It's a fool's task to guess how good he might have been. But
consider his father's career and who his brothers are, and you
might conclude that he would've made something halfway decent of
himself. You might even decide that Cooper Manning, now 29 and
more than a decade out of football, would've been one of the
best players of his generation. If nothing else, he'd have been
a college All-America and a first-round NFL draft pick. And
young parents all across the Deep South, smitten with his good
looks and winning personality, would be naming their newborns
after him. Better still, someone who calls himself a balladeer
would've written a really bad song about him. Like The Ballad of
Archie Who--which mythologized the exploits of his father as an
Ole Miss Rebel--the song would be a cult favorite played in juke
joints all over Dixie, from the Delta clear down to the Gulf
Coast, and the sound of it would raise gooseflesh on anyone who
knows anything about love and Mississippi.
It's not Coo-per, by the way, but Cupper. No, it's not Cupper
either. His Southern roots are deep, so the name sounds more like
Cooker. You need to practice saying it a few times before trying
it out on him. Get it wrong and he'll correct you before your
tongue can reset itself. "You don't eat a chocolate-chip coo-kee,
do you?" he asks. "No, you eat a cookie. My name is pronounced
the same way. It's Cuh-pah. Cuh-pah."
And he's probably the one Manning you've never heard of. In New
Orleans, where he lives, people recognize him wherever he goes as
one of Archie's boys. He's tall and gangly, and his hair has a
subtle undercoat of the family's trademark red, and he carries
himself with such confidence that it always seems as if he's just
orchestrated a game-winning touchdown drive. But which one is he?
Is he Eli, the quarterback at Ole Miss? Or Peyton, the
quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts? Is he even a quarterback?
Or a football player, for that matter? If he doesn't play
football, then how come?
"You wouldn't believe the things people say to him," says his
wife, Ellen. "'Hey, your brothers are so good, why aren't you
anything? Why aren't you in the NFL? What happened to you?'
Whenever it happens--and it happens a lot--I'm like, 'Hey, let me
tell you something, mister! He's just....' And that's when Cooper
steps in and makes me stop. 'Aw, come on,' he says, 'they don't
know anything. Don't worry about it.'"
There are ballads, and then there's Cooper's ballad. It would be
a heartbreaker if he weren't one of the funniest guys alive.
Cooper's ballad tells the story of a gifted 18-year-old receiver
who seems destined for the big time until doctors inform him that
he suffers from a congenital narrowing of the spinal
canal--spinal stenosis, they call it--and his football career
abruptly ends only months into his freshman year at Ole Miss, in
1992. He endures three major operations, one of them a harrowing
spinal surgery that leaves an eight-inch-long scar along the back
of his neck. His chest and shoulders lose their once muscular
form. His right hand becomes atrophied and disfigured and has a
constant tremor, and he can't control the fingers well enough to
throw a football or type except by the old hunt-and-peck method.
His left leg is numb; his right leg is sometimes so sapped of
strength that he drags it.
As the memory of his athletic excellence grows dim, and as people
stop speculating about what he might have been, his kid brothers
mature into two of the finest talents in all of football. After a
brilliant career at Tennessee, Peyton becomes an All-Pro with the
Colts, earning millions en route to establishing himself as one
of the most popular and respected players in the game. Eli
develops into an All-SEC quarterback and a certain top pick in
next year's draft. You grow up a Manning, and it seems to be your
birthright to gorge on the sweet nectars of fame and
glory--unless your first name is Cooper, that is.
"If one of us had to lose football, I'm glad it was me," Cooper
says. "When people ask why I don't play and my dad or one of my
brothers is around, he's more uncomfortable with the question
than I am. And he kind of jumps to answer, like he's trying to
protect me. I say, 'Well, I've run out of eligibility.' Or I'll
whisper, 'I'm the smart one in the family, can't you tell?' I'll
also say, 'I'm a bowler.' Or 'I play piano.' Or 'I like ballet.'
