By: Ron Higgins
SEC Digital Network
If you’ve never been to an NFL draft in New York City at Radio City Music Hall, which starts a three-day run Thursday night, then put it on your sports bucket list.
It’s definitely a show, “like Hollywood,” LSU football coach Les Miles said to me a couple of hours before last year’s draft as we sat there marveling at the lights, the set and the general three-ring circus atmosphere.
The entire NFL draft process has become an entity. It starts with all-star games, such as the Senior Bowl in Mobile. NFL staffs coach the teams, and scouts and agents line the field at daily practices.
The first day of Senior Bowl week is the most awkward. Players strip to their underwear and are weighed and measured before a ballroom full of NFL scouts and front office personnel. Each player’s height and weight is announced as they step off the scale.
After the all-star games, possible draftees are sent by their agents to sunny locales to train for three months. The only breaks players get away from training are trekking to the NFL combine (if invited) in Indianapolis in February, to Pro Day at their schools, to private workouts for scouts and for trips to various franchises for interviews and physicals.
Along the way, everything is analyzed and scrutinized by a number of media outlets that have employed former NFL scouts, coaches and players.
The NFL Network televises the combine, started by former Cowboys general manager and president Tex Schramm in 1982 in Tampa. Apparently, there are draft junkies who want to watch prospects run 40-yard dashes and bench press 225 pounds as many times as possible.
But it wasn’t always this way, which is why I called Archie Manning, to give me perspective as he almost always does.
His qualifications: Third in 1970 Heisman Trophy voting and fourth in 1969 as probably the most beloved athlete in Ole Miss history; married Olivia, the Ole Miss Homecoming Queen (and she still looks like one); No. 2 overall choice in the 1971 NFL draft by the New Orleans Saints where he became the most beloved athlete ever in the Crescent City; played there in his first 12 of his 14 years in the league as a scrambling quarterback often with non-existent pass protection, being named the NFC’s Offensive Player of the Year in 1978.
Upon retirement, Archie became an astute businessman and community leader, and father to three highly successful sons, two of them (Peyton and Eli) who are Super Bowl winning quarterbacks, multi-millionaires and household names from Paris, Texas, to Paris, France.
Archie’s final qualification is he’s the most unpretentious icon I’ve ever met. So I knew he’d pull no punches when I asked him to compare his NFL draft process back in ’71 to that of Peyton in ’98 (drafted No. 1 overall by the Indianapolis Colts) and Eli in ’04 (drafted No. 1 overall by San Diego, traded to New York Giants on draft day).
In Archie’s case, the draft, which was held Jan. 28, 1971, wasn’t the most important thing on his calendar.
He played in his final college game as a senior in the Gator Bowl on Jan. 2 and then played in the Hula Bowl in Honolulu, returning to Oxford to take exams.
“And then Olivia and I were married on Jan. 21,” Archie recalls. “We had planned to get married between semesters. We got married one week before the draft, went on our honeymoon to Acapulco and got back on the night of the 27th.”
So what about pre-draft workouts?
“I remember a Raiders’ scout coming in December before we started bowl practice,” Archie says. “I still had a cast on my left arm, which I broke against Houston. I played against LSU (a 61-17 loss in the last regular season game) and in the Gator Bowl (a 35-28 loss to Auburn) wearing the cast.
“This Raiders’ scout just wanted to watch me throw a bit while he talked to me. It wasn’t anything big.”
But what about pre-draft interviews with teams, so they get to know everything about a prospect?
“Henry Lee Parker, the Saints’ director of player personnel, was at my Gator Bowl game,” Archie remembers. “He had been an assistant at Mississippi State. He was the recruiting coordinator who tried to recruit me to go there when I was coming out of (Drew, Miss.) high school.
“I saw him in the airport the day after the Gator Bowl when I was getting ready to fly to Hawaii for the Hula Bowl. I talked to him for a few minutes. He said the Saints might be interested in me, but didn’t know what would happen.
“That was pretty much the extent of my interview process.”
It’s NFL protocol these days to project who will be drafted early, bring them to New York at least a couple of days before the draft and stage organized community service projects designed to promote the league.
The night before Archie was drafted, he and Olivia were moving into an old apartment in Oxford.
“We were scrubbing floors,” Archie says. “I got a call from Billy Gates, the Ole Miss’ sports information director, telling me I needed to be at his office 9 o’clock the next morning, because that’s what time the draft started.
“I’d grown up knowing mostly college football. I honestly hadn’t looked too much at pro football. College was such a whirlwind for me. Billy Gates told me New England had the first pick, New Orleans had the second and Houston had the third. He said all three had called and said to be ready.”
The next morning, Archie was in Gates’ office when the phone rang about 9:15. The Saints called and said they had drafted him.
“I talked to their general manager (Vic Swain), their owner (John Mecom, Jr.) and their head coach (J.D. Roberts),” Archie says. “It was about a two-minute conversation.
