Adams: Mannings a treat to SEC's fans

My hairline is receding and my hair is graying, so I hardly need ESPN to remind me how old I am.

Yet there I was this spring in a local hotel ballroom being interviewed by a producer from ESPN Classic. The subject was former University of Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning, the son of a player I once covered.

Peyton is not even 30 and about to become a classic. It makes you wonder if the show will feature Peyton's brother, Eli, before he's 25.

The Peyton Manning biography is scheduled to air this month. That's about 12 years too early for me.

I'm still reflecting on what Archie did.

He made the cover of Sports Illustrated, inspired "The Ballad of Archie Who?," and played the game with such flair and prowess that even opposing fans sang his praises. Archie's college football legacy isn't just about Archie. It's also about Peyton and Eli, the two sons who combined with their father to make the Mannings the first family of college football.

The first family will be missed this fall. For only the second time in 11 years, Archie Manning's family won't be represented by a quarterback on an SEC roster. The family's college career ended in the Cotton Bowl when Eli played his last game for Ole Miss.

The Mannings' college statistics are staggering. They passed for 26,073 yards and 201 touchdowns while winning over NFL scouts as well as fans. Archie was the second player taken in the 1971 NFL draft. Peyton (1998) and Eli (this spring) were the first players drafted.

"We've been blessed," Archie said. "I've always felt very fortunate to have a chance to play SEC football. Then to have two sons accomplish what they did, I'm pretty shocked."

The Mannings didn't just excel in college football. They became legends. It was a matter of talent and timing.

When Archie became the starting quarterback as a sophomore at Ole Miss in 1968, the Rebels were no longer competing for national championships as they did in the late 1950s and early 60s under coach Johnny Vaught. Archie didn't bring back the glory days, but on certain Saturdays he made Ole Miss as good and exciting as any team in the country.

Peyton's place in UT lore was assured before his senior season. By then, he was already an All-American and surefire first-round draft pick. But when he chose to postpone his pro career and return for his senior season, he became the most popular player in UT history.

So much was made of Peyton not beating Florida and not winning the Heisman Trophy, it obscured how much he did win. With him at quarterback, the Vols finished in the top 10 for three consecutive seasons for the first time since 1950-52.

Peyton also turned the Alabama rivalry in UT's favor. After failing to beat Alabama for nine consecutive years, the Vols beat Alabama three consecutive times with Manning at quarterback. Since his freshman season, UT is 8-1 against the Tide.

Peyton finished his career as the SEC's all-time leader in passing yardage. His brother, Eli, is in third place although he didn't start until his sophomore season.

Like his father, Eli succeeded in reviving Ole Miss football. Last year, the Rebels won 10 games for the first time in 32 years and came agonizingly close to winning their first West Division title since the conference began divisional play in 1992.

Before he ever won a game, Eli engendered newfound hope and optimism among Ole Miss fans, many of whom were disheartened, even resentful, when Peyton eschewed his father's alma mater in favor of UT.

"It broke their hearts," said Bo Ball, a longtime friend of Archie's who played for the Rebels from 1958-60. "It broke my momma's heart. They couldn't believe it. But when Eli went there, the whole thing changed."

Although it worked out beautifully, Archie had concerns about Eli going to Ole Miss.

"It scared me a little bit because I thought the expectations would be for Eli to go there and do what Peyton did at Tennessee," Archie said. " But I was proud of him. I thought it was kind of a courageous move for him to go there.

"Now, five years later, he's had a wonderful college experience. And I wouldn't take anything for Peyton's four years at Tennessee. It doesn't get any better than that."

After Peyton went to UT, Archie remained a prominent fundraiser and booster for Ole Miss. With Eli at quarterback, Archie was back in the stands, as the television cameras invariably pointed out the last few years.

"He could have sat in a luxury box," Ball said. "But he likes to be with the people."

The people watching at home could see Eli on the field and Archie in the stands. The next day, they could see Peyton playing as well as any quarterback in the NFL.

For those old enough to remember Archie as a player, it was a classic sports weekend.

John Adams may be reached at 865-342-6284 or adamsj@knews.com.

© 2004 govolsxtra.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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