On Tuesday, ESPN Films' SEC Storied series kicked off its third season with The Book of Manning, an introspective and illuminating film on the most illustrious football family.
Directed by Rory Karpf and narrated by John Goodman, the story hinges on patriarch Archie Manning's ability to achieve a vibrant football career and affectionately raise his three sons, despite his youth and maturation having been explosively interrupted by the tragic self-inflicted death of his own father.
Father-and-son relationships are hardly revolutionary when it comes to sports stories. But there is something profoundly moving and, above all, natural about the way in which this particular film is delivered. It also reminds us that any unabridged tale of the Manning family would be powerful too.
Looped into Goodman's narrative are present-day interviews with friends and family, still photographs from Archie's album, warm backyard-football moments, broadcast footage and home videos of his sons' games.
Karpf maintains a patient yet fluid pace, showing us, for example, a photo of Archie in his college uniform before transitioning to an interview from 2013 with the former Ole Miss chancellor telling us (via transcription from SECdigitalnetwork.com), "Archie…he put on a show. He just did. He ran everywhere, he threw everywhere. When a fella starts out to the right and gets boxed and turns back to the left and then throws it back to the right, that gets your attention."
Archie's college footage, somewhat strangely, resembles another scrambling quarterback who currently plays for the Texas A&M Aggies, and who often eludes pressure from sideline to sideline before chucking the ball downfield—Johnny Manziel.
In another instance, we hear 2013 Peyton's thick drawl, discussing family and the NFL, and we think about his dedication and the time he spends in the film room studying the game.
Then Karpf shows us a teenage Peyton running and diving for tosses from Archie in the front yard, complaining every time the ball falls to the lawn, demanding that he actually throw him a real one—he means a perfect one.
Everything begins to make sense in The Book of Manning; we watch how their mythic tale was seamlessly sewn together. We are in the classroom of the film's history, venturing through a sort of time-travel for a royal family.
There is a certain genuineness and feeling to any family's home videos. It is comforting, nostalgic and eerie all at once to look oneself in the mirror of one's youth—to think how did I become me today? If a family has fallen apart, it is even more peculiar to watch the unity of a family from decades past. If it is going strong, like the Mannings, it is that much more captivating.
To be granted such intimate glimpses into a family that included and raised multiple NFL stars and Super Bowl champions is unparalleled. But the point is, in the end, this is more about family than anything else.
I feel honored and a privileged that Archie Manning has entrusted me to tell his story...We expected to make a film about football's most famous family, but instead made a film simply about family. Making The Book of Manning has been one of the most educational and enriching experiences in my career.
We learn how Mississippian Archie met his wife, Olivia, at Ole Miss, how the couple grew closer after the death of his father, how they settled in New Orleans when he became the Saints quarterback and how they decided to start a family in Louisiana.
We are frozen by the details of the turning point in Archie's life, and the impact it would have on his future as a father, when he returned home from summer school before his junior year. He made it to the doorstep prior to his mother and sister returning home, but he had already found his father after having shot himself to death.
As we are told from Archie, his wife and other lifelong friends, his father did not show him affection or adoration. As was common in other households of the era, Archie and his father never embraced, and the young football star never heard "I love you."
He explains how it was his father's absence that became most difficult in marching to his most prolific years as the Ole Miss quarterback and, later, a 14-year NFL career (via SECdigitalnetwork.com):
You know I thought about him a lot. How much he would have enjoyed that. We had some huge wins, some exciting games, and probably the best year I ever had in football – the fall of 1969. You know I wish he could have seen that…missing my dad, that was pretty tough.
Poetically, then, when Archie's children were born, he made sure to capture every moment—and not just in person, but with a video camera and through photographs that he compiled into the Manning album from every major moment in their lives.
We see tiny Manning boys in football jerseys, pads and helmets. We get private cliff notes to Peyton and older brother Cooper's relationship progress from tumultuous bullying in the backyard to the triumphant understanding between freshman quarterback and senior wide receiver in high school.
Cooper, an All-State wideout, then wearing No. 18 to honor his father, had followed his dreams and Archie's footsteps to Ole Miss. But before he plays a single practice, the family learns of a spinal condition that tragically finishes Cooper's career prematurely.
We get a photo of a ghostly Cooper in the hospital when we understand his life has permanently changed, and we witness a tearful Cooper interviewed in the present day, his bottom lip quivering as he says it isn't the game he misses the most—it's the camaraderie, "the boys," the bus rides home.
But this family always raises each other up—it is the theme of the film. We watch the archival high school football footage of Peyton, who switched his No. 14 out for No. 18 and promised to fulfill Cooper's dream through his own career from then on out.
There is even video of Cooper returning to his high school bleachers, looking sickly, yet standing up to cheer for his younger brother. It is an incredible family and their moments on camera are often surreal.
Somewhere in this story comes Eli, who is described as comfortable in his own skin, but quiet and neither here nor there. We see him awkwardly dance in his bedroom pajamas, sit silently at his own birthday party and dominate an assortment of athletic events as a child.
