Archie Manning should have known better, and his middle son, Peyton, was reminding him why. The rookie quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts had just thrown three interceptions in his losing 1998 debut against Miami, and the camera had caught the old man acting the part of a Little League father treating his son’s start like Game 7 of the World Series.
Maybe Archie was already starting to suspect the football gods had cursed him again. He was a college football star at Ole Miss and No. 2 overall pick in the draft who went 35-101-3 as an NFL starter — 35-101-3!! — and who took a pounding while never reaching the playoffs with his sad-sack Saints. And here was his golden child Peyton, who didn’t win the Heisman or the national championship at Tennessee, opening his career as the No. 1 overall pick in the draft with a 24-15 defeat and those three lousy picks.
Maybe as he sat in the stands that day, Archie Manning was thinking, “Here we go again.” Either way, he recalled by phone, “The TV made a pretty big deal out of me when Peyton threw those interceptions.” The father thinks he might’ve been wincing, shaking his head, recoiling from the sight of it all. “Whatever it was I did, wincing or whatever, Peyton made me aware of it that night,” Archie said. “He didn’t like it. He didn’t like anything about how he played in his first game or about how he lost.
“But he pretty much told me, ‘It’s bad enough out there, and I don’t need to see you reacting like that.’ I learned a little lesson there. I never acted that way again.”
Of course, on the day Peyton Manning retired in Denver with his parents and family in attendance, it’s worth noting that he rarely gave his father another opportunity to act like a disappointed stage dad. In the colors of the Colts and Denver Broncos, Peyton threw for more passing yards and for more touchdowns than any quarterback dead or alive. He won a record five league MVP awards, and last month he became the oldest starter to win a Super Bowl, and the only quarterback to win one for different franchises.
Manning retired with a share of the all-time record of 186 regular-season victories, also held by Brett Favre. “But it was that one win he had out of the bullpen this year,” Archie said, “that I’ll remember the most.”
Peyton had been a broken athlete in his final season with the Broncos, losing his footing to injury, his fastball to the natural forces of age, and his job to a younger, stronger, more athletic Brock Osweiler. Manning’s family was sure he had taken his final NFL snap against Kansas City in November — he’d thrown four interceptions and 15 incompletions in 20 attempts before getting benched — but somehow Osweiler lost his way and Peyton’s foot improved and, suddenly, his mother, Olivia, was turning to a distracted Archie during that regular-season finale against San Diego and said, “Hey, I think Peyton’s warming up.”
“No,” Archie responded.
Yes. Gary Kubiak put ol’ No. 18 back in there for Osweiler, and sure enough Manning game-managed the Broncos to the No. 1 seed in the AFC. “I think that’s one of the top three wins Peyton’s ever had,” Archie said. “That’s the difference between a 1-seed and a 5-seed. We just never thought Peyton would get the job back because Brock was playing well, and we didn’t think Peyton would ever get healthy enough to get another chance. But he got one off the bench against San Diego. Von Miller isn’t the MVP of the Super Bowl and isn’t on ‘Dancing With the Stars’ if we don’t pull that game off.”
Manning would throw two touchdown passes against New England to win the conference title, and then show his wear and tear against Carolina in the Super Bowl while his defense carried him the way he’d carried so many units and teams for years. When it was over, Olivia said it was time to retire. Archie said nine out of every 10 texts he received came from friends who advised that Peyton should call it a career.
But as their son deliberated in the weeks after Super Bowl 50, neither mother nor father tried to make the choice for him. “Peyton’s almost 40 years old,” Archie said. “He’s been making big decisions for a long time now. We had him home last weekend, which was great, and we did talk about it, but we didn’t try to really influence him.
“I think the injury thing really affected Peyton so much. You take away the four neck surgeries that made him miss a year, and Peyton went through junior high, high school, four years at Tennessee, and 13 years with the Colts without missing any time. But what he went through with his foot this year was so frustrating. I had a guy tell me once that this game is a lot of fun until you’re hurt, and then when you’re hurt, it’s no fun at all. That’s so true.”
