Sharing the spotlight

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

MIAMI – On a perfect South Beach night, standing on the curb outside the legendary Joe's Stone Crab, Archie Manning was looking for a cab.

Everyone else was looking for a moment with him, the 57-year old unlikely rock star of the Super Bowl.

Here came the strangers, just as they have all week. Here came the handshakes, the arms thrown on his shoulder, the whispers into his ear.

"We're pulling for you, Arch," says one older man. "Really pulling for you."

Manning just smiled. It's like this all day, all night here.

The former Pro Bowl quarterback now has a Pro Bowl quarterback son playing Sunday in the Super Bowl – the pinnacle reached for the family business. And it is not so much that much of America is pulling for them as it is that much of America feels part of the family.

These are the Mannings, the most approachable, likeable, down to earth, rich and famous clan you'll ever find.

So no one thinks twice to stop by Archie and Olivia Manning's table at Joe's. Or stopping him on the street and calling him "Arch." Or asking about how Eli is handling Peyton's success, like they are a genuinely concerned long-time family friend.

"Thanks," Archie keeps telling everyone. "It's really exciting."

Archie Manning was a Heisman finalist and sporting icon in his native Mississippi and then a two-time Pro Bowler with the Saints. But he never lost his everyman appeal; he never came off as bigger or better than anyone.

Maybe it is the Southern drawl or the manners. Maybe it is the genuine charm. Or maybe it's because Manning became a hero despite never experiencing a winning season, best known for being such a good player stuck with such a bad franchise. In 10 years he took countless beatings and never led the Saints to a winning record but in 1978 was voted NFL Offensive Player of Year anyway, just for getting his team to 8-8.

He and Olivia had three sons – Cooper, Peyton and Eli, the latter two now big-time NFL QBs. It's Peyton's Indianapolis Colts who face the Chicago Bears here in Super Bowl XLI on Sunday.

For the Mannings, this Super Bowl, this chance at the prize, has been a long, long time coming.

"We're happy," Archie said. "As [Peyton] said we're trying to enjoy the journey. It is wonderful to be able to experience things with your family. We've got our whole family down here.

"Hopefully they'll finish it off. But we just feel blessed and grateful to be here to sort of share the experience."

Archie Manning has always displayed an appealing humility. The way he carries himself is genteel. He has enough of a presence that when he walks into a room, even a crowded joint such as Joe's, heads turn. But it is so understated.

When fans approach it isn't so much for an autograph – he seems to sign fewer than other stars – but for a word of conversation, a moment of his time. They don't put him on a pedestal; they pull him into a hug.

Half the questions are from people wondering how he and Olivia managed to raise all those fine boys.

"What I did," explained Archie on the parenting success, "was 36 years ago I married a wonderful gal. People know that when children turn out pretty good mothers get the credit for that. We've been blessed with three wonderful boys who have given us a lot of joy. Certainly Eli and Peyton with their football accomplishments. We're proud of Cooper [who played college ball] with all that he has done. He's got the grandchildren, we're real proud of that.

"We're lucky folks."

It seems so simple. It seems so easy.

Archie laughs off much of the football talk. He's quick to point out that Peyton has enjoyed far more success than he ever did. "One thing I [know is] I'm not the one to give Peyton advice on a Super Bowl. I didn't get close to it."

He gets so nervous now that he often can't sit still and watch the games, so he paces the concourse at stadiums. And he chuckles when he watches Olivia cringe at every sack Peyton and Eli take.

"I kid her, 'I don't remember you being all that concerned about me.' And (she says), 'well these are my little boys out there now.'"

This, somehow, seems like your neighbor, your friend, your family. Or, perhaps, someone you wish was your neighbor, your friend, your family.

Archie was talking Wednesday about a family vacation, the kind any family could have to the beach. Peyton wasn't even four years old, but had gone off with a family friend for a few hours and as the afternoon drew late, wasn't back. His parents were suddenly worried sick.

Only, because this is the Mannings, it was Waikiki Beach, the Pro Bowl and the friend was Walter Payton.

"Peyton was supposed to be back at 5 o'clock and he wasn't back," Archie said. "He was kind of missing and you've got a big, ole ocean out there.

"Walter had Peyton out on a catamaran. I love Walter. I wasn't worried about Peyton being with Walter. I was just worried about Walter being able to operate a catamaran."

Archie laughs at it now. There aren't any catamarans where Walter grew up in Southern Mississippi.

"I knew he was from Columbia, Mississippi. I didn't know where Walter would have learned to operate a catamaran."

Of course, Walter Payton could do almost anything.

"He got him back," Archie smiled softly. "So I was grateful for that."

Grateful for everything, really, here as the big game, the big day at last for America's Football Father, much of the country pulling for him like he is one of their own.

What to Read Next