In other words, I'll say just about anything I think I can get
Before Ellen and Cooper moved to their new address on Webster
Street, they lived several blocks away in a house on Pine Street.
They were paid regular visits by a neighbor who liked to ring
their doorbell just so he could talk to Cooper, son of the great
Archie, brother of the great Peyton and Eli. It's the price one
pays for being a Manning in the land of Mannings, even when
you're the one who didn't make it. People gawk in public. They
also gawk in private, as did this man, who never could get
Cooper's name right. Cougar Manning, he called him.
Rather than correct him, Cooper let the man continue to call him
by the wrong name, getting a perverse satisfaction each time he
heard the pronunciation mangled.
See you later, Cougar.
I said, See you later, Cougar.
"Where do you come from?" Archie has asked Cooper more than once,
unable to make sense of the notion that they might be related.
"Sometimes I wonder if somebody didn't leave you on my doorstep."
He's been different from the start. Archie had just finished his
third year with the New Orleans Saints when Cooper came along in
1974, weighing 12 pounds, three ounces. His birth made the papers
both in New Orleans and in Mississippi, where Archie's legend was
so large that practically anything he did made the papers. Buried
under the news that the South had its next great quarterback was
the matter of the child's size. While Olivia, his mother, was
embarrassed at having had such a big baby, Archie took it in
stride, wondering if he might have an offensive lineman on his
hands. They named him after Olivia's father, Cooper Williams,
proprietor of an old-time country store in Philadelphia, Miss.
Two years later Peyton was born, then Eli arrived in 1981. The
younger boys had their strengths, but in the beginning it was
Cooper who seemed especially gifted. He was smart, witty and
fearless, and when family parties were dragging, Olivia
invariably turned to him and said, "O.K., Coop, let's see if you
can shake things up."
A group of adults would be gathered in serious conversation, and
Cooper would walk in, armed with a joke his grandmother had
taught him. "The world could be coming to an end, and he's
onstage trying to get people to laugh," Olivia says. "We created
Not all of his jokes originated with his grandmother. Some came
from older boys who knew the little knucklehead would repeat
anything, especially if Archie wasn't around. "Do you want to
hear a joke?" Cooper asked unsuspecting strangers one day at
Mississippi's Neshoba County Fair. He was about five years old,
with a wad of tobacco in his mouth and an accent straight out of
Hee Haw, and it was summertime, after his dad had reported to
"Sure, I'd like to hear a joke, little boy."
"Cost you a quarter."
"Here you are, son."
"A man dressed like a cowboy walks into an ice cream store and
orders an ice cream cone. The lady behind the counter says, 'Do
you want your nuts crushed?' The man pulls out his gun and says,
'No, do you want your boobs shot off?'" Those he didn't make
laugh he at least made uncomfortable.
Cooper also liked to educate Peyton whenever he thought the boy
needed it, such as the time that Cooper got sick of watching him
ride his tricycle up and down the driveway and decided to see how
many times he could throw a brick over Peyton's head without
hitting him. Finally the brick hit Peyton, or Cooper hit Peyton
with the brick, depending on your point of view. "I got spanked
pretty good for that," Cooper says. "Someone had given Dad a
bunch of belts with our names carved in the leather. One said
COOP, another PEYTON. My dad's just had his jersey number on it.
'Y'all don't cut it out, number 8's coming out,' he'd say. We
were scared to death of number 8."
Cooper was faster, stronger and more fluid than Peyton, no doubt
because he was older. But as an athlete Cooper was superior to
most of the boys in his class as well. When Cooper and Peyton
played basketball outside, Archie often pulled the elder child
aside and instructed him to let his little brother win. But doing
so was often more than Cooper could stomach. "I'm eight and
you're 10 and I beat you," Peyton once said.
Cooper charged with fists raised. He said, "Dad, I let him win,
he didn't beat me!"
