by Patrick Trotti
I’ve never seen my favorite football player take one snap. Never saw him drop back and throw a ball in a live game. Only black and white photos and press clippings. Word of mouth and stories passed down was my version of the back of the card stats. And for a while that was good enough for me. But as I grew up I longed for more. I wanted to know more about my favorite player. My father played quarterback in high school and college in the 1970’s. He played at Siena College, a small school near Albany, N.Y. whose claim to fame in recent years was three straight berths in the NCAA College Basketball Tournament, including upsets over Ohio State and Vanderbilt in consecutive years. He was, by all accounts, a great player. He led his high school team to an undefeated season, the last one in school history, as a Junior, winning the Section Championship. He was a multi-year starter in college. His talents forced his coach to revamp his offensive playbook, to open it up more in an era when three yards and a cloud of dust was more than just a catch phrase. I had no footage of him though, no highlight reels to confirm these stories, to animate these still shots I had of him. When I told him about the ESPN Manning documentary, “The Book of Manning,” his eyes lit up like a child. He rushed home from work, getting in more than two hours earlier than he usually did. And my father is nothing if not a creature of habit, a man of schedule and routine.
Last week ESPN debuted another film in their SEC Storied series with “The Book Of Manning.” Being a big football fan, I was curious to watch it. Having grown up as a big New England Patriots fan Peyton Manning is, and always will be, an Indianapolis Colt. He was a worthy opponent and one of, if not the best quarterback of his generation. Having said that, I always viewed him as the talented one, the prodigy blessed with God-given talents that my beloved Tom Brady just didn’t have. Until he won a championship, his only one so far, he was the Dan Marino to my Joe Montana. Things were proper, it all made sense. My guy may didn’t have the arm strength of Manning but he was the clutch one, had the hardware, that “it” factor that every sports analyst tries to quantify and every General Manager tries to find. “The Book Of Manning” did for me something that I thought impossible; it gave me a more nuanced respect for Peyton and Eli, despite the later defeating the Patriots in two Super Bowl’s. But this isn’t about Peyton or Eli, or even Cooper (the oldest Manning son whose own promising college career was cut short by a devastating injury. It isn’t even about Tom Brady and my Patriots. It’s about the old man, the original Manning, and the legend that he created in the Deep South well before my time.
We sat there, volume turned to the max, watching the show preceding it for about half an hour as if we might miss some special coming attraction. The first half of the documentary focused on the elder Manning. Watching my hero watch, mouth agape, his childhood idol was an event in and of itself. My dad had always told me how good Archie was. Last year when Johnny Manziel ran rough shot through the SEC, taking the country by storm and winning a Heisman trophy, my dad would occasionally throw out Archie’s name as a reminder that Johnny Football wasn’t the first. I took his word for it, but like most things told from a father to a son I just chalked it up to my father yearning for the good old days, trying to protect his piece of history. Sort of like your older family members beginning a story with the “back in my day” line. A funny thing happened as the documentary continued, my father’s words came true. All of those musings about Archie while we watched the newest dual threat college quarterback of the moment show glimpses of talent weren’t exaggerations. In fact, he might have even downplayed it.
The footage of Archie scrambling around the dusty fields, pivoting and twirling twenty yards into the backfield before throwing off his back foot, unbalanced, for a thirty yard completion was amazing. It was like witnessing an original, an artist at work. In one clip he was blowing by defenders like Fran Tarkenton and then in the next clip he was dropping missiles to receivers fifty yards downfield never making them break stride. During the first commercial dad put it on mute and turned to me. He began to talk of his childhood, how he had Archie’s photo, the same one that flashed across the screen during a brief montage of Archie’s growing fame at the University of Mississippi, tacked up on his bedroom wall. He calmly spoke of seeing Archie play on television, battling to try to take his group of misfits and outplay the more talented powers of the time like Alabama. The legendary performance in 1969 against Alabama, where he completed 33 of 52 passes for 436 yards and two touchdowns and also ran 15 times for 104 yards and three touchdowns, made me realize how foolish I’d been in not listening to my dad’s proclamations of Archie’s greatness before. It was the first 300-yard passing, 100 yard rushing performance in a major college game. Before BYU, Houston, and Texas Tech put up video game like numbers Archie did, and he did it against Bear Bryant. Archie’s legend came to be in the late sixties while my dad was just about to enter high school. He told me that he even patterned much of his game off of Archie.