“I didn’t know much about the Saints other than they’d been in operation about four years. But of the teams at the top that had a chance to pick me, I was like `Why not New Orleans?’ ”
Archie hung up the phone, and Gates ushered in an Associated Press photographer to snap picture.
“I had a 10 o’clock class, so I went to it,” Archie says. “I may have even worked out later that day.”
What about press conferences? Or the Saints flying Archie to New Orleans for celebratory introduction to the masses, like NFL teams do these days?
“I went to New Orleans probably about 10 days later,” Archie recalls.
But what about mini-camps, which now come almost on the heels on the draft?
“I was still trying to finish school,” Archie says. “I went down to New Orleans in May for a quarterback camp. I did go to New Orleans to make a few speeches, because I could make a little money for the first time doing that.
“I went back in early summer for informal workouts, but not many players lived in New Orleans. And the ones that did had off-season jobs.”
Aside from Archie changing his jersey number from his Ole Miss No. 18 to No. 8 for the Saints – “The Saints had a veteran safety Hugo Hollas, a great guy, who already had No. 18 and I was glad to let him keep it,” Archie says – Archie’s draft process was about as casual as someone hailing a taxi.
It wasn’t that way with Peyton and Eli. In fact, it was crazy, and made even wackier because of the speculation by the media swarm, something that Archie didn’t have to deal with back in his day.
Peyton, the University of Tennessee’s all-American QB, had taken the stance that he wanted to know before he went to New York for the draft whether the Colts were going to select him No. 1 overall.
“I was in the Nashville giving a speech staying at the Marriott the day or so (April 16) before the draft,” Archie says. “This happened to be the day an F3 tornado went through downtown Nashville. They called off my speech, so I’m in my hotel when Peyton calls.
“He says, `I’m not getting on the plane and going to New York until I know something from the Colts. I’m not playing that game.’ He asks me to call the Colts.”
Peyton shouldn’t have been surprised when Archie replies, `Peyton, that’s not what I do.’ ” Yet Peyton did persuade his dad to call then-Colts’ coach Jim Mora, and Archie did it because Mora was a close friend.
The Colts eventually told Peyton the day before the draft that he was their man, and there was a happy ending.
In the days leading to Eli’s draft in ’04, Eli, Ole Miss' All-SEC QB, publicly said that he didn’t want to play for San Diego, which held the top pick. During a DirecTV promotional event (one of Peyton’s endorsements) in New York two days before the draft, Archie had to answer question after question about Eli’s stance.
“Everybody was grilling me,” Archie says. “I told myself, `I’m his father. I can get through this.’ The next day, Eli had to appear. I told him, `Eli, I’ve done my part. You can answer the questions today.’ ”
Eli and Eli’s agent Tom Condon had previously asked Archie to make some fact-finding calls about the state of the San Diego franchise. Just before draft week, then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue asked Archie to talk to the Chargers. The Chargers invited Archie to visit, which he did and later regretted.
From all of that, some media began lambasting Archie, portraying him as a meddling Little League father.
But anybody who has ever coached a Manning, as well as the three Manning sons themselves, have attested to me through the years that Archie has always been the complete opposite of an overbearing parent.
“Dad always sat in the top row when we played in high school,” Peyton told me a few years ago. “He never yelled at a referee. There’s no question that he had more football knowledge than all the coaches I had in high school, but he never second-guessed playcalling. He enjoyed watching his sons play.”
Archie also never prodded them to play.
“The only thing he ever said was, `If you go out for a team, if you start something, you’re not allowed to quit,’ ” said oldest Manning brother Cooper, whose athletic career ended after high school because of a narrowing of his spinal cord.
“He’d say, `If you want to play college football, I can tell you what it takes to get there. It takes being the first one at practice, the last one to leave and a lot of time in between. But I’m not going to get you out of bed to workout or run. That’s up to you.’ ”
Eli told me because Archie had such storied college and pro careers that he never had to the urge to push his sons.
“You see a lot of dads live their football careers through their sons,” Eli said. “My dad already lived out his football career. He never forced us to do anything, but he’s always done what we asked. If we asked him to go outside and catch 20 passes, he’d do it in a heartbeat.”
Duke coach David Cutcliffe, who coached Peyton as Tennessee’s offensive coordinator and Eli as Ole Miss’ head coach, said he learned quickly that Archie was a hands-off father.
“After we signed Peyton, I went to his house in New Orleans to give him a playbook so he could get a headstart learning it,” Cutcliffe told me. “I’m going over plays and I look over at Archie. He’s asleep in his chair, taking a little nap.
“Through the years, I learned parental lessons from Archie. He always supported his kids through the tough times, and through the good times he was there to keep their feet on the ground.”
Archie knows there will be many nervous parents the next few days. They’ve seen their sons chase the NFL dream for a long time, and the day is finally at hand.
“It’s all pretty amazing,” says an amazing man, the Patriarch of the First Family of SEC football.