Finishing First, At Last | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Finishing First, At Last

One of the rules of modern sports, according to the oft-cited Seinfeldism, is that fans "root for laundry" rather than the ever-changing identities that occupy their team at any given moment. Largely, this is true, but in Mississippi, we still care about blood, too.

I'm often reminded of this by local enthusiasm for any of the Manning children—in the TV news, The Clarion-Ledger, my own family. I was reminded again of its scope last week, in the midst of attempting to ignore the impending Saints-less championship, when a bystander told someone on the other end of his cell phone, "Well, it's disappointing the Saints lost … but how great is it to have a Manning in the Super Bowl?"

It didn't strike me as particularly great. The Manning connection, frankly, has always seemed like an ordinary story, not manufactured but definitely over-hyped nostalgia run amok by many degrees over many years through many, many outlets. In reality, there was only one Mississippian on either of Sunday's Super Bowl rosters, backup Bear guard Terrance Metcalf of Clarksdale and later Ole Miss. Nobody talked much about him. Peyton, the native Louisianan, grew up in a major city with Anne Rice and Trent Reznor in the neighborhood, played his college ball at Tennessee and has taken every snap of his pro career in a city that—other than its team's nominal division, the AFC South—is of unabashedly northern geography.

Yet when CBS' reliably cheesy pre-game show brought forth old home movies of Peyton dancing a tango in middle school, Peyton running around with a football in the yard with his brothers, Peyton on the Superdome floor, predicting his NFL future 20 years before the fact, hearts surely melted from DeSoto to Delisle. And when Peyton hoisted the Vince Lombardi Trophy after the Colts' 29-17 win, something only one Mississippi quarterback—Brett Favre—has ever done, it's a reliable guess more than a few folks in these parts felt he'd done it for them, too.

Such is the sentimental lure of the elder Manning, still, more than three and a half decades after the floppy-haired Ole Miss star took his last competitive snap on native soil, that his seed ipso facto is one of our own. It's significant to Archie's enduring popularity in this state that he remained near enough to home as a pro, and played well enough, even through a sack-filled decade of the saddest efforts in the Saints' sad history. It's his heroics at Ole Miss, though, upon which his status as the sort of godfather of Mississippi football is based.

Archie was clearly an amazing player at Ole Miss, earning the state's highest-ever finish in a Heisman Trophy campaign (he was second in 1970 to Stanford's Jim Plunkett) and being picked second by New Orleans in the 1971 NFL Draft (behind, again, Plunkett), but his teams weren't particularly great, no better than the just-OK units his son Eli would later highlight. Even some of his greatest performances—most notably a one-man, 540-yard, three-touchdown virtuoso effort at powerhouse Alabama in 1969—came in defeat. Not many schools change the speed limit on campus to match the number (18, like Peyton's with the Colts) of a quarterback whose team went 15-7 over his final two regular seasons and didn't bring in an SEC title.

Maybe that's part of the charm, and part of what Peyton accomplished Sunday, beyond exorcising his personal championship demons. To the values-craving citizen, the Mannings represent with no hint of hypocrisy the prototype of an ideal clan: talented, good-looking (well, depending on taste), exceedingly well-mannered, fresh-scrubbed and scandal-free. These are the kind of guys who stay in school all four years for the sake of their school and their education. Yet they are also losers. Were losers.

Neither Archie nor Eli won the SEC title at Ole Miss, and both fell short of the Heisman. On his final play of the Rebels' bid to upset LSU for the SEC West crown in 2003, Eli tripped coming out from under center. Peyton's final Tennessee team did claim the SEC at last, but not without suffering its fourth consecutive defeat to rival Florida, a ghost Peyton never conquered. Just as in the NFL he couldn't conquer the pressure of the playoffs, where his Colts were eventually felled in each of their six appearances. Twice in the playoffs and again in a 2004 regular-season showdown this occurred at the hands of the Patriots.

So it was nice for Peyton's reputation that he captured a title in the slop, an unprecedented mudder of a Super Bowl that theoretically favored the hardy Chicagoans over a pass-first "dome team." But as his coach, Tony Dungy, stood on the championship podium and extolled the virtues of winning with churchy patience in place of stereotypical frothing, followed by Manning himself accepting the MVP award with team-first platitude, it was even nicer for all those schmucks who actually still believed in the nice guy.

Belhaven resident Matt Hinton writes the college football blog "Sunday Morning Quarterback." E-mail him at [e-mail missing].

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