The Forgotten Manning
by Sam Monson
The Manning family has now become NFL royalty. This Sunday, former fan favourite QB of the New Orleans Saints, Archie Manning, the man who was never on an NFL side with a winning record, saw his second son win a Superbowl, and they did it back to back. But did you know that Eli and Peyton have a big brother? Cooper Manning, who looks the most like his dad of any of the Manning kids, and stands eye level to his brothers, 6'4, is the Manning most people don't know about.
Cooper was born in 1974, two years before Peyton, and was the athletic star that Peyton and Eli looked up to. When they were kids, Cooper was asked by his dad to throw a couple of the one on one Basketball games that he and Peyton would play, so as not to demoralise the future Colts star. Cooper began his High School football career at QB, but when he found himself buried on the depth chart as a sophomore, he decided to switch to wide receiver in the hope of more playing time. He worked tirelessly to make the switch, including working on drills with Archie in the back yard, the most gruelling of which was called '10 balls'. Archie would stand 10 yards away, and fire all kinds of passes at Cooper. The drill was only over once he caught 10 in a row. "If you got up to eight but dropped one, you had to start all over,"
Cooper didn't drop a single pass in his junior year as a wide receiver, where he was an All-State selection. In his senior season, he had a new quarterback throwing him passes, his younger brother, Peyton. The brothers combined for 1,250 yards on 76 connections on their way to the state semi-finals. Cooper was named the team's MVP. The two would often communicate with each other using their own private hand signals during games. Cooper was good enough as a wide receiver to be recruited by schools from Texas to Virginia, before settling on Ole Miss, his father's Alma Mater. At 6'4, and 188 lbs, Cooper was set to lead the Manning siblings' assault on the NFL.
But it wasn't to be. Cooper had noticed towards the end of his high school career days that his right little finger sometimes went numb. Sometimes the sensation was more like pins and needles, other times his hand seemed to lose all its strength. Late in the season he began to drop some passes uncharacteristically, but he kept the problem to himself. Eventually he confided in his father, and was diagnosed by doctors as having an injury to his ulnar nerve, a common football injury, and not too serious. An operation was performed, and Cooper worked through his recovery to excel at an All-Star game, but when he arrived at Ole Miss, the pain and numbness persisted. Eventually, Cooper was correctly diagnosed by specialists with spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal canal. He was told he would need surgery immediately, and that he could never play football again. In one conversation, Cooper's world had been yanked out from under him.
Cooper underwent major surgery in 1993, and emerged unable to walk, barely able to move. He began therapy, and applying the trademark Manning work-ethic, was able to regain his balance and walking. A devastated Peyton, who had planned to follow Cooper to Ole Miss to throw passes to his brother in College just like they did in High School, chose Tennessee instead, and forged his own Manning legacy.
Today, Cooper works in a sleek office building in New Orleans. He trades oil and gas stocks for an energy research firm, and he's married with three children. Cooper's only connection to the NFL and to football is through his younger brothers, both of whom he still helps out and talks to constantly. "I just got a call from Eli," Cooper said. "He'd played golf and wasn't sure about what to tip the caddies, so he called me." Cooper also helps out each summer, the one chance where he and his siblings can spend some real time together, at the Manning Passing Academy, where Cooper plays the role of social director, organising activities for the kids while they receive passing education from a trio of Manning QBs.
Cooper watched as Peyton marched his way to a Superbowl, and he watched this year during Eli's coming of age. During the Green Bay Packers game, Cooper watched from the stands, until moving into the box with the rest of the Manning family at half-time, because that spot obviously wasn't working. "We were playing well, but still behind," said Cooper, "So I made the move to the suite. I always kind of feel making a change if they are behind helps."
Though Cooper may have had his athletic career stolen from him, he remains positive about it. "I get to do a lot of things my brothers can't, like spending more time with my family" he said. "I like being the other brother." He doesn't feel burdened with a 'why me' outlook, and believes that maybe he was better equipped to deal with it than Peyton or Eli. "Maybe the bad thing happened to the right guy," he says. "I'm just a big believer that things happen for a reason. I don't like to sit and dwell, whether it's good or bad. You can walk around and be a sad guy, but that never appealed to me." His attitude doesn't go unnoticed by his brothers either. "What I've always admired the most about Cooper is just his attitude on life," says the Colts quarterback. "And I know he's helped Eli out a lot over the years, too. He's always upbeat and has a tremendous sense of humour. We've had this kind of deal - Cooper helps loosen me up, and I help him be more serious at times. It's been a pretty good trade-off."
Cooper Manning is happy with his life, and nobody is happier to see Eli and Peyton win championships than Cooper, and while he now spends his days as the Manning's biggest fans, the rest of the world can wonder 'what if' the forgotten Manning had been allowed to blaze the Manning trail into the NFL. Would we be talking about Cooper as the first Manning to win a Superbowl? Would Peyton and Cooper have been able to link up in the NFL and College, as well as just during High School? While the NFL has its royal family in the Mannings, Cooper Manning never got a chance to show what he could do on the football field.