January 26, 2013
A Saint in His City: Archie Manning in New Orleans
By SAM BORDEN
NEW ORLEANS — In 1971, when Archie Manning arrived in New Orleans to quarterback the Saints, he quickly became a spokesman for a local Chevrolet dealer and was given a shiny red Corvette. With little hesitation, he began whizzing around town in his new sports car. He was 22. He was an athlete. He was giddy.
He was also, as it turned out, not particularly adept at judging distances. The problem with the Corvette was that its hood was elongated, stretching “like 10 feet out in front of the windshield,” he said.
One day, while approaching a stop sign, he slammed into the car in front of him. The man in the other car threw open his door, clearly not happy.
But then, abruptly, the man stopped. He stood, peering into the Corvette. And then he smiled. “Hey, Arch!” he called out, and then screamed, “Go Saints!” Then the man got back in his car and drove away.
Sitting on his couch this month while recalling the story, Manning laughed. “Yep,” he said. “That was pretty much the beginning.”
The beginning of Manning’s stardom, yes, but even more the beginning of a love, an affection, a relationship between a family and a city. There is, to be sure, widespread disappointment that neither Peyton nor Eli Manning will be playing in the Super Bowl next Sunday, but that does not mean there will not be a Manning quarterback drawing cheers and signing autographs and shaking hands all week.
Archie, perhaps the most famous New Orleans quarterback of all, is here. He always has been.
“He’s the first citizen of this city, that’s the only way I can say it,” James Carville, the political consultant and New Orleans resident, said in an interview. “He’s the one.”
The city’s abiding love for Archie Manning is not complicated. New Orleanians embrace him because he passed here and ran here, but also because he stayed here. He was the quarterback for the Saints from 1971 to 1982, a sharp-jawed, redheaded constant in a period of perpetual coaching changes, unstable executive structure and, most memorably, an incredible run of really, really bad football.
As the losses piled up, seemingly everyone left the organization at one point or another, except Archie. He stayed for the 2-12 team in 1975 and the 3-11 team in 1977. He saw 2-11-1 in 1972 and 1-15 in 1980. Then he saw three boys grow up. Then he saw Hurricane Katrina. Then he saw the recovery.
“He had every reason to leave,” Carville said. “He could have. But he didn’t.”
The Journey From Mississippi
Technically, the Mannings are transplants. Archie was born in the Delta, in Drew, Miss., and his wife, Olivia, is from Philadelphia, Miss., about 140 miles southeast of Drew. New Orleans is also not the only city to claim the Mannings as local royalty. In Oxford, Miss., where Archie and Eli both starred at quarterback for Mississippi, the speed limit on campus is 18 miles an hour — in honor of Archie’s jersey number — and the speed limit on Manning Way, the road around the football stadium, is 10 m.p.h. — in honor of Eli’s.
Given those connections, it is hardly surprising that Archie and Olivia initially planned to return to Mississippi. “That was always our intention,” Archie said. “It was just going to be temporary here.”
Mississippi was in their blood. The Mannings met at Ole Miss, and married during their senior year. They moved to Louisiana after Archie was selected second over all in the 1971 N.F.L. draft.
When Olivia came to New Orleans to look at houses, she did not cast a wide net. She looked in Metairie, and only Metairie, because that was the one area that she or Archie had heard anything about. “It’s where the Saints trained,” Archie said. “So that’s where we lived.”
Their first apartment — “they called it a penthouse because we had a patio,” Archie said — was memorable because it was not far from Drago’s, a restaurant where charbroiled oysters are said to have been invented. Listening from the kitchen while Archie lovingly recalled the oysters, Olivia called out, “You’re really going down memory lane now, aren’t you?” A moment later though, she added, “They were really very good.”
It did not take long for the Mannings to become attached to New Orleans. During his rookie minicamp, Archie went with several other players to the old Municipal Auditorium to see the local middleweight boxer Tony Licata. The players went out afterward, and the next morning, Saints Coach J. D. Roberts sat them down before practice. “Now listen,” Manning recalled Roberts saying gravely. “You know you’re not going to be making a habit of going down there, right?”