"You know how lucky you boys are to have each other?" Archie made
a habit of reminding them. "I would love to have had a brother.
Come on. You two need to appreciate each other more."
They appreciated each other just fine; it was one getting the
better of the other that neither could abide. "I remember the
fights," says Eli, now 22. "They'd be upstairs in the room
arguing. Then you'd hear them slamming each other against the
wall and all the pictures crashing to the floor."
"We had bloodshed," confirms Olivia.
Cooper felt free to hammer Peyton, but no one else had the right.
If another boy dared to bully or mistreat Peyton, Cooper was
quick to come to his brother's defense.
"Cooper taught me at a young age how miserable it is to lose,"
says Peyton, now 27, "and without him I never would've become as
competitive as I am. He toughened me up, but he also taught me
something else. I'm a serious person by nature--sometimes too
serious. Cooper and I always had this deal: His job was to help
me stay loose, and mine was to help him be more serious. 'Peyton,
loosen up a little bit,' he'd say. I've helped him, too, because
now he understands how inappropriate it is to make fun of a guy
just because he's wearing an ugly sport coat."
Peyton was Cooper's favorite target, but Cooper spared no one,
not even Archie. There were years when Archie was the best player
on the worst team in pro football: the Ain'ts, as they were
known. Fans reported to the Superdome with paper bags pulled over
their heads, holes punched for eyes, mouths turned downward in
misery. Players and their families were humiliated and outraged.
Then one Sunday a boy and his brother--sons of the team's leader,
no less--pulled bags over their own heads. Cooper and Peyton got
a lot of attention for the prank. No one had to ask whose idea it
was. "Whenever anyone tells me he's got a brother who's a
character, I just roll my eyes and say, 'You do, do you? Well,
you've never met anyone like my brother.' Come to think of it,
I've never met anyone like my brother."
Archie and Olivia raised their children in a large house in the
Garden District, an affluent neighborhood crowded with
century-old mansions and popular with tour groups. One of their
neighbors on First Street is best-selling author Anne Rice, whose
gothic novels so impress some of her readers that they show up in
front of her house dressed like vampires. Tours regularly stop
for a look at the Mannings', too, which means that several times
a day a crowd of 20 or more gawks at the handsome Greek Revival
house as a guide lists the accomplishments of Archie, Peyton and
Eli, rarely mentioning the other brother who grew up there.
One day not long ago Cooper stopped by to pick up Archie and
Olivia and take them to a movie, and as they left he lowered his
window, stuck his head out and faced a group of tourists gathered
on the sidewalk. "Front door's open," he announced. "Go on in and
make yourselves at home."
"Cooper used to come up to Tennessee when I had a game," Peyton
says, "and on Friday night we had a 10:30 curfew. Cooper would go
out to a bar and sit around drinking beer and smoking a cigar.
It's one in the morning. Before you know it, some Tennessee fan
walks up to him and says, 'Hey, Peyton! What are you doing out?
It's one o'clock!' And instead of correcting the guy, Cooper
says, 'Hey, we're just playing Kentucky tomorrow. What's the big
All three brothers attended the Isidore Newman School in New
Orleans, a small private institution with high academic standards
and, when the Manning boys were there, some of the most exciting
football teams the city had ever seen. Cooper was a promising
reserve quarterback for the Class 2A Greenies until his junior
year, when he helped persuade his coach to replace their
antiquated wing T offense with a more pass-oriented attack,
featuring Cooper himself as the top wide receiver. His most
extensive duty at quarterback had come late in his sophomore
season. Against Redeemer, Cooper replaced the injured starter and
his injured backup and threw a 99-yard touchdown pass, but it was
his only completion in 14 attempts. In a later game, against
Belle Chase, he threw five interceptions. "I waited up for him to
come home [that night]," Archie says. "I thought he might need
consoling. I can remember games when I had five interceptions--at
least three times in my career--and I wanted to jump off a bridge
afterward. When Coop came in the door, I said, 'You didn't beat
me. I threw six against Tennessee in Knoxville one afternoon.'
