[25 September 2013]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“Football always takes some funny turns.”
“I wasn’t necessarily trying to expose them to it, I just wanted to spend time with my kids.” Even before you’ve seen SEC Storied: The Book of Manning, you know Archie Manning is an awesome dad. You’ve heard it from everyone who’s ever talked about hi, his friends and colleagues, his wife Olivia, and his three sons too. So when he explains why he brought his young boys to practice when he was quarterbacking for the New Orleans Saints during the 1970s, you understand he was doing the best he could to be a very present father.
It’s an admirable effort in any context, but as Book of Manning—airing this week on ESPN—reminds you more than once, it has special meanings for the Mannings. Certainly, the sons, Cooper, Peyton, and Eli, are all remarkable sons—and fathers too, as far as you can tell, given their (also admirable) efforts to keep their family lives out of public spotlights. Further, Archie’s loss of his father Buddy to suicide has shaped his sense of how important a present father might be. Just 19 at the time, and on his way to college in just a few weeks, Archie says now, and briefly, that Buddy, who worked at a farm equipment store in Drew, Mississippi, was depressed by his struggles to support the family (Archie’s mother and his older sister Pam). The film doesn’t explore these circumstances, but instead allows them to frame the Mannings’ story going forward, as all the fathers and sons focus on the effects of having a dad and also, wanting to make that dad proud.
Each male member of the family has a “chapter” in the book, according to Rory Karpf’s documentary. As these chapters fit the focus of ESPN’s SEC series—each Manning male played for a college in the Southeastern Conference, Archie, Cooper, and Eli for Ole Miss and Peyton for Tennessee—they’re structured carefully, without much information or commentary beyond this focus. You might wish you heard more from and about Olivia, maybe details about her role as a Manning, but the film keeps focused on the boys’ chapters.
These are both news and not. While you’re likely aware of Peyton and Eli’s current standings (Peyton’s on track for a record-smashing season at Denver, the Giants are 0-3, with Eli taking some serious beatings), and maybe even that their dad, respected as he was, never did lead the Saints to a winning season despite his selection to the Pro Bowl in 1978 and ‘79.
What you might not recall is this film’s primary revelation, in footage of Archie playing for the Rebels. During the first nationally televised college game ever, Ole Miss versus Alabama in 1969, he threw for 436 yards and three touchdowns, and rushed for 104 yards. Watching Archie Manning scampering and sprinting down the field, bouncing off tacklers and finding the end zone is a helpful reminder that the read option is not a new invention, exactly, and that football players have long been innovating and exploiting unusual “skill sets.” It probably won’t surprise you to hear that Archie was a committed student and hard worker, that he spent long hours perfecting his game. As his teammate Skipper Jernigan puts it, “Archie Super-Manning is what they called him.”
Just so, in 1969, the year when Olivia was Homecoming Queen at Ole Miss and Archie was in the Heisman Trophy hunt, he broke his left, non-throwing arm. It seemed another tragedy, but Manning played three weeks later against LSU. Bradley Farris, identified as “A fan in attendance,” describes the scene this way: “What grit does this guy have? What type of tough guy is this? You know, you sit around, you lay around. This guy was playing a football game with a broken arm!” That Farris appears later in the film, re-identified as Peyton’s Youth Football Coach, is a nice bit of structural choreography, underlining Archie’s lasting impression—and maybe his inspiration to Farris to stop “sitting around.”
Though he was also a great baseball player (and drafted by four MLB teams), Manning went on to the Saints, where, Olivia remembers, “It was difficult week after week to lose those games.” Saints receiver Danny Abramowicz adds, “He was taking such beatings” on the field, then repeatedly came back to the huddle ready to go, and “he never complained.” He played for the team 11 years, under seven coaches.
However his Saints career is remembered, there’s no doubt Archie inspired his boys. While Cooper’s congenital spinal condition ended his first season at Ole Miss, he and Peyton appear in Book of Manning in some more revelatory footage, home movies of the five- and three-year-old brothers playing football in the back yard. Both remark little Peyton’s intensity, as well as his tendency to be what Cooper calls a “sore loser,” demonstrated here when the child scrunches up his face and turns to their camera-wielding dad with a bruised arm and tears. Lucky for Peyton, Eli was born in 1981 and the two older brothers took what Cooper calls “great pleasure in trying to make him cry, because he never cried.” The home movies serve as evidence that the boys’ attitudes and behaviors have carried over into their adulthoods: the brothers then and the brothers now look and sound much the same, which is to say, much like their father.