There’s a moment during the segment of The Book Of Manning devoted to Archie Manning’s rise to college football prominence that clearly defines how narrow a lens the documentary takes on one slice of football history. As Archie continues to have success on the field, one of the talking heads notes that in Mississippi, with the low literacy rate and high obesity rate, the people needed an example of excellence like Archie Manning. And then there’s a glancing reference to the history of racial turmoil in the state as it relates to college football—previously documented in the tepid 30 For 30 entry Ghosts Of Ole Miss. But this is not a documentary about the Manning family in the larger context of football history, the racial breakdown of successful professional quarterbacks, or how prejudice seemed to exist everywhere in the south except for the gridiron. The Book Of Manning is a family photo album in documentary form, stringing together the careers of Archie, Cooper, Petyon, and Eli Manning to show the effect a strong-willed and loving father can have on his children.
It’s a salutatory address about a Mississippi boy who worked hard labor growing up, persevered his way into college, won a starting job as the quarterback on a football team, and then became more significant as an ever-present and loving father instead of as a professional athlete. As observed somewhere around the midpoint of the documentary, it is rare for a professional athlete to prioritize family over sport, and through the sappy and saccharine reverence (and horrifically staged re-enactment scenes) for three gifted football players and one with tragically unrealized potential, the story of that family bond shines through. And perhaps most powerfully, it’s a tribute to the significance of unquestioning parental support during adolescence.
To this day I don’t understand how anyone could hate the Mannings. They’re just so damn good-natured. Archie is clearly a religious man, and imbued his sons with similar convictions, but though The Book Of Manning intones a religious significance, it’s not preachy about values. It’s just curious about how Archie arrived at his own peace. His origin story—as tenderly narrated by John Goodman—goes back to a small town in Mississippi, with a distant father Archie yearned to be closer to through football. It’s hard to think of the Manning family enduring any kind of hardship now, after so much financial and on-field success. But the documentary packs some emotionally potent interview material when flashing back to Archie’s playing career. On the cusp of his junior season at Ole Miss, coming off his debut varsity season that captured national attention, Manning’s father’s suicide sent ripples throughout the rest of Archie’s life.
As has been discussed at length in other places, the tendency to pick over one crystallizing event that informs all subsequent decisions can be simplistic and tiresome. But Archie himself comes back to that formative event often, and still seems driven to be an ever-present family patriarch because he lacked that kind of paternal presence and guidance. When he had kids, he made it his priority to be there to see them grow up, to be vocal about his love for them, but not to be the domineering professional athlete father shepherding his kids into the same field. His father was troubled and distant, and though Archie tried to forge a better connection through football, his father never got to watch and enjoy the successes at Ole Miss, the records, the fervor over his son as a star player in the sport he respected so much. It’s a personal tragedy, and one that pained Archie so deeply that it seems he eschewed striving for personal professional success—though at that time in the NFL it wasn’t exactly his choice to simply jump to a better team—in favor of raising a tight-knit family that would never go wanting for fatherly affection.
As a guy who played a lot of sports growing up with a father who made it to every possible soccer game no matter the location, that got me. My connection to my own father through his presence at athletic events has meant the world to me, and though it’s a very personal and limited kind of closeness, that aspect of The Book Of Manning transcended some of the tawdry production values and liberal use of emotional strings on the soundtrack.
Watching old game film of an emerging star never ceases to amaze me, and what stands out so plainly about Archie is his running talent, which far surpassed his looping, rather lame-duck throwing trajectory. And his free-form scampers are breathtaking to behold, outmaneuvering defenses to cobble together a wide-ranging run or an improvised pass. Which makes it so fascinating that his sons inherited his love of football without the particular strain of agility that could double back on a gang of pursuing defenders to strafe back across the field for a miraculous positive gain. Peyton Manning is one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game, but he’s always been a stable pocket passer. So far this season he gets the ball out of his hands in less than three seconds. He reads defenses, infamously calls audibles at the line—a meticulous student of the game with technical precision and serious intensity. Archie played with none of that grueling formal mastery. The much-maligned Eli splits the difference, neither the gifted runner nor the mechanically minded passer, more of a pressure-cooker specialist thriving on high-intensity scenarios to perform his best.
Which leaves out Cooper Manning, the eldest son, and another fascinating wrinkle in the family history. If not for a rare spinal condition, Cooper could have started a trend of 10 consecutive years of Manning brothers on the Ole Miss roster. The documentary doesn’t linger for very long on this topic, treating it as a tragic dead end that could have continued, but it rests long enough to emphasize how lucky Cooper was to recover from his condition and not suffer a catastrophic injury while playing football. The brief highlights from a high school season of Peyton and Cooper playing together on varsity together forms an unforgettably happy memory, and it reinforces the message that familial love—even amid constant sibling squabbling—is more important to Archie Manning’s family than on-field success. The Book Of Manning wisely sticks mostly to college football—where little slices of regional pride subdivide further than professional fan bases—addressing each of Archie’s sons as they grow up, instead of the tiresome professional parallel that has dogged Eli and Peyton since they started playing opposite each other in the NFL.
Focusing on the college game does excise certain moments of discomfort. Though Archie looks like a benevolent patriarch here, the documentary glosses over perhaps the most petty moment in his career: the 2004 NFL Draft, when Eli (and his father) publicly stated he would refuse to play if selected first by the San Diego Chargers. That decision makes it very easy to frame Archie a hypocrite, since he took his spot with New Orleans and played for years to endear himself to the city despite never posting a winning season. In seemingly a lifetime of making the big decisions the right way—giving Peyton the freedom to choose the University Of Tennessee, dealing with Eli’s arrest for public intoxication as a freshman at Ole Miss—it’s the rare moment where privilege bumps honor to the backseat. Imagine if RGIII or Michael Vick had refused to be selected by their respective teams like John Elway and Eli Manning did.
But as a co-production for ESPN SEC-centric documentary series, a family portrait of Archie Manning and his two Hall Of Fame quarterback sons, The Book Of Manning is mostly a heartwarming and justifiably narrow story of how a workmanlike quarterback and rare star Ole Miss player took the lessons of his youth and transferred them into fatherhood, which turned out supremely beneficial for Peyton and Eli. Though the family is ubiquitous in commercials throughout the country—this SportsCenter ad and Football Cops are my favorites—I’ve never found any of them annoying, and seeing a family highlight reel made for an adequately entertaining television documentary.
- The Mississippi dialect pronunciation of football as “footbaowl” will always make me laugh.
- The guy right now in college football who most resembles the eldest Manning in playing style and in equal measure lacks for similar personal character: Johnny Manziel.
- Olivia Manning gets a fair amount of screen time, but mostly to offer passing details. I still hold out hope that one or more of the Manning granddaughters will have some kind of major athletic success to even the scales.