EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Peyton Manning was a high school quarterback just beginning to refine his prodigious skills when he attended a summer football camp in Birmingham run by the Bowden family. Terry Bowden, then the coach at Samford University, was technically in charge of the camp, but family patriarch Bobby (the legendary Florida State coach), and brothers Tommy (now the coach at Clemson) and Jeff (the former FSU offensive coordinator) were also there.
At the camp, Manning picked up pointers about dropbacks, foot position, throwing motion and moving in the pocket.
"That was one of the better camps that I went to," Peyton said. "They were serious about trying to give the kids a lot of work. But it was also a chance for Bobby Bowden to get together with his sons. They were all over the camp."
In addition to instruction, the camp gave Manning, as well as his father, Archie, who accompanied him, an idea: the Mannings should hold their own camp.
After all, Archie and his sons – Cooper, Peyton and Eli – are also one of football's premier families. They know and love the sport and wanted to pass their knowledge on to others.
Thus was born the Manning Passing Academy's annual summer camp for quarterbacks and receivers. Approximately 900 youngsters attended the 11th edition of the camp last July at Nicholls State University in Thibodeaux, La.
"Well, I guess I kind of copied the Bowdens," Archie said. "When Peyton went to the Bowden camp, (Bobby) was recruiting Peyton at the time for Florida State. He told me he loved the camp and never missed it because it was a chance to be with his boys."
"That's where our credibility comes from and why we've had our success through the years," Archie Manning said. "We've all been involved with camps where the star of the camp or the head coach shows up and takes pictures the first day and you never see him again. Of course, Eli was a camper for the first three years, but I'm proud to say in the 11 years we've had this, Eli, Peyton and Cooper have never missed one minute of the camp. They've never left to fill a commitment. They may have to one day, it'll be something personal, but they've been there every single minute. Also, they do their best to get around and touch every kid, work with them and say hello. I have a lot of friends who send their grandkids and I tell Peyton and Eli and I want every one of their kids to go home and tell their granddad that they touched them."
Which is exactly what Peyton and Eli want. Peyton is the Super Bowl-winning quarterback and two-time NFL Most Valuable Player with the Indianapolis Colts and Eli is the Giants