Skip to main content
Original Issue

Red-Letter Year for Quarterbacks

Perhaps the loudest campus protest of the year will occur late in November when one quarterback, and only one, emerges as the consensus All-America and, most likely, the Heisman Trophy winner. For instance, if that quarterback is not Jim Plunkett (right) then Stanford is going to let the rest of the country hear about it. If it is Plunkett, then Ohio State is going to be just as vocal, arguing that it should have been Rex Kern (far right). There will also be screams from Mississippi, Florida, Notre Dame—well, from all over. There are more outstanding quarterbacks this season than ever before, and those who are shown on the following pages are only some of the best. But not all. So let's not have any protests, please.

...and the best of them all is ARCHIE

Even his best friends would agree that Elisha Archie Manning III hardly resembles Mr. Good-Looking All-America Cover Boy Quarterback. He has red hair, freckles and a rather prominent nose, and his sturdy young face always seems to reflect a certain quality of sadness and rural innocence. The press has frequently called him college football's Huckleberry Finn and, in fact, it is not difficult to envision Manning back home in rustic little Drew, Miss. (pop. 2,143), sailing down the river on a raft or sneaking off to some secret shady fishing hole. All of which makes it rather remarkable that Archie Manning of the Ole Miss Rebels is not only the quarterback for this—or, perhaps any—college season, but also the object of one of the wildest displays of adulation ever accorded any athlete anywhere, anytime.

The phenomenon now known as "Archie Fever" began last fall when, as a junior, Manning passed and ran the Rebels to an 8-3 record—including an upset of Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl. First red-and-blue buttons inscribed "Archie" or "Archie's Army" blossomed like dogwood all over the Ole Miss campus in Oxford. Then some Tennessee fans came up with "Archie Who?" buttons, and the craze was on. After Archie and the Rebels wiped out Tennessee 38-0 in Jackson, Ole Miss came back with "You Know Damn Well Who" buttons. Lamont Wilson, a postal clerk in Magnolia, Miss., took the tune of Johnny Cash's Folsom Prison Bines and hastily worked up a ditty entitled The Ballad of Archie Who. Recorded on the Hoddy Toddy label by a guitar-twanging group known as The Rebel Rousers, the song sold 35,000 copies quicker than you can whistle Dixie, and young Manning became a sort of instant folk hero.

Now, with Archie starting his senior season, the fever has spread through the land. At least five writers have offered to tell his story, and this fall his soulful blue eyes will be peering out from several magazine covers. So great is the demand for his autograph that the Ole Miss athletic department has made a rubber stamp of his signature and assigned a secretary to handle his mail. Finally, a fast-food chain wanted to sell "Archie Burgers," and a Memphis manufacturer tried to put out an entire line of Archie products—including a life-size Archie balloon.

"I've never seen anything like it," says Ole Miss Coach Johnny Vaught, who has seen his share in 24 years as head coach in Oxford. "I guess it's the times, the desire to glorify athletes, like the Namath thing. Thank goodness Archie is a smart man, a sensible man and he hasn't let any of it go to his head. Why, I don't think he even thinks about it."

"Oh, sure, I've kind of wondered about it," says Archie, who blushes and squirms uncomfortably when forced into self-consciousness. "The only thing I can figure out is that Archie is a different name. Maybe if it were Bill or something none of this would have started. I don't mind too much because I've always wanted to be an athlete. The only thing that worries me is how my teammates feel. If they keep joking about it, then it's all right with me."

Beneath all the hoopla there is a marvelous football player. Two years ago Manning had the finest season, statistically, of any Ole Miss back since Charlie Conerly was running the single wing in 1947. He gained 208 yards rushing and 1,510 in passing as Ole Miss finished with a 7-3-1 record, including a Liberty Bowl victory. Last season Archie's statistics were even more impressive. He completed 154 of 265 passes for 1,762 yards and nine touchdowns and ran 124 times for 502 yards and 14 more touchdowns. His 2,264 yards in total offense included 540 yards in one game, that wild, nationally televised 33-32 loss to Alabama.

His play earned him more awards and trophies than his mother could fit into the trophy cases at their home in Drew. The most noteworthy was the Walter Camp Memorial Award for the outstanding college back in America given by the Washington Touchdown Club. Attending the club's black-tie dinner to receive the award, Archie found himself seated between Supreme Court Justice Douglas and former Justice Clark, which is an awkward spot for a Southerner to find himself in these days.

"Well, young man," said Clark, waving a hand toward the 2,500 who attended the dinner, "I guess you're used to crowds like this."

"No, Mr. Justice," said Archie, blushing. "Why, there are more people here tonight than live in my home town of Drew."

