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Archie Manning’s sons are in the NFL, but his heart is still in the college game

Archie Manning stands between his two greatest NFL achievements. (Getty Images)

In an NFL career that spanned 15 seasons from 1971 through 1984, Archie Manning was the personification of the "great quarterback/bad team" meme. He was the second overall player taken in the 1971 NFL draft out of Mississippi -- Jim Plunkett was the first player taken that year -- and Manning never found the professional redemption Plunkett discovered later in his career. The worst year may have been 1980, when Manning somehow threw for over 3,700 yards and 23 touchdowns to just 20 interceptions on a 1-15 New Orleans Saints team that was one of the worst of all time.

Of course, Manning got his NFL glory through his sons -- Peyton and Eli have a few notable accomplishments among them -- and while the elder Manning has a great deal of pride in their feats, his own football view is most often taken by the college game. He's currently on the board of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame, which led to his involvement in the Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year Award.

"I'm honored to be involved -- it's the seventh year we've had this award, and I think one thing that's special about it is that the award isn't just for how many games you win -- it's really about excellence on and off the field," Manning recently told Shutdown Corner. "Sportsmanship and integrity. Another great thing is that we got some of the smaller schools involved. Liberty Mutual honors four coaches from four different divisions in the NCAA. So, it's just a good way for the fans to support their coaches. We have an evaluation process done by the College Football Hall of Fame -- the people I'm involved with -- and we announce the finalists in December in New York at the Hall of Fame dinner. We announce the winners at the BCS Championship game in South Florida on January 7. The other thing that stands out is that Liberty Mutual is donating $1.5 million dollars through this program, and each one of those four winners will receive $50,000 to their favorite charity, and $20,000 to the Alumni Association."

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The 63-year-old Manning could lay back and relax these days, but the football bug has him for life -- his present schedule is pretty packed.

"Well, let's see. I do a limited amount of broadcasting of college games -- I'll probably do four Saturdays with CBS Sports with the studio show before their national games of the week. Those are done in New York. I do those around New York Giants home games. For the last 20 years, I've been on the board of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame, and I'm currently the chairman of the board. We like to think that we're kind of what's good about college football, because we honor a lot of scholar-athletes. Beyond the All-Americans, we honor the smart and good players.

"I follow it very closely. I really love college football -- I'm from the South, after all."

Like most aware people involved in the NCAA these days, Manning has concerns about the state of the entity, but feels that the best thing he can do is focus on what's good about the game.

"I think it's good," he told me about the condition of college football in general. "Like anything else, we have a hiccup now and then. And the Penn State thing is ... it just tore everybody up. As in pro football, head injuries are an increasing concern, and they're being addressed. You've always got some knuckleheads out there, and it makes bigger news when three players get in trouble than it does when 15 were out doing something good. That's the way that works. All in all, college football's pretty doggone ... people continue to fill stadiums, and there's big television money. Trying to get all the conferences figured out, and we finally got a little change as far as a playoff -- a lot of people sure wanted that. There's always something going on, but overall, I'd say that college football is pretty healthy."

Archie Manning, seen here in 1981, was often under siege in the NFL. (Getty Images)

That big money is a big topic, especially when it comes to the subject of players sharing in the financial rewards of billion-dollar television deals and packed stadiums. Unlike many old-school football guys, Manning has thought about the subject from a more modern view, and can see both sides.

"On one hand, there's a lot of money that goes into the coffers of a college in a big conference," he said. "And when you've got a college player going back to his dorm, and he doesn't have enough money to go out to supper, that doesn't seem right to me. At the same time, I don't know how you do it. We know about the Alabamas and the USCs and the Michigans and those crowds and so forth, but there are hundreds of college programs that aren't making money. They don't have 100,000 people [per game], they have 15,000. And if you give money to the football players, what about the girls' volleyball players? What about the golfers? The baseball teams? I'm just not sure how you'd do it."

But, as I posed to him, the inequity is even more graphic when the football players are the ones bringing in the majority (sometimes the entirety) of a school's athletic profits.