Cooper always had great self-confidence. He looked at me and
said, 'Well, they weren't my fault, Dad. I'm a receiver,
Two years later Cooper was first team all-state. By then he stood
6'4" and weighed 185 pounds, and he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.7
seconds, a fair time for a late-developing receiver of his size
but hardly the kind to attract more than a handful of
major-college recruiters. Even so, he was strong and crafty, and
he ran routes that turned defensive backs in circles. Like his
brothers, Cooper had the advantage of being the son of involved
parents, one of whom happened to be a 14-year NFL veteran.
On weekends Archie regularly took his three sons to Newman's
field and worked them out. With Cooper he played a game called
Ten Balls. Standing 10 yards away, Archie would throw passes to
the teenager as hard as he could, aiming some high, others low.
If Cooper missed a ball, they'd start over. They couldn't return
home until Cooper had made 10 straight catches.
Cooper's hands were so good that during his junior year at Newman
he didn't miss a pass thrown to him. The next year, 1991, Peyton
graduated to the varsity and won the starting job at quarterback.
Though only a sophomore, he was already a superb leader with a
big, strong body and the ability to throw deep accurately. On the
first pass play of the year Cooper was wide open on a post-corner
route after faking out the cornerback. Peyton delivered the ball
to him in a soft spiral, and from those in attendance who'd been
waiting for this moment, a roar went up. History was being made:
Peyton Manning was throwing his first pass in a high school game,
and it was to Cooper Manning. But the ball fell through Cooper's
Newman fans who witnessed the play were so unaccustomed to seeing
Cooper drop a pass, even in warmups, that they wondered if he'd
done it on purpose, as a way of getting at the upstart Peyton and
starting the season with a laugh. "Nope, he just missed it," says
Archie. "We all sat there stunned. There's no doubt that
something was going on with his hand."
Cooper says he simply misplayed the ball, but he missed other
passes later in the season, and he blames those drops on the
weakness he was beginning to feel in his right hand. His pinkie
and ring fingers occasionally went numb; other times they felt as
if they were being pricked with needles. When the weather turned
cold, his right hand felt frozen and he could barely squeeze with
it. Rather than tuck the ball under his right arm when he ran
with it, he tucked it under his left. Unable to squeeze the ball
to throw it, he learned how to throw lefthanded. He held for the
kicker on field goal and extra point attempts, and once on a fake
field goal he threw the ball with his right hand. It went up in a
wild wobble but still found its target for the touchdown. The
hand "just didn't feel right," Cooper told Archie after the game.
But Archie says he never imagined a medical problem.
Cooper said nothing about the problem to his coaches or
teammates, including Peyton, and it seemed that no one noticed
the difficulty he was experiencing, perhaps because he remained a
dominant presence on the field and superior to any defensive back
he faced. He and Peyton communicated with hand signals at the
line of scrimmage and with glances familiar to each other since
they were children playing games on the front lawn on First
Street. "I'm-open-I'm-open-I'm-open," Cooper badgered his brother
in the huddle. If Peyton threw an incompletion his way, Cooper
always demanded another try. "Throw it again," he'd say. "Hey,
come on, throw it to me again, Peyton."
"Even when he was covered," Peyton says, "you could always loft
it up high, and he'd catch it. No defensive back could stop
him--he was taller than they were, and he could leap well. This
creates a perfect comfort zone for the quarterback. Hey, you
think, Cooper's either going to catch the ball or make sure it's
Newman's season ended with a 27-21 loss to Haynesville in the
state semifinals, and Cooper, who had 76 catches and 1,250 yards
on the year, was named Newman's most valuable player. "People
today tend to say, 'Oh, Coop, he was the inferior athlete of the
three [Manning] boys,' but I can tell you that wasn't the case,"
says Richard Montgomery, Cooper's friend since childhood and a
former teammate at Newman. "Cooper might've been the most
Among the colleges that recruited Cooper were Texas and Virginia,
but he chose Ole Miss, undaunted by the expectations destined to
be heaped on him. He knew he was good enough to contribute, and
he knew that in the long run his father's heroic past at the
school would have little to do with his own future there. He
would succeed or fail on his own merit. He and Peyton made a pact
to light up Oxford in a couple of years the way they had New
Orleans. "I know one thing for certain," says Peyton. "Had Cooper
played at Ole Miss, I'd have gone there too. The year he was a
senior at Newman was the best time I ever had playing football.