Like most of the other fine quarterbacks of this season, Manning is big, fast, strong and clever. Says Vaught, who started using the split-T more than 20 years ago, "He's the ideal sprint-out quarterback—as dangerous passing as any man there is, and fine running the ball, too." At 6'3½" Archie is tall enough to spot his receivers over the heads of charging enemy linemen. He runs the 100-yard dash in 10.2 seconds, which gives him speed to turn the ends, and he has built his once-scrawny body up to 205 pounds, which gives him strength to go up the middle. And his passing? "Archie has the arm to hit you with the bullet." says his favorite receiver. Split End Floyd Franks, "or he can float the long one up the field." Finally, Manning has the intelligence and football instinct to call the right play at the right time—and make it work.

"He has a great football mind," says Vaught. "I have now reached the point with Archie that anything he wants to do from any place on the field at any time is all right with me."

Beyond his ample physical and mental attributes, Manning also is blessed with something else—a clutch quality, one might say, that derives from his ability to snatch the Rebels from defeat, usually in dramatic fashion. Against Georgia last season, for instance, the Ole Miss fans were ready to toss in their Rebel flags after Archie hurt his neck late in the first half. But with the Rebs trailing 17-13 in the third quarter, Archie sprinted back on the field accompanied by a wild ovation—"That was the most embarrassing thing that happened to me all season," Archie says—and passed Ole Miss to a 25-17 victory. Against LSU, considered the strongest defensive team in the South, Ole Miss fell behind 23-12, but Archie scored two TDs and a two-point conversion to account for a 26-23 win—after which Frank J. Polozola, a Baton Rouge attorney and staunch LSU fan, filed a suit in federal district court seeking an injunction to prevent Manning from "further harassment" of the LSU team.

Says Vaught, "The team has tremendous confidence in him. They've seen him do so many things under adverse conditions to pull a game out."

Almost from the day he was born, May 19, 1949, Manning was groomed to become an athlete. He was given a tiny helmet and uniform as soon as he could walk, and his mother can remember him standing on the corner outside their home watching the Drew High football team practice on the school grounds across the street. His sister Pam recalls that Archie often slept with a football cradled in his arms, but baseball is what mainly interested him through his grade-school days. Taught by one of his uncles to bat left-handed, Archie became the starting second baseman on the high school varsity when he was in the seventh grade.

"I only weighed about 100," Archie recalls, "and the baseball team didn't have regular shirts, so we had to wear old football jerseys. That baby would just hang on me. I bunted and walked mostly, but I still hit .300."

Growing up in the hot, flat midsection of Mississippi known as The Delta, a boy's life tends to be centered around box scores read in the cool of early morning, The Sporting News, the St. Louis Cardinals on radio and TV—all that and church. For 13 years in a row Archie never missed a Sunday at the First Baptist Church in Drew, and an old friend. Attorney Frank Crosthwait, says, "To me he's still the little redheaded, freckle-faced kid who always wore that red blazer to church." His mother, an elegant Southern lady known to everyone as Sis, says Archie caused her no undue trouble, except for the fact that he was always too busy playing to stop and eat, an oversight that Archie would come to regret as he grew older—and thinner.

Until he went to college, Archie was so frail he was too embarrassed to go swimming without a T shirt. "I guess I developed a complex about it," he says. His sister puts it this way: "My Lord, that child was emaciated." His skinny frame did not prevent Archie from improving in baseball, basketball and track, but he had problems in football. His ankle was broken in the eighth grade, his right arm in the 10th and his left arm in the 11th. At the beginning of his senior year, in fact, Archie had played in 12 games, only one of which was a victory.

Somehow Archie managed to escape injury his senior year and pull Drew to a respectable 5-5 record, including an 18-14 upset over arch-rival Cleveland in his final game. Nevertheless, Archie received football scholarship offers from only three colleges—Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Tulane—and everybody figured he would pass up football to play basketball, which had been his best high school sport, or perhaps even sign a pro baseball contract. (A shortstop who covers a lot of ground, has a strong arm and hits with power, Archie was drafted in high school by the Atlanta Braves.)

As Archie remembers it, "I wasn't sure I wanted to play football. I really love basketball, and I was averaging about 30 points through our first five games. One night the coach from Mississippi State. Joe Dan Gold, came to watch me. I made the first basket in the game and I thought, 'Oh, man I'm really going to show him something.' But then I went cold and I couldn't hit anything. And every time I missed I'd go slap somebody. I fouled out with four minutes left in the first half, and after the game I told Coach Gold not to come back, I was going to play football."