"Yeah, in most cases, they do. Like I said, I'm mixed on that. How much do you want to give them? Is that enough? What happens if ... it's hard.  It's just a really hard question."

Of course, Manning is known best these days as the most successful dad in NFL history -- that tends to happen when your two quarterback sons have combined for three Super Bowl rings and at least one slam-sunk Hall of Fame candidacy. Peyton had always been the alpha dog and Eli the quiet kid, but as Manning told me, there's something to Eli's demeanor that has actually allowed him to fare better than big brother in his biggest moments.

"One thing that's unique about Eli is that he doesn't have much ego," he said. "Sometimes you say, 'Well a quarterback has to have an ego,' and maybe so. But he doesn't go high, he doesn't go low -- he just loves to play.  He doesn't mind work, and he loves playing for the New York Giants, I'll tell you that. I think it would kill him if he had to go play anywhere else. I think he just loves what he does, and he doesn't worry about too much. He kinda just goes to work and handles things. He just takes care of business."

Manning said that last sentence with legitimate and obvious admiration as a father and as a former NFL player himself. It seems, I said, that Eli's competitiveness is undersold because of that seemingly laid-back approach.

"Yeah, I think people really do. He's just not as intense [as Peyton] -- it's more of a smooth level. When people are like that, people do underestimate their competitive fire."

Peyton's intensity was valuable in his comeback from four neck surgeries and a shoulder nerve impingement, and Manning got so see it all up close -- his son's revival from a series of procedures that had most people thinking he'd never play again. How did it feel, I asked, so see Peyton prevail as he did in the Denver Broncos' opening-week victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers?

"Yeah, I think ['prevail' is] the right word," Manning said. "I'm very proud of him. I'm proud of the way he handled that situation, you know? When you're as fortunate as he has been not to get hurt, you're not sure how to deal with it. He didn't like it, but he handled it. He had a good attitude, and it was pretty constant -- another operation, another operation, another operation, and then the big one that was going to knock him out for the whole year. He handled it. He tried to help the Colts, and he just went to work.

"I think he had a good attitude about the outcome no matter what it was. More than anything, he wanted to come back and play and get his health back. But if it hadn't worked out, I think Peyton could have looked over his career and said, 'Hey -- we had a good run in Indy, and let's move along to something else.' So, I'm proud of the way he's dealt with everything, and I'm happy for him. He's off to a good start, and hopefully he can stay healthy and play some more."

Just as Eli's attitude kept things easier in his own head, Manning told me that there were some times early on when Peyton's hyper-focused approach caused him to get in his own way.

"Probably so, yeah. There have probably been a few times where he did that. Now, he's played so long that he knows when to stand down. There are always situations during a football game or during a critical practice where  ... he told me a couple weeks ago that he had been elected team captain. I asked him, 'Aren't most quarterbacks elected captain?' 'Yeah,' he said, 'but I've been chewing a lot of butter around here. I didn't know if I'd get any votes or not.'"

I also had to know -- how does Manning think he'd do in today's game, where the rules favor quarterbacks so much more? How would he do on great teams like his sons have had?

"It's a passing game now. The rules are set up now to help offenses be explosive. You've got some really smart guys on defense, and they do some great stuff, but you've also got smart guys on offense. You've got great athletes running under these footballs. So, it's a passing game, but it's not easy -- it's a fast game, and you have to have a cerebral approach to it. You can't just go out there ... a dumb guy can't play quarterback in this league."

I had to ask again, given Manning's reluctance to focus on himself. "Oh, I don't know," he said with an easy laugh. "You know, I ... shoot. You know what? I don't even think about it much. It's been so long, and I'm glad I got to do it, but I've definitely moved on."

Manning did agree that in a metaphorical sense, he finally got the Super Bowl rings he never had a chance to play for himself through the accomplishments of his children.

"Yeah -- I feel like I've won three of them, and lost one," he said with a smile in his voice. "My wife says, 'If you're gonna go, you need to go ahead and win it.'"

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