The Psychology of Archie Manning and Sons

Archie Manning overcame the suicide of his father to raise healthy kids.

Posted Feb 01, 2014

I am very cynical about feel-good sports stories - I always see the hand of some publicity firm or sports agent behind them.

But I don't feel that way about Archie Manning and his family, as depicted in the ESPN special, "The Book of Manning."  (Who knew ESPN could make such great films? -- I've watched this beginning to end three times.)

Archie Manning's own father committed suicide while Archie was home for the summer after his freshman year as a record-shattering quarterback at the University of Mississippi. Much is made of family transmission of traits like abuse, depression, and alcoholism. In fact, the more common story is that children react against negative family characteristics when given a chance to do so.

Archie Manning is such a case. His father never once told him he loved him. Archie's own three sons - two all-Pro quarterbacks, Peyton and Eli, and an oldest son, Cooper, whose football career was derailed by illness - describe how their father hugged them and told then he loved them morning and night.

Archie's wife, homecoming queen Olivia (don't hold that against her), shares Archie's family values. When she says of her husband, "he has a big heart," you don't see the hand of some publicity firm or sports agent behind her words.

Archie's philosophy of child-rearing was NOT to raise great quarterbacks. It was to raise happy, productive, good kids. And, so far as we can tell, he has succeeded.

But those kids are very different - most especially Peyton and Eli, two NFL stars. And one of the humorous aspects of "The Book of Manning" is how evident those differences are from childhood on.

Peyton Manning is intense, burning with desire to succeed. He is one of those people who can say, "I'll never lose because of lack of preparation." That's true of him as a professional quarterback; it was true of him as a kid listening to tapes of his father's college games and acting out every play.

Peyton's career has benefitted - and suffered - from his perfectionism. He is among the greatest quarterbacks in history statistics-wise, but much of his career was marred by his early exits from the playoffs. Going into the 2014 Super Bowl his single SB victory still seems like underperformance when compared with peers like Joe Montana and Tom Brady.

Peyton has had problems dealing with other players since he expects them to be as dedicated as he is. That's not going to happen - even as teammates regularly announce that he has elevated their performance. But most players are not going to arrive at the stadium before 8:00 am on off-days to review game film, and they resent any implication that they should do so. These stressed relationships may have undone Peyton's early playoff efforts.

Unrelenting intensity isn't Eli's problem. Unlike his older brother, Eli achieved remarkable Super Bowl success early in his career, twice defeating the legendary Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and that team's equally legendary coach Bill Belichick.

At the same time, Eli has regularly underperformed with a seemingly nonchalant attitude both before and since these noteworthy victories. Once again, returning to family film, we see an always popular - but strangely opaque - child (as one of his brothers said, "he always had friends around, he didn't even know their names").

Given Archie Manning's own low-key but emotional demeanor, it's funny how different each of his sons are. It's like when identical twins develop divergent personalities in order for each of them to occupy a distinct family and psychological niche. Cooper was class clown and seems to have adjusted well to being deprived of a promising athletic career. Peyton's demeanor seems bound to produce one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, although the same personality sometimes holds him back. Eli has all the talent in the world and his nonchalance at times permits him to perform beyond expectations under the greatest pressure. But it seems that if Eli were suddenly injured and had to spend most of his time antiquing with his wife, he'd be fine.

Best of all, Archie accepts them all as is.

And none of them seems likely to harm himself or others.

Check out Stanton's new book, with Ilse Thompson, Recover! Stop Thinking Like an Addict and Reclaim Your Life with The PERFECT Program.  

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P.S. (February 3): After Peyton Manning's dismal performance in the 2014 Super Bowl, Joe Scarborough, on MSNBC's "Morning Joe," spoke for many when he announced that Peyton Manning was one of the great regular-season quarterbacks, but that he doesn't make any all-time great list of playoff quarterbacks, which rules him out as an all-time great quarterback. Scarborough contrasted him with brother Eli, whose overall statistics are nowhere near Peyton's, but who has emerged victorious in both of his SP appearances.