Twenty years ago, Peyton Manning was named the Gatorade high school football player of the year, putting a second generation of Manning football stars into the national spotlight and casting former Mississippi and New Orleans Saints quarterback Archie Manning into a role that would end up becoming his primary definition: the doting father.
Since then, Archie Manning's sons have produced three Super Bowl rings, 15 Pro Bowl appearances and seven grandchildren. It's the latter achievement that inspired the 64-year-old patriarch to participate in The Book of Manning, a documentary debuting on ESPN Tuesday that details how his upbringing and experiences shaped how he chose to raise his talented three sons.
"Dad initially did some stuff and then decided he just didn't want to do it and put it on hold," eldest son Cooper Manning told For The Win. "(Filmmaker) Rory (Karpf) almost had a heart attack when he found that out but then my mother was really the driver to get dad back and say 'let's pursue it.' I think she felt that their grandchildren needed to see a side of him and some of the details they wouldn't see otherwise. My mom is to blame for reigniting the whole project."
Viewers owe a debt of gratitude to Olivia Manning as well. While nearly every aspect of the family's history had seemingly been revealed in television profiles and print feature stories over the past two decades, The Book of Manning utilizes a trove of Manning home movies to give a insider's look at how both Peyton and Eli's on-field personalities were shaped.
There's a scene where three-year-old Peyton screams at Cooper after what he felt was a particularly dirty hit. For a minute, the viewer actually can envision the progression of that face into a 37-year-old man in a Denver Broncos jersey hollering at teammates or referees.
While the childhood footage provides some nostalgic levity, the film also goes a little deeper into some of the family's darker times, including the suicide of Archie Manning's father when he was a 19-year-old star quarterback at Ole Miss and the life-threatening spinal condition that ended Cooper Manning's collegiate career.
"Historically I haven't really talked about that a lot," Cooper Manning said. "Rory caught me on a weak day. We had talked for a long time during that interview session and he got to me a little bit. I've always tried to downplay the whole surgery and injury and just wanted to get back to normal. This was the one time I guess you got the full scoop."
Cooper Manning plays as central a role in the film as his famous younger brothers, with his retelling of his decision to "play through Peyton" after his injury, a pivotal plot point, even as he breaks down discussing how much he missed the camaraderie of participating in the game afterward. Now 39, the father of three seems to relish his role as the supportive older sibling.
"I'm just a proud brother and I just adore watching them play football," Cooper Manning said. "It's far less about me and is more about me being proud of them and loving them and being a part of it. I often wonder what my Sundays are going to be like when they're no longer playing. I really appreciate the times right now."
The eldest brother said he usually makes it to about two of each younger brother's home games per season and then tries to get to all of the playoff games if scheduling permits. He laughed about the graphic shown during Week 2's "Manning Bowl," which compared his siblings' skills in various recreational sports.
"It was like ping-pong, pool," Cooper Manning said. "It's basically stuff neither one of them are very good at."
While Peyton's son Marshall is only 2, Cooper's two sons have gotten started on the one activity the family is very good at. Nine-year-old Arch and 7-year-old Heid (daughter May is 10), have been replicating their dad and uncles when it comes to staging epic games in the backyard of their Louisiana home.
"I'm reliving my dad's life," Cooper Manning said. "We're doing the same things. Pickup games, throwing amazing catches. They're playing flag football and I'm out there filming it. I'm trying to use my dad's fatherly advice as a template how not to screw up my kids."