Of course, Archie captured and encouraged all of Eli's competitions, even if it was unclear whether his son was planning to become serious about football or not. Eli explains (per SECdigitalnetwork.com):
We [Eli, Peyton and Cooper] loved sports; that’s what we loved to do. We loved being outside, we loved running around. So whatever sport was in season, I wanted to play it. All my flag football games growing up, he [Archie] always had a video camera. You know, whatever we chose, he wanted us to go all-out.
Despite "living in his own world," Eli decides to play at Ole Miss. But the kid thought to be the second-coming of his beloved father is arrested for pubic intoxication before his first season, raising some difficult questions for his head coach.
He is asked just exactly how he envisioned his future: Did he plan to be another college player, a good quarterback, a great leader, the best of all time?
Eli decides on the last option. He dedicates himself at Ole Miss and goes on to break about half of his own father's quarterback records before joining Peyton in the NFL.
Through everything there is one constant: Family.
There is so much video of Archie in the stands—celebrating, hiding under a hat, listening to the live radio call, biting his nails and pursing his lips—that we begin to doubt if he ever missed a second of one of his sons' games.
When we see Archie and Olivia in the suites at MetLife Stadium or Sports Authority Field, it all makes sense.
And we are reminded that Archie was not a football-crazed father. He did not encourage his sons to play football; he did not set them on one path. Remember, Peyton went to rival Tennessee over Ole Miss.
For Archie it is purely humbling that his sons did not just play their father's game, but that they have become two of the faces of the NFL. Archie reflects on the recent successes of Eli and Peyton and on how his relationship with them always trumped the importance of anything else (per SECdigitalnetwork.com):
I mean for them to be number one picks in the draft? Win Super Bowls, MVP? Yeah we pinch ourselves. We [Olivia and Archie] just tried to raise kids. We tried to raise good kids and have a good family. I don’t like the perception that it was a plan. You know that I was an NFL quarterback for a while and then I’ve got these boys and I’m going to mold them into being NFL quarterbacks. Not so. You can do that and they can be an NFL quarterback. I’m not sure you’re going to have a great father-son relationship. That’s what I wanted.
Simply put, this film is a poignant must-see—whether you are a football fan, a "Manning Face" enthusiast or just someone who is appreciative of a compellingly told sports and family story.
Peyton and Eli Today
The 2012 NFL season ended abruptly for Eli Manning and inauspiciously for brother Peyton Manning. On Dec. 30, 2012 Eli's Super Bowl-defending New York Giants blasted the Philadelphia Eagles, 42-7, but had played their last game of the season, finishing 9-7 and missing both the NFC East crown and wild-card berth by one game.
On Jan. 12, 2013 Peyton's Super Bowl-bound Denver Broncos were ousted from the divisional round of the playoffs in double overtime, having just clinched home-field advantage after a 13-3 season.
When Feb. 2013 hit, Peyton was honored as the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year. By April, the brothers Manning conducted part of their offseason preparations at Duke University under the direction of head coach David Cutcliffe, who was the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach while Peyton played for Tennessee and, later, the head coach for Eli at Ole Miss.
In May, Peyton shot a 77 at Augusta National that included a hole-in-one—yes, you read that correctly; no, he isn't just a gridiron guru. In June, about a week following mandatory minicamp, Eli's second child, Lucy Thomas was born.
In July, camp counselor/college coach Johnny Manziel controversially exited the Manning Passing Academy. Just a month later Peyton, Eli and Archie captured the public psyche by proclaiming the emergence of "Football on Your Phone."
Through three weeks of the 2013 NFL season, Peyton and the Broncos have played machine-like while Eli and the Giants have struggled, sputtered and spun out.
Peyton has completed 73 percent of his passes for 1,143 yards, 12 touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 134.7—each of which ranks first in the NFL. Eli's line reads: 58.8 percent (23rd), 931 yards (6th), eight interceptions (1st) and a 70.5 rating (27th). The Broncos are 3-0; the Giants are 0-3.
Whether you are a fantasy football owner, a Broncos fan or a Giants fan, it is difficult to get away from Peyton and Eli's on-field lives. We are obviously nearing the quarter-mark of the 2013 NFL season and trends are appearing, amazing us and disappointing us.
Peyton is heading for a historic season's end and Eli, well, it is difficult to tell—just like his self in the film. The chasm between the brother's starts this season is too palpable to ignore.
Every time Jon Gruden is on a Broncos broadcast, you wonder if he is actually obsessed with Peyton; you wonder whether he would keep lionizing the quarterback as a superiorly intelligent-and-able god among common players if we didn't cut to commercial break.
You wonder if there is anything else that could be spat at Eli, anything more negative and character-damaging or any other voice to condemn his existence on an injury-plagued and underperforming team.
If nothing else, this film offers a brief respite and provides a supreme understanding of what should go down as the most important family in football, if not all of sports.
It is well-told, well-directed and beautifully presented. It will definitely stick with you for the next day or two, and it will make you stop and think next time you see one of the Manning brothers in action.