Generally, Archie did not. But it was difficult to ignore the allure of New Orleans, particularly because the players were generally treated well. After the Saints upset Los Angeles in Archie’s first game, a large group retired to the French Quarter for a long dinner at the Rib Room. He says he is not quite sure where they went next, but there is a good chance the famed bar Pat O’Brien’s was involved.
“It wasn’t like people ever go to bed early around here,” Archie said laughing, and it did not take long for him and Olivia to fall in love with the overflowing options for art and music and the sort of food that makes the back of your tongue tingle. Near the top of their list was the barbecue shrimp at Pascal’s Manale restaurant, and the Mannings would gladly wait the 90 minutes it often took to get in there.
“Except on Sunday night,” Archie said. “On Sunday night, after games, we got right in. On Wednesday, we waited like everyone else.”
The only thing wrong was the football. This was not altogether unfamiliar territory — Manning is one of the most celebrated college players even though Ole Miss was only 15-7 over his last two seasons — yet the Saints’ play sank to particularly pungent depths.
The Saints lost — a lot — and Archie never played on a team with a winning record. He also was hit — a lot — being sacked 340 times during his Saints career. It got so bad that fans often referred to the team as the Aints and wore bags on their heads at games. The Manning family nadir came when Olivia looked around during one particularly loud cavalcade of boos and realized that her oldest son, Cooper, then about 7 and sitting next to her, was joining the chorus.
“Yeah, I did it,” Cooper said. “I booed. Everyone else was doing it and you know, it’s a copycat league.”
He laughed and said, “I mean, 1-15 is 1-15!” Despite Archie’s being pummeled on a near-weekly basis, he and Olivia were becoming more attached to their new home. When Peyton was born in 1976, joining Cooper, who had arrived two years earlier, the Mannings discussed moving to a larger house. For a moment, they considered another place in the suburbs. Then, Olivia said to Archie, “There’s a million suburbs — there’s only one Uptown,” and the family ended up buying a charming camelback cottage on Seventh Street in the neighborhood.
There, Peyton and Cooper shared a room upstairs that had originally been the master bedroom where they wrestled, played knee-high football and even created their own version of indoor tennis that featured “some of the longest points ever,” Cooper recalled, because the ball was soft and squishy like a balloon.
The family became embedded in New Orleans. The children played in Audubon Park. Archie loved running on St. Charles Avenue. On special occasions, the family might go to Ruth’s Chris for dinner; on most Saturdays, they went for the messy po’boy sandwiches and Barq’s root beers at the famed Domilise’s.
Even when Archie was traded to Houston in 1982, he essentially commuted, flying to New Orleans — “On Southwest, it was only $29!” he said — whenever he could. Sometimes, Olivia put Cooper or Peyton on a flight to go see their father play, and Archie had Oliver Luck, the father of the current Colts quarterback Andrew Luck but then just a rookie quarterback with the Oilers, take care of them. Often, after quarterback meetings were finished, Oliver took Peyton to McDonald’s. Then after the game, Archie would put his sons on a plane back home.
It was not ideal, but the family did not want to leave New Orleans. In 1984, after Archie had been traded to the Minnesota Vikings in the middle of the previous season, the family rented a house in Minnetonka. One morning in November, they woke to find several feet of snow covering the backyard.
Olivia seemed unimpressed. She kept staring at a tiny pond that was in the back. “Where are all the ducks?” she said. “It’s cold, so I guess they flew south,” Archie answered with a shrug.
Olivia nodded. “They went south?” she said. “Well, so am I.”
That off-season, the Mannings returned to New Orleans for good.
By the time Archie retired, Eli, who was born in 1981, was 4 and the family had moved into what would become known around New Orleans as “the Manning house.” Sitting in the middle of the Garden District, it is a historic home and remains a frequent stop on tours of the area. It has high ceilings, pretty flowers in the yard, a swimming pool and a view from the backyard of another stately New Orleans house that was once home to the musician Trent Reznor and is currently occupied by the actor John Goodman.
