Cooper Manning is a part of it, too

From left, Archie Manning poses with his sons,

From left, Archie Manning poses with his sons, Peyton, Cooper and Eli as they arrive at the Barnstable Brown Derby party in Louisville, Ky. (May 4, 2007) (Credit: AP)

One by one, they came to his locker in the back corner of the room and embraced him. First it was Archie Manning giving his son a hug. Then baby brother Eli, who paid a surprise visit to Peyton's AFC Championship Game matchup against the Patriots last Sunday. And then there was big brother Cooper, wrapping his arms around his younger brother and offering his heartfelt congratulations.

Archie Manning and his three boys, joined together by football again, now have a chance to enjoy a fourth Super Bowl victory for the first family of quarterbacks. This was a jubilant scene as they celebrated the Broncos' 26-16 win over the Patriots, a victory that earned Peyton a chance to win his second Super Bowl title and add another piece of brilliance to his Hall of Fame career.

The smiles of all four men were genuine. Especially Cooper, who never has gotten a chance to celebrate an NFL victory of his own. At least not on the field.

Had things worked out differently, Cooper might have been able to join his brothers in celebrating a Super Bowl championship of his own. An all-state receiver in Louisiana, Cooper had a breakout year as a senior at Isidore Newman School in New Orleans, catching passes from Peyton and earning a scholarship to the University of Mississippi, his father's alma mater and Eli's eventual college choice.

But when he began to feel some tingling in his fingers the summer before his freshman year at Ole Miss, he went to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota to get checked out.

The diagnosis was crushing: He had a condition called spinal stenosis -- a narrowing of the spinal canal -- and had to stop playing football altogether or risk permanent damage.

His younger brothers went on to become NFL champions, something Cooper never could experience. But he is content to live vicariously through his brothers, never complaining about his situation. If you saw him Sunday evening in the Broncos' locker room, you knew he was simply happy for his brother, not envious.

"This is my sixth [conference] championship to be involved in, and it's always a lot better to have another week to ride,'' said Cooper, who lives in New Orleans with his wife and three children. He works as an energy broker for the firm Howard Weil, which has offices in New Orleans and Houston. "It's fun to be included.''

And yes, Cooper is included in both his brothers' lives. They wouldn't have it any other way.

Cooper has a tradition of texting some words of wisdom to Peyton before a game, knowing he won't get a response.

"He ignores me on a consistent basis, and it turns out OK,'' Cooper cracked.

And what was Cooper's pregame message? To go back in time to when the boys played football at their home in New Orleans.

"I just told him, 'Hey, you've come this far, so go ahead and continue to be like a 10-year-old playing in the front yard and have fun with it,' '' he said. "And that's what it looked like to me out there.''

Peyton threw for 400 yards and two touchdowns in the 26-16 win over the Patriots, his second AFC Championship Game win over Tom Brady's team.

"Peyton still has a young-kid-in-the-front-yard attitude about football,'' Cooper said. "I think people that love football, that's the way they are. That's the way he is.''

Cooper is delighted for his brother and insists that he doesn't look back with a shred of regret regarding his own situation. Even if it meant he couldn't experience the thrill of what it's like to win in the NFL.

"I don't ever spend a lot of time reflecting on it,'' he said. "I don't look back in the rearview mirror. I just kind of enjoy the process, glad to be included and soak it up. It's a thrill to me. It's fun to me.''

Along the way, Cooper taught his father a life lesson.

"We all feel like we're a part of this, especially Coop,'' Archie Manning said. "Peyton and Eli make Cooper feel a part of it. It's kind of a family thing. Early on, he handled it. Cooper has got a great spirit, so his spirit has helped us. He was good with it, and he helped us get through it.''

No regrets for the Manning who can never win his own Super Bowl. Celebrating his brothers' championships is his way of winning.

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