Just because Vince Lombardi liked to say, "winning isn't everything, it's the only thing," doesn't make it so.
For starters, Lombardi never lost anything in New Orleans — not even a game.
But Archie Manning did: over and over, just about every way imaginable and nearly 100 times while wearing the fleur-de-lis of the Saints for 11 of his 13 NFL seasons. And then, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, he nearly lost his hometown. Yet just try to find someone who's led a more charmed life.
Manning is still married to the homecoming queen he swept off her feet at Ole Miss more than four decades ago (1970), when he came calling as the star quarterback. He's made plenty of money since, lost none of his charisma, only so much of his hair and at age 60, remains within an enviable few pounds of his playing weight.
Better still, Manning found a way to ease any lingering hurts from all that losing. Beginning this week, for the third time in the last four years — and the second time courtesy of middle son Peyton — people are going to fuss over Archie at the Super Bowl.
"I never got close to it, certainly," he said, referring to his playing days, "so maybe there's justice there."
Or maybe not.
Because the team waiting for Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts is the same franchise that Archie toiled for, his sons grew up rooting for, and no one in town for most of its existence ever really expected would amount to much. But that was before the Saints got serious and after they nearly got washed away with the rest of New Orleans. As a result, next weekend, they'll be the last team standing in the way of a third Super Bowl for the Manning clan.
Few people can better appreciate what the team's rise means to that town than the Manning patriarch. Even so, Archie won't pretend choosing sides was tough.
"I'm a hundred percent on that, 100 percent," he said softly last weekend, standing outside a celebrating Colts locker room after their AFC championship win over the Jets. "It's not close."
Just a few steps away, Archie and Olivia's youngest son, Eli, was looking on. Only two years ago, as quarterback of the New York Giants, he orchestrated perhaps the biggest upset in the history of the NFL's biggest game. But after the Colts' win, Eli said nothing — he just wore a smile that seems to suggest blood will always be thicker than water, even when that water has the power to roil so many memories.
"I lived in New Orleans 39 years and I'm very proud of what the Saints have done," Archie said finally. "Very proud."
Romantic as the relationship looks now, Manning's days with the Saints weren't always wine and roses. He was sacked more than 300 times behind New Orleans' porous offensive line, and so often and so memorably by Rams' tough front four that he once offered to be the presenter for Jack Youngblood when he entered the Hall of Fame.
"He wouldn't have gotten in," Manning said, "without having me to sack."
He was eight years into his career before producing his one and only non-losing season (8-8, in 1979), only to have the Saints promptly nosedive to 1-15 the season after. Midway through that one, fans began showing up at the Superdome with grocery bags on their heads, and more than once, Archie told Olivia to leave the boys home rather than watch him get mercilessly booed in person.
Even the one game the Saints won that season wound up being a net loss for Archie. After beating the Jets in New York, he hurried out of the locker room without knotting his tie and then stopped on the way to the team bus to sign some autographs. A kid ran by, grabbed his necktie and took off. Manning stepped on the bus without it and wound up getting fined for violating the Saints' dress code.
Yet the harsh memories faded soon enough. As the three boys became standout athletes at Newman High, the Mannings became fixtures on the sidelines and in car pools. What no one could have known at the time, Archie, included, is how far they would go. He was surprised when Cooper and Peyton, neither much taller than a pair of football pants, announced they were going into the family business. All these years later, Archie continues to insist all three boys learned more of the craft from each other than they ever inherited from him.
Cooper, now 36, never quite made it to the top. He was a promising wide receiver at Ole Miss who had to quit playing following surgery to correct a chronic spinal condition.
"I try to put myself in his shoes and it would be hard to take," Eli said in an interview during Super Bowl week two years ago. "But I never heard him have a regret, any bitterness or complaints. He got his cards and played them the right way."
The rise of Peyton, who was two years behind Cooper, was much easier to predict. Peyton was serious enough about the game that when he switched from flag football to tackle in seventh grade, he spent weeks mastering the footwork of the dropback and made Eli learn to snap the ball like a real center — including with the laces up — instead of from the side.
Eli was five years younger than Peyton, and much more easygoing and content to soak the lessons up. But no sooner had he collected a Super Bowl ring and MVP trophy to match the hardware Peyton brought home from the 2007 Super Bowl than Eli demanded a new position the next time the Mannings gathered in the backyard for a pickup game.
"Maybe," Eli joked at the time, "I can be a receiver now."
And yet, when Archie was asked whether Eli's first Super Bowl visit started a fire under his hypercompetitive brother, he ducked the question.
"I don't go there. I knew I was going to get that question," he said. "I don't want to sound greedy. I'm a parent."
Then, a moment later, Archie added, "After Peyton won, he never seemed like, 'This is it.' I never saw him drop off in his preparation or anything."
Still, brothers have always pushed each other, even in the NFL. According to research from the NFL, by the year in 2007, the year Eli won his title, there had been nine instances where a set of brothers, like the Mannings, succeeded their father into the league.
But from where Archie stands, it looks like nothing more than a little bit of serendipity. Given one more chance to frame his own contribution, Manning rubbed his chin.
"They're good listeners," he said, "and the one thing I always told them was 'Don't ever take a win for granted. They're hard to get.'"
Then Archie paused, looked back in the direction of Peyton's teammates celebrating in the Colts locker room and said to no one in particular, "They're awfully hard to get."