Olivia Manning: The First Lady of Football
So far, there’s been plenty to watch. The Mannings met during their freshman year at Ole Miss when Olivia and some friends gave the carless Archie a ride from campus into town in her brand-new Mercury. He knew who she was, he tells me, but then so did everybody. “How could you miss her?” asks Archie’s former teammate and roommate Billy Van Devender, now a Mississippi businessman. “She was tall and beautiful and also really smart.”
For her, it was not love at first sight—like the rest of the team, her future husband had shaved his head. “We didn’t really talk to women until we had hair,” Archie says, which meant that it wasn’t until spring, at a Sigma Nu/Delta Gamma mixer, that they finally shared a dance. When he asked her for a date, she reported the news to her father, an Ole Miss alum who’d been taking her to games since childhood. He was “real excited” about the football aspect of things, she says, but there was also the fact that “Archie was a sweet boy.”
After a summer in Fort Worth, Texas, at the John Robert Powers modeling school, she returned to Ole Miss, where Archie was the team’s starting quarterback. By senior year they’d decided to get married, but because the NFL draft in those days was so early, there would be no time in summer. Their wedding, in January, “was a zoo,” Olivia says. “In Philadelphia, you don’t send invitations locally. Friends and family are invited through the press, and the Neshoba Democrat ran my picture on a full page.” The event, which took place at the National Guard armory because the country club was too small, generated such fervor that then-Governor John Bell Williams told a session of the legislature he planned to “scalp” his invitation. He attended, but not before dispatching many dozens of highway patrolmen to keep order.
The day after they returned from an Acapulco honeymoon, Archie was chosen as the Saints’ number one pick, and New Orleans became home immediately after graduation. All three sons (Cooper, who is now thirty-eight, Peyton, thirty-six, and Eli, thirty-one) were born in the city before Archie ended his career with brief stints in Houston and Minnesota, a final step that didn’t last long. “I looked out my window one day,” Olivia says, “and I said, ‘Archie, you know those ducks or geese or whatever they were out in that little pond? Where’d they go?’ When he told me they were flying south, I said, ‘So am I.’”
Once they were home, the business of bringing up three boys continued in earnest. “We had no idea what we were doing, raising children in a place like this,” she says. “We’d both grown up in small towns where everybody knew what you were up to and told your parents the next day.” The goal, says Archie, was “well-rounded” kids. “We never had any aspirations for them to be big-time athletes.” There was no peewee football, only baseball and basketball until junior high at Isidore Newman, chosen for its rigorous academics. “If we’d wanted a football factory, we’d have chosen another school,” Olivia says, but when all three became stars anyway, she never missed a game.
Her husband calls her “the great equalizer” for her ability to “make every crisis a minor one,” but she was also the fun mom. Mardi Gras meant jambalaya and a nonstop open house. There were curfews, but all three sons agree that she was the one to get on the phone if you were in search of an extension. “She had the uncanny ability to be a mother who provided structure and discipline but who was also a running mate,” says Cooper, whose football career was cut short by a condition that narrows the spinal canal and who is now a partner in an energy investment firm. “One minute, she’d say, ‘What you did was not appropriate,’ and in the next breath it would be ‘Please put some ice in my margarita,’ but you never misinterpreted the balance.”
In summers the boys bagged groceries alongside their “Pawpaw” at Williams Brothers and moved into the family cabin during the Neshoba County Fair, still a tradition. It was important, says Olivia, that they got “Mississippi manners, that they learned to say ‘Yes, ma’am.’” The store, now run by Olivia’s brother, still sells everything from seed and saddles to clothing and hand-sliced bacon, and remains such a touchstone for Eli that he commissioned the Mississippi-born artist William Dunlap to make a painting of it.