As the movie continued, showing Archie’s legend cemented in history and him become a talented, but losing, quarterback in the NFL my dad moved up in his seat, nodding his head every so often. The second commercial came but this time there was silence. He didn’t need to say anything. The best moments, for me, of the documentary was the home footage of the young Manning’s playing backyard football with each other, roughing themselves up like brothers’ do and then complaining to a watchful Archie. I started to remember those times when I was a kid asking to see my dad’s his stuff from his playing days. His college jersey, big enough to be a dress on me at the time, the offers from a little known college coach at West Virginia named Bobby Bowden and the then dismal University of Miami, letters from smaller school legends from upstate New York, two of whom are now in the College Football Hall of Fame. At the time it didn’t matter what he showed me because he was my dad and I idolized him. But now as the movie came back on those memories came rushing back, taking on a new dimension. By the time the movie faded away from Archie shifting to Peyton and then Eli I was in my own mind recounting other moments from my childhood. Like the time when a guy stopped my dad at the local McDonald’s, ear to ear smile on his face talking him up about the good old days. I couldn’t have been more than six years old at the time. The man, who was a little older than my father, turned and knelt down and told me, “Your father had the best arm I’ve ever seen. If you have his ability you’ll be an All-American.” He rubbed my head, messing up my hair, the way adults do when talking to young boys. We went inside and I ordered a happy meal. Halfway through my french fries I asked him if he was an All-American. My dad laughed and simply said no. He didn’t have to tell me how great he’d been; others did it for him. The blurbs in the New York Times mentioning their high school scores, the pictures showing 5,000 people at a high school game, the articles (one in particular stood out, saying he went 12-15 for 150 yards and 2 touchdowns) extolling his leadership qualities and arm strength, it was all surreal to me as a boy.
I expected to watch a documentary about football but what I got was a meditation on fatherhood and becoming a man. Throughout the show Archie talked about the lingering effect of his own father’s suicide when he was a teen and how that molded him into the father he was. How, even when he was an NFL star, his most important, and fulfilling, job was a parent and that he never once pushed his boys into football. Both Peyton and Eli got their talents for throwing the football from their father, no doubt, but what they spoke of the most as baby-faced prep stars and burgeoning college All-Americans was becoming as good a man as him and how that was the real important thing.
Looking back on my childhood, my dreams of playing sports in college, my victories and defeats in high school, I suspect that a small part of me was simply trying to be like my dad, to make him proud. To be honest I never played football in high school because of my dad. His presence was too large, the pressure too big. I knew I would never be the quarterback my father was and that was okay. He never pressured me into playing sports but he gave me his full support when I decided to pursue baseball and basketball. And even though I never played college sports, mainly because of injuries and bad grades, I hope that I turn out to become half the man my dad is. That, I suspect, was the entire point of the documentary, Archie providing his boys with the childhood he never had. I would’ve loved to fulfill my own dreams and play college basketball (I had half a dozen offers from small schools) but playing catch with my dad in the backyard and talking about life was more fulfilling, more worthwhile and life affirming than any college game could ever be.
Nowadays I ask him about certain games, having to pry the information out of him at first. I’d sit back and listen to a story about how a busted running play turned into an eighty-yard touchdown run by him as he scampered around the left tackle and down the sideline. I watch his eyes light up when he watches quarterback competitions and the winner throws sixty yards and he just laughs, secure in the knowledge that he could, in his prime, chuck an eighty yard spiral and still to this day (in his late fifties) throw it sixty yards without a problem. My dad was a great football player but, just like Archie Manning, he was an even better man and father. “The Book Of Manning” started out as a football story but quickly moved into a touching story about family, legacies, and lessons learned and passed on.
Any fan of football should watch “The Book Of Manning.” It’s a beautiful tribute to the enduring charm of college football. I turned off the television and went to bed thinking about how amazing it would’ve been to grow up in the Manning household but then, also because of the movie, I realized that I’ve got my own personal Archie in my house and that’s what I’m most thankful for.