For all intents and purposes, Manning should have retired after those four neck surgeries cost him the 2011 season, and his job with the Colts.
“We went down to the gym one day at Newman,” Archie said of Isidore Newman High in New Orleans, where Peyton and brother Eli starred as quarterbacks, and where brother Cooper starred as a receiver. “There must’ve been bad weather, and this is right after Peyton was cleared by the doctors to start throwing. He could only throw the ball 10 yards, and yet his will was strong and he was so determined while throwing it 10 yards.
“If anybody saw him before his surgery and then after, they knew when he got to Denver his arm strength was maybe 80 or 85 percent of what it was in Indianapolis. A lot of people said this year Peyton couldn’t throw anymore, but he could never throw in Denver like he threw with the Colts. Those poor passes you saw this year were the result of injury, not because his arm was totally gone.”
Perhaps the most staggering of Manning’s accomplishments was the record 55-touchdown, 5,477-yard season he put together in 2013, only two years removed from the surgeries that had his parents wondering if he’d be able to live a normal life again, never mind play another down of professional football.
He was beaten up that year by the Seattle defense in his first Super Bowl as a Bronco, and then rescued by his own defense in his second. Manning won ring No. 2 at Cam Newton‘s expense, and when it was clear Denver couldn’t really bring him back, took some time to decide what to do. The Houston Texans badly wanted the Broncos to trade him their way last year, according to a source, but things had changed. Manning wasn’t the same player anymore. He was one year older and one ring richer, and he was ready to say goodbye. “Peyton’s at peace with this,” Archie said. “I texted about 75 people right after he made his decision to retire, and I got unbelievable responses back from so many friends that we treasure. People love Peyton and they like this story, even though some of our friends are mad about all the stuff over the last few weeks.”
That stuff would include the Al Jazeera report that human growth hormone was shipped from an anti-aging clinic to Manning’s home, addressed to his wife Ashley; the quarterback called the report and the suggestion that he used HGH “garbage.” It would also include the renewed coverage of a 1996 incident at Tennessee, where a female athletic trainer, Jamie Naughright, alleged that the quarterback had dropped his exposed genitals on her head and face; Manning claimed that didn’t happen, that he only “mooned” a male athlete who was present in the training room.
On the Al Jazeera report, Archie Manning said, “You hate to go through that. One thing you learn from all this, it’s a different world today and journalism is different than what it was. … Peyton was really upset about it, and very mad Ashley was brought into it.”
Though Archie said he couldn’t discuss details of the Tennessee case, he did address the impact of the back-to-back hits on his son’s image. “It certainly wasn’t fun,” he said. “We felt for Peyton. But he’s a tough guy, just like in his football career, and he takes things head on. He handles things. … You don’t have to like something, but he is strong, and he’s been a really good person his whole life. I know more than anyone the good he’s done for people in his life, and he doesn’t do it for publicity.”
Archie Manning didn’t want to defend his son in his final hours as an active NFL player. He preferred to talk about the good times in Indy and Denver, and the calming effect Tony Dungy had on the high-strung quarterback. Dungy’s mission, Archie said, was to teach Peyton that it was OK to punt.
The father also wanted to talk about the way his son looked at an opponent. “Peyton really likes Tom Brady, really admires him,” Archie said. “But Peyton would get more excited about his matchup with Ray Lewis, or John Lynch, or Ed Reed. That’s who he was competing against. Peyton was going against Bill Belichick in his mind, not Tom Brady.”
Peyton changed the game in the process, turned the NFL into a pass-crazed sport. “Oh my gosh,” his father said, “he was a lot better than I ever was. The only thing I could do better than Peyton was run.”
Peyton Manning retired Monday with a winning percentage a bit better than his old man’s historically bad 26.3. That’s OK. Once embarrassed by his own reaction to his son’s big league debut in 1998, Archie is proud that he kept his promise to young Peyton to never again play the fool for the cameras.
He couldn’t bear to watch sometimes, and he did pace nervously away from the action when the stakes were especially high. But Archie Manning stood still long enough to watch his middle son become one of the all-time greats, a reward long overdue for a damn good quarterback who went 35-101-3.