When the three Manning boys were young, though, their home was mostly a place for sports. Most memorably for the boys, there was a game they called ’Mazing Catches — “No ‘a,’ ” Cooper said — which involved Archie standing on the porch and firing passes that were just out in front of the boys as they ran across the lawn. “If it was a little wet and you could dive and slide, that was the big play,” Eli said. “We were probably a little spoiled having a professional quarterback throwing to us.”
Even though Archie was no longer playing, his popularity did not wane. He had moved into broadcasting, working as a game analyst on the Saints’ radio network and serving as a spokesman for several companies. Eli said he did not remember a time when his father did not have people coming up to him asking for autographs.
“As a kid, it was just something that happened,” Eli said. “That was just what my dad did. It was normal, like — O.K., so, should I go up and ask my friends’ dads for their autographs, too?”
When it came to sports, Archie’s general philosophy was to avoid being overbearing, and so he rarely coached his sons’ teams and, if he did, it was usually as an assistant. There was one time, though, when he was a head coach because there were not enough other fathers who volunteered.
“It was basketball, and Peyton was little,” Archie said, shaking his head. “There was a draft; there were tryouts for all the kids and then the coaches put the teams together. But I couldn’t go to the tryout, so at the draft, I just drafted all my friends’ kids because I thought that would be nice for everyone to play together.”
“Well, we were terrible,” he said. “We were very bad. And Peyton got really mad at me. ‘Why did you draft these guys? What’s wrong with you?’ He was really competitive. And so that’s when I quit being a head coach.”
A Proud Host
Archie smiled as he reminisced about his sons growing up in New Orleans. The boys embraced the city, too, he said: Eli, the baby of the family, was known to sometimes go antiquing with his mother and as they got older, all three began stopping in at Domilise’s for po’boys on their own. Sometimes, Eli would even work a little for Miss Dot, the woman who ran the place. Even now, decades later, Peyton was mortified when Cooper texted him this season to inform him that there were no photographs on the wall of Peyton in a Denver Broncos uniform. “They’re in the mail right now,” he texted back almost immediately.
“I think we all saw how much the city meant to our parents,” Eli said. “And there is no doubt that it translated to us. New Orleans is a part of us.”
The family has spread over the years. Peyton went to Tennessee for college, then lived in Indianapolis and now Denver. Eli lives in New Jersey and keeps a place in Oxford for downtime during the off-season. After Hurricane Katrina, however, they immediately returned to New Orleans, teaming with the Red Cross to bring food and clothes and supplies to those affected by the storm.
Their family house, where Archie and Olivia still live, escaped with only minor damage, though Cooper, who works as an energy trader, did have to deal with more significant repairs to his family’s home.
In the years since the storm, Archie said, he and Olivia never considered leaving. “How could we?” he said, and he has reveled in seeing his grandchildren play on the same lawn where his sons did. Each summer, he and the boys run the Manning Passing Academy for aspiring quarterbacks and he has watched with pride as his adopted city has risen again. This week, as the city is overrun with football, Archie says he expects to be busy making appearances and signing autographs, and checking in on the way things are going at Manning’s, the restaurant he owns downtown.
Carville even joked that if N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell is looking for someone to protect him from all the angry Saints fans still furious over the discipline he imposed after the bounty scandal, all Goodell needs to do is walk around town with Archie.
“That’s one way to stay safe,” Carville said, laughing. “Personal bodyguard, guaranteed.”
Archie, of course, would be happy to do it. “We need to be good hosts,” he said earnestly, before rattling off the previous nine Super Bowls that have been played in New Orleans. He concluded, “The city is perfect for games like this.”
Then he leaned back on the couch and began listing what he loves about New Orleans. The World War II museum. The energy. The food. The people. On and on he went.
“It’s home,” he said finally, and he smiled. No, a Manning quarterback is not playing in the Super Bowl next Sunday, but that does not mean one is not here. The most famous Manning quarterback in New Orleans has always been the one who never left.
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