, with the exception of Finks, reached Canton because of exploits beyond the confines of this city.

Archie Manning? He became New Orleans' own.

When his career ended, Manning -- who was born not so far away in Drew, Miss. -- stayed in New Orleans with his wife Olivia and raised three boys. How, ultimately, did two brothers go so far above and beyond their father?

"Maybe it's payback for the futility that Archie had to endure," said Kearney, who was part of the task force that brought the first Super Bowl to New Orleans, Super Bowl IV in 1970. "That's one way of looking at it."

This observation plays well in New Orleans, where after 43 years of existence the Saints finally have reached the big game -- Super Bowl XLIV on Feb. 7 in Miami. New Orleans could not be more thrilled for its Saints; there's only one problem. Favorite Son No. 1 is playing quarterback for the bad guys in blue and white, the Indianapolis Colts. It's a conundrum only in a few minds.

"People are divided, but the majority of New Orleans -- 99 percent -- this is the Saints' time," said Nelson Stewart, the football coach at Isidore Newman School, where Peyton and Eli played quarterback. "Our quarterback was walking through Newman with a Drew Brees jersey on and I said, `What's that?'

"He just said, 'It's not even close.' But in my heart, I'm fully divided on this issue."

Maybe that's because Stewart, a defensive tackle, was also a part-time blocker for Peyton when they played together at Newman. Peyton wants to win, naturally, but he knows the deal.

"I certainly understand people in New Orleans are Saints fans," Peyton said on Tuesday. "They have outstanding fans, always have. I certainly appreciate the people of New Orleans supporting me and Eli throughout our careers. That is our hometown.

"I understand this game New Orleans people are Saints fans, and I am fine with that."

Just plain folk

Opening the door to his home on Esplanade Avenue, in the shadow of a huge oak tree draped in Spanish moss, Peter Finney wishes a visitor good morning. The ceilings are high, antiques and porcelain crowd the curio cabinet and dozens of framed family photos populate the elegant sitting room.

Finney, still blessed with a full head of snow-white hair and remarkably spry at the age of 82, has been the sporting voice of New Orleans pretty much forever. He started working at the Times-Picayune 65 years ago, covering high school sports. When he's working on a spicy column, as he was last week at the Saints' facility, his eyes still gleam like a cub reporter's.

"There are going to be a lot of Saints fans at that Super Bowl that want to win, but who really admire Peyton Manning," Finney said. "There's no way in the world he wants to lose, but I think Peyton would rather lose to the Saints than anyone. It's one of those love-love stories.

"Archie passed on the love he had for New Orleans to his sons. And it became easy for his sons to embrace the city. They were just plain folk blessed with great talent."

The new turf field at the Newman School fits snugly into the 107-year-old campus on Jefferson Avenue; shanked punts have been known to bang into the brick classroom rising above the sideline. Walk into the green-and-white locker room and you are met with the charming stench of fully fermented football pads. On the bulletin board you'll find a list of Newman's all-time leaders in passing yards:

    1. Peyton Manning (1990 to 1993) 7,528
    2. Wes Luquette (2006 to 2008) 7,438
    3. Eli Manning (1995 to 1998) 7,421
Trivia fans, take note (Luquette is playing baseball at LSU). Older brother Cooper Manning -- with Peyton on the throwing end -- holds the single-season record for receiving, with 73 receptions and 1,243 yards.

Peyton's leadership, according to Stewart, was evident on the day Stewart was named to succeed Manning as captain.

"I'll never forget the day Peyton walked up, shook my hand and, at 18, took me out to lunch to explain the importance of being the leader," Stewart said. "He was in the middle of being recruited by Tennessee, but thought enough of being a captain to just go out and talk about that."

Every summer, Archie (No. 2 overall draft choice in 1971), Peyton (No. 1 in 1998) and Eli (No. 1 in 2004) gather for the Manning Passing Academy at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La. Peyton's coach at Newman, Tony Reginelli, has been in attendance the past few years.

"He'll want every kid to catch a ball from him," Reginelli said. "I mean, he's sweating bullets out there, working the daylights out of them."

And who is Reginelli, Newman's coach from 1961 to 1993, rooting for in Super Bowl XLIV?

"Peyton sent me all that horse shoe material," Reginelli said. "If I get to Miami, I will definitely wear that. I love the Saints and what they did, but I think maybe when the Super Bowl is here in New Orleans [in 2013], I'll be 110 percent for the Saints."

Archie Manning
Manny Rubio/US PresswireArchie Manning quarterbacked the Saints for 11 seasons, but the team never had a winning record during that span.

Stewart, the current coach, is leaning the other way.

"If there was a way that Peyton could go out on the field and shatter every record, do everything that he could and the New Orleans Saints could come out on top," Stewart said, "it would be a beautiful day."

The Manning family would beg to differ.

"I was excited for New Orleans," Peyton said at last week's Pro Bowl. "It's a special place to me. I enjoyed watching the game, when the French Quarter was empty during the third quarter, then crazy after they won. I certainly felt the emotion.

"[Archie] knows how special this is. He's excited for Drew [Brees] and the players, but I think he's pulling for his son."

Of course he is.

"It's a game I'm going to pull for my son," Archie said after the Colts beat the New York Jets in the AFC Championship Game. "Sean Payton knows that. He's a great fiend of mine. Drew Brees knows that. That's just the way it is.

"Anybody who thinks different must not have children."

Mike Kearney, whose sons played with the Mannings at Newman, is pulling for the Saints -- but that doesn't necessarily mean he's rooting against Archie. The way he sees it, Peyton and Eli each have their own Super Bowl already. This one, he said, is for Archie.

"All of those poor, desperate years are going to be vanquished with this win," Kearney said, sitting in his grand home overlooking Audubon Park in the Uptown section of the city. "It's justice. We owe it to Archie."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.