Manning Up

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There are juicy angles galore to Super Bowl XLIV. For the first time in 16 years, the top seeds from each conference will be playing for the Lombardi Trophy. For the second straight season, we have a team making its Super Bowl debut more than 40 years after the inaugural event. The New Orleans Saints will be the ninth different NFC representative in nine years and will try to become just the third NFC team in 10 years to win the championship.

But my favorite is the father-son angle. It may be the most obvious, but from the view of one son (and father), the connection Archie and Peyton Manning will have this Sunday will be the element I remember, regardless of the outcome.

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My first football hero was Roger Staubach, the quarterback who played in four Super Bowls -- and won two -- with the Dallas Cowboys in the 1970s. He was a comic-book hero come to life, leading late-game comebacks against the evil Redskins and Giants, and with a star on his helmet, no less. But I heard for years -- from my dad -- that if circumstances had been different, and Archie Manning had been wearing that silver helmet for 11 years instead of the gold of his New Orleans Saints, it would be a Manning poster I had on my bedroom wall.

After achieving cult status as a college quarterback at Ole Miss, Archie spent 11 years leading a Saints franchise best known for the paper bags its fans would start wearing by early October, one season after the next. The best club he quarterbacked was the 1979 Saints, and they went 8-8. Remarkably, Archie reached two Pro Bowls as the quarterback of a team that went a combined 15-17. He remains the Saints’ alltime passing leader (21,734 yards), though his record as a starter for New Orleans was a turn-your-head-away 35-91-3.

Archie’s second son, Peyton, was born in March 1976, a blessed year for the elder Manning in more ways than one. (He had to sit out the season with an injury as the Saints went 4-10 behind Bobby Douglass.) By the time Peyton was old enough to care, Archie had been traded to Houston, and later Minnesota, though the Manning family continued to call the French Quarter in the Big Easy their home. For Archie’s kids, the Saints were always the home team.

Cut to the present, and Peyton is the Hall-of-Fame-bound, four-time MVP, leading his Indianapolis Colts to Miami. He’ll try to become the 11th quarterback to win two Super Bowls. To do so, he’ll have to beat, of course, the New Orleans Saints, everybody’s second-favorite team since Hurricane Katrina all but destroyed the city in 2005.

My dad didn’t live to see the Saints finally reach the Super Bowl. But he lived long enough to recognize that Peyton is a superior quarterback, one better than his father, and better than most men ever to have tossed the pigskin. Dad would love Archie’s view on things this week. As quoted in the February 1st issue of Sports Illustrated, Archie eliminated any doubts over where his heart would be come Super Sunday: “I’m rooting for my son.”

Which makes this angle so poignant. Imagine the millions of fathers (and sons, and daughters) who will be watching this Sunday, picking a team to cheer for, looking for the latest hero on football’s biggest stage. Some will don blue and white and hope for a second Colt championship over the last four years. Many others will find some black in their closet and scream “Who dat!” every time the Saints so much as gain a first down.

But every last father watching Super Bowl XLIV will have a moment when he imagines his own son -- and yes, even his own daughter -- playing in so grand an arena. And he’ll know how he’d be rooting. For one Sunday, at the end of one football season, every father will feel much like the great Archie Manning.

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