He was signed by Ole Miss Coach Roy Stinnett on Dec. 10, 1967, between the semifinals and finals of a basketball tournament ("Coach Stinnett was refereeing the tournament," says Archie, "and I must have shot 50 free throws that day"). The following summer, after lifting weights and working for a bricklayer to build himself up, Archie dispelled any doubts about his ability. Playing in the North-South All-Star Game before he entered Ole Miss, he came off the bench after starting Quarterback Bob White was injured and threw four touchdown passes to George Ranager, now a star receiver at Alabama. Archie was on his way.

The rest is history, with one tragic footnote. On Aug. 16, 1969, the summer after his sophomore year and only a week before Archie was to report to Oxford to begin practice for his junior season, his father, Buddy, killed himself with a shotgun. Not only did Archie come upon his father's body, he cleaned up after the police had removed the remains so that his mother and sister would be spared the sight. Almost immediately those closest to Archie could see him change.

"He grew up in a matter of two minutes," says his sister. "Any decision made in our household after that, Archie was the one to make it."

Says Archie, "Your first reaction is that you don't want to do anything, but that's not right. I think it gave me more determination to play harder for him."

His maturity, perhaps, has been one reason why Archie has been able to withstand the pressures of Archie Fever. Unable to explain or control the phenomenon any more than anyone else, Archie has tried to keep his perspective, to accept whatever comes his way with as much grace and understanding as possible.

"But sometimes my patience gets short," Archie admits. "Like when I'm introduced to somebody, especially women, and they say, 'Archie who?' and then laugh and laugh like they're the first person to ever say that. And sometimes when I sign an autograph I'll only sign my first name, not to be cocky, just to get through them all. Then people come back griping, wanting me to sign my last name, too, and that kind of hacks me off."

Mostly, however, Archie is just plain embarrassed. He forbade his mother and his fiancée, a dark-eyed Southern belle named Olivia Williams (from Philadelphia, Miss.), to wear an "Archie" button or to put an "Archie of Drew" bumper sticker on his car. He blushes profusely when his teammates play and sing The Ballad of Archie Who at parties or around the dorm. He declined offers to run for president of both the senior class and the lettermen's M-Club. And he vetoed—to no avail, as it turned out—a proposal by the Drew town council to erect highway signs identifying the community as the "Home of Archie Manning of the Ole Miss Rebels."

Besieged by autograph-seekers and hero-worshipers everywhere he goes, Archie has found that he can relax and be himself only among his friends and classmates in Oxford. At the annual Roaring '20s party thrown by his Sigma Nu fraternity, for instance, Archie was just one of the brothers, wearing an "Archie Who?" button himself, singing with the band, riding around on teammate Jim Poole's shoulders, then carrying Poole. Mostly, however, Archie likes to escape to the house outside Oxford that he rents with three teammates and a fraternity brother. He also prefers Oxford because of the relatively tranquil, essentially apolitical mood of the campus. Although he wears his hair so long that it curls out from beneath his helmet, the only way Archie likes rebels is as a nickname for the football team.

"I get real disgusted with some students," he says. "I've always gone along with whoever is running the show, like a coach. I might not think he's right sometimes—I get hacked off at Coach Vaught every now and then—but he's the one running things. I'm kind of proud of Ole Miss. We've had a few incidents, but it's all been minor." What Archie Fever means ultimately, of course, is that Manning will go into this season under a mountain of pressure. To provide some measure of relief, Vaught personally screens his mail and contacts, hoping to weed out the fast-buck artists and opportunists. This gives Archie more time to think about football, and he admits there is plenty to think about as Ole Miss prepares to open its season.

"I have confidence in myself, but I can't help thinking what would happen if I didn't do it this season," says Archie. "Man, if the roof fell in, that would be sad. I remember last year, before the Tennessee game, I dreamed that we laid an egg, and the fans were throwing those damned Archie buttons all over the field. I've always worked hard for what I've got, though, and I don't plan to stop now. I know teams are going to be keying on me this season, but that just means somebody else will get the yards for us."

If Archie has some misgivings, he belongs to a silent minority in Mississippi. Everyone else is dancing and singing to the tune of you-know-what ballad:

The ball is on the fifty,
The down is third and ten,
He runs it down the sidelines;
Yes, Archie takes it in.
He plays for the Ole Miss Rebels,
Archie Manning is his name,
The best dadburned quarterback
To ever play the game....

© Malaco Attractions 1969


With no more handoffs to Steve Owens, Jack Mildren of Oklahoma can run his own show.


It's Chuck Hixson back and not much else, but even that will keep SMU's foes loose.


Joe Theismann is set to give Notre Dame a Lujack-Huarte-Hanratty kind of season.


With John Reaves set to pass and Carlos Alvarez ready to catch, Florida is golden.


Jimmy Jones can't pass, some argue, but somehow he led USC to an unbeaten season.


When Lynn Dickey chose Kansas State, Vince Gibson's Purple Pride really flowered.