Sunday, January 11, 2004

'Football family' reveling in its greatest season

Manning mania

By The Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS - For the Mannings, this has been a near-perfect season.

Indianapolis' Peyton was chosen as the NFL's co-MVP, and younger brother Eli blossomed into a Heisman Trophy finalist as Mississippi's quarterback.

While the Mannings seem to have football running through their veins, they always put family first.

Archie Manning, a former NFL quarterback, spent this season traveling from his home in Oxford, Miss., to watch two of his sons. He attended 22 games - all 13 of Mississippi's and nine of the Colts' 17.

"It's been a busy fall," he chuckled.

The brothers are nearly inseparable, too.

Oldest brother Cooper, 29, was in Dallas for the Cotton Bowl, then flew to Indianapolis for the Colts' playoff game against Denver. In between, there were phone calls to Peyton.

Peyton cut short his MVP news conference so he could watch Eli's bowl game. In high school, he switched from No. 14 to No. 18 as a tribute to Cooper, who was forced out of football by a congenital narrowing of the spinal canal.

Peyton, 27, has produced his best NFL season. He extended his league record to five straight 4,000-yard seasons, broke his own franchise record for completion percentage (67.0) and had his lowest interception total (10). He became the first player since 1970 to throw five touchdowns in a game three times in a season and won his first playoff game last week.

Eli's success has almost mirrored his brother's. He celebrated his 22nd birthday by beating Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl to give Mississippi its first 10-win season since 1971 and its first January bowl victory since 1970 when his father was the quarterback. He set 45 school records, more than half of which belonged to his father.

And in February at the Maxwell Award ceremonies, the two quarterbacks will become the first brothers to pick up the college and pro player-of-the-year awards in the same season.

After all these falls filled with football, Cooper is convinced nothing comes close to what he has witnessed this season.

"Unfortunately when you're in a football family, the fall is dictated more by wins and losses," he said. "So this has been the best one ever."

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