Playing in college with my brother was something we'd both
It wasn't until weeks after the football season, when Cooper was
playing for Newman's basketball team, that he finally told Archie
he didn't feel right. "My ball's gone dead," he said. "I can't
A shooting guard, he learned to adjust his shot and to dribble
with his left hand, and he ended up averaging 12 points a game,
remarkable considering how little control he had of his right
hand. Behind the play of Randy Livingston, a Parade All-America
and the co-National Player of the Year (with Jason Kidd), the
Greenies won the 2A state championship for the second year in a
row. Not wishing to miss a moment of the team's run at the title,
Cooper waited until the season was over to seek medical
attention. "I kept it a secret," he says of his condition,
"because I thought if word got out, players for other teams would
figure out how to defend me."
A New Orleans surgeon diagnosed the problem as damage to the
ulnar nerve, which runs the length of the arm and controls
sensation in the pinkie and ring fingers and part of the palm.
Because this nerve travels over the tip of the elbow, it is
easily damaged. Football players often injure theirs, usually
when the elbow hits the ground or takes a helmet blow. Cooper's
problem seemed easy to fix, and the operation went smoothly. That
summer he played in the Louisiana high school all-star game in
Baton Rouge, impressing fans with a couple of catches. But by the
time August two-a-days began in Oxford, his condition hadn't
improved. He was feeling as much pain and numbness as ever on his
right side, and it was taking even more concentration to catch
balls at practice.
"I got a hard break," he says today. "I mean, the one thing God
gave me ... the one asset I had ... was my hands. And now my
right hand is taken away, and I'm righthanded? I can't throw a
football? Can barely catch a football? I can't shoot hoops? I
mean, it was terrible."
An Ole Miss team doctor encouraged Archie to seek other opinions
from specialists, so he and Cooper flew to Dallas in September
1992 and consulted with a neurosurgeon and an orthopedist at the
Baylor Medical Center. Then they flew to Rochester, Minn., to
meet with doctors at the Mayo Clinic, where Archie had been
treated for a hyperthyroid condition when he was playing for the
Vikings. "We ended up seeing a lot of different people, about six
altogether, and everyone had a different opinion on how to treat
Cooper," Archie says. "[The visit to Rochester] was a rough trip.
Cooper had all these tests done, and they painted a grim picture.
Still, he took it better than I did. I could've gotten real
depressed had he not kept things loose."
A week later Peyton was scheduled to play for Newman in New
Orleans. Ole Miss had an open week, so Cooper, his head freshly
shaved like those of all the other freshman Rebel players, came
in on Friday with some friends from Oxford. That afternoon Archie
received a call from the Baylor Medical Center: Cooper needed
spinal surgery and could never play football again. In fact, he
never should have played, even as a child. Had he never played
the game and been hit so hard, he might've lived out his life
without experiencing any problem at all.
As frightened as Archie and Olivia were by the specter of spinal
surgery, they understood that Cooper was lucky he had survived
the pounding of high school football without serious injury.
Archie recalled the blows Cooper had taken on his upper body when
he'd caught passes over the middle and the licks he'd put on
receivers when he played free safety. Any one of those collisions
could have left him paralyzed.
After the game on Friday night, Archie and Olivia asked Peyton if
he wanted to join them when they broke the news to Cooper. "I
can't," he said, fighting back tears. "I'm sorry, but I just
can't do it."
"Cooper cried when we told him," Archie says, "but for the most
part he was a trouper. It was Peyton we really worried about. He
was near depression. Peyton was a junior in high school, and he
watched what his big brother was going through, and he didn't
think life was fair at all."
Unable to face his brother and tell him how he felt, Peyton sat
down and wrote him a letter. It was just after midnight on
Saturday, and he hadn't slept much since hearing about the
doctor's report the day before. "What I'd do to have you back
again as a receiver I don't know," Peyton wrote in longhand. "But
this is all part of growing up--learning to cope with change.
I'll be seeing you plenty, I know, but things will be different.
I know other people have gone through losing their older brother
or sister before, but I think me and you are different. We're not
average. We're Coop and Peyt. We always have been and we always
will be, thank God." At the end of the letter he told Cooper he
loved him, then signed it, "Your bro and pal, Peyt."
When Cooper returned to Oxford, he made a point of attending
football practice every afternoon. While the team was on the
field, he went for long runs, then stood on the sideline and
watched. Afterward he hung around the locker room. He'd played
organized football since he was a fifth-grader in Minnesota,
while his dad was with the Vikings, and football was what you did
in the fall. Even though it had been reported in the news that he
would never play again, Cooper still felt like a member of the
team. Weeks went by. One day before practice senior defensive end
Jack Muirhead approached him in the locker room. "What the hell
are you doing here?" Cooper recalls Muirhead asking.
"What do you mean?" Cooper said.
"You should be out fishing, you should go play golf or something,
go chase some girls," Muirhead said, laughing. "Instead you're in
the locker room shooting the breeze with the guys before
Unable to think of a response, Cooper said simply, "Oh." But he
knew then that it was over. "I cut it off totally," he says. "I
was like, It's more painful to go to practice than it is to keep
away from it. And so I kept away from it."
The three-hour surgery on his spine was performed in New Orleans
in the summer of 1993. When Cooper came to, he could barely move.
His left leg was tingling, and he had no strength at all in his
right leg. "I remember the back of his head was shaved, and there
was a big, long incision," says Eli. "When I saw it, it hit me
what he'd gone through. He needed a wheelchair and then a walker
and a cane to get around. I try to picture myself in his
situation--and to picture Peyton in his situation--and I'm
telling you he dealt with it a thousand times better than either
of us would have. He never complained. We never saw him cry.
Cooper loved football as much as Peyton and I do, but he never
let us know how much he was going to miss it."
He attended rehab sessions to learn how to walk again. When he
attempted to get around without his walker or cane, he fell to
the ground and skinned his knees. He tore holes in his jeans, and
blood stained the fabric. "I couldn't tell I was falling," Cooper
says. "I'd just get tired, and next thing you know I'd be lying
there on the ground. I'd hear people saying, 'God, he's loaded.'
I never told them any different."
Before she and Cooper were married, in 1999, Ellen Heidingsfelder
wrote out a list of questions and had Cooper take her to see his
doctor. There were times when Cooper's friends hugged him or
slapped his back too hard, and his body went numb and he had to
sit quietly for a while until the pain passed. It was a scary
thing for Ellen to watch. Since the operation in '93, Cooper had
undergone one more surgery, a cervical fusion. Even when he
appeared to be hurting, he claimed to be feeling fine. When he
returned from a visit to the doctor and Ellen asked how it had
gone, he always said everything was O.K. His positive attitude
seemed to preclude his sharing the hard truths about his health
and long-term prognosis.
Is it a hereditary problem? was a question at the top of Ellen's
list. No, said Donald Richardson, a neurosurgeon at Tulane
University Medical Center. It was congenital.
Congenital, she learned, means you're born with it. Hereditary
means you pass it down. Both Peyton and Eli tested negative for
spinal stenosis. Only Cooper had to live out his life with the
Is Cooper going to end up in a wheelchair one day? What can we do
and what can we not do? Can we go waterskiing? What about snow
skiing? What if we get in a car accident? If his head snaps back,
will he be paralyzed?
Richardson reassured her: Cooper should live a good, long life,
but he was at a higher risk for injury than other people, and he
needed to be careful. No skiing of any kind. And he should avoid
After she and Cooper had been married for a while, somebody asked
Ellen, "Suppose the doctor had said, 'It's more serious than
Cooper has told you. He will he bound to a wheelchair by the time
Ellen didn't hesitate. "I'd have married him anyway," she said.
Today Cooper trades oil and gas stocks for an energy investment
boutique called Howard, Weil, Labouisse and Friedrichs. His
office, on the 35th floor of the Energy Centre in downtown New
Orleans, has sweeping views of the Louisiana landscape and the
Mississippi River, but Cooper rarely has time to look. He spends
his days at his desk watching the market on computer monitors and
talking to clients on the telephone. When he gets up, it's
usually to swing a golf club and vent nervous energy.
"I've talked to Archie and Olivia about Cooper," says his boss,
Bill Walker. "I wanted them to know how good he is at his job.
While they can clearly see Peyton's and Eli's success, I'm not
sure they fully understand Cooper's. He's the absolute best at
what he does--like his younger brothers, an All-America by any
He is a long way from football and the athlete he once was. But
some days you will see him playing basketball by the 8 1/2-foot
goal in his driveway, neighborhood kids gathered around as he
entertains them with jokes he recalls from long ago. Among his
most prized possessions are the letter Peyton wrote to him in
1992 and a videotape with highlights of their famous season
together, their only season together. In his wallet he carries
his Ole Miss freshman I.D. card showing him with a shaved head, a
thick neck and broad, muscular shoulders. The photo has a special
poignancy, because only weeks after it was taken he had to give
up football and his life was changed forever.
In the evening, after work, Cooper takes his daughter, May, in
her stroller to Audubon Park and back, limping as he moves under
the old leafy trees. He was delighted when the baby, his and
Ellen's first, born last year on Dec. 10, turned out to be a
girl. No one will ever ask her what position she plays or what
jersey number she wears or why, if she didn't make it, she isn't
like the other Mannings. At every opportunity Olivia and Archie
drop by to see little May, and when Peyton and Eli are in town, a
visit to their niece is one of their first stops.
"People always ask me if I'm jealous of my brothers," Cooper
says. "My family will tell you that I'm not jealous at all and
that I'm their biggest cheerleader. But the truth is, I am
jealous of Peyton and Eli--jealous that they get to play football
every week. I'm jealous that football's their job, and they get
to practice and work out and play games and sweat hard and run
and hit and get hit. I'm jealous of all that, sure. But I'm not
... I was never jealous, I should say, in a mean-spirited sort of
way. I'm their big brother, and I love them. No, if I'm jealous,
it's jealous of all the fun they get to keep having. That's one
thing about me: I always did like to have fun."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES KEEPING A HAND IN For a few days each summer, Cooper is a coach and counselor (with, from rear left, Archie, Peyton and Eli) at the Mannings' passing camp.
COLOR PHOTO: LANE STEWART (LEFT) PLAYING FOR LAUGHS Growing up, Cooper (white shirt, in '81; No. 18, with Peyton in '91; pulling brothers' ears in '96) was the joker in the Mannings' deck.
B/W PHOTO: COURTESY OF MANNING FAMILY (CENTER) [See caption above]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES [See caption above]
THREE COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES FAMILY CIRCLE Cooper (being doused by brothers, opposite) can no longer grip a ball like a Manning, but he has a sure hold on baby May (with Ellen, in black, and Olivia).
As a high school senior Cooper was a first team all-state
wideout. He ran routes that turned defensive backs in circles.
"If one of us had to lose football, I'm glad it was me. When
people ask why I don't play, I'll say, 'I'm the smart one, can't