Archie's the star in 'The Book of Manning'

The Manning family, from left: Peyton, Cooper, Eli

The Manning family, from left: Peyton, Cooper, Eli and Archie Manning. (Credit: Johnny Baughman Family )

Neil Best

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Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned

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PEYTON and ELI MANNING Peyton?s been making headlines Sports siblings

There is not much to write or say at this stage that would ease the concerns of Giants fans, but at least there is this: Their most important player is as grounded and unflappable as they come.

Part of that simply is Eli Manning's personality, but it also is a byproduct of a remarkable family whose patriarch seems to have emerged from early sports stardom with more sanity and perspective than most.

There are several compelling figures in "The Book of Manning" - a documentary in ESPN's "SEC Storied" series that premieres at 8 p.m. Tuesday -- among them Archie's wife, Olivia, and eldest son, Cooper, the one without the Super Bowl ring.

But it is Archie's story that drives the narrative, including a playing career now mostly forgotten among younger fans and the defining moment in which he discovered his father after he committed suicide in the summer of 1969.

That story and others in Manning lore have been told before, but not at this length or depth on TV, a project that required plenty of personal detail and family-wide cooperation.

Archie initially was reluctant to participate but eventually relented, in part to support the SEC's involvement, in part because Mrs. Manning was for it.

"Olivia kind of insisted, this story, maybe my grandchildren would want to see it and need to see it," he said on a conference call with reporters. "When my wife tells me to do something, I usually do it. We're really pleased with it."

The overarching theme is the warm, supportive parental path Archie chose for himself, shaped partly by Buddy's death when Archie was 19 and an emerging college superstar at Ole Miss.

But as revealing as all that is, the fun of the film is a trove of video, including Manning running all over the field in a Mississippi high school all-star game, then doing it again long after retiring from the NFL in an Ole Miss alumni game.

Suffice to say that Eli and Peyton did not inherit Archie's scrambling genes.

"He was kind of like Barry Sanders behind center, how athletic he was," director Rory Karpf said. "The footage is really breathtaking to watch."

Fans under 40 are likely to be shocked. "If it wasn't for Peyton and Eli coming along, nobody would know who I was," Archie said. "Maybe a few people in Mississippi - a few old people."

The video nuggets also include home movies of Cooper, Peyton and Eli in early childhood, some seen publicly before, others not. Fortunately Archie was a dedicated home movie maven.

"This is when I got one of those big cameras when they were getting popular," he said. "The thing was huge. You know, where you stuck a big VHS in the doggone thing. I looked like a TV [cameraman] guy.

"You love your kids and you want to capture some of these things, never thinking I'd be capturing it for something like this, just to save and for them to watch one day and our grandchildren to watch."

The video and family stories that accompany them confirm the truism that no one ever really changes. When they were very young, Cooper was the cut-up, Peyton the ultra-serious perfectionist and Eli the inscrutable island of calm -- same as now.

Archie, 64, said he was most pleased with the fact Cooper gets as much attention in the film as do Peyton or Eli, including an emotional account of the spinal condition that ended his football career before he got to college.

"He's always had a great spirit, but the spirit he had to get through that and the way he dealt with it, his attitude, certainly helped all of us get through a tough time," Archie said.

The documentary focuses more on the Mannings' years at Ole Miss and Tennessee than in the NFL, given the series' ties to the SEC, but it does explain a lot about how they all got from there to here.

Karpf makes sure to bring things back to Buddy Manning and his son that day in August, 1969, during a tumultuous era in the South, and with the Woodstock Festival just underway in upstate New York.

Archie clarified the film's portrayal of his father, who was not one to offer many hugs or "I-love-yous." He said that simply reflected the way most fathers of that era acted and that he and Buddy in fact had a "really good" relationship.

That becomes most evident in the most poignant moment in "The Book of Manning," when Archie recalls what Buddy told him on a drive to drop him off at Ole Miss.

I will not reveal it here, but let's just say he appears to have fulfilled one of his father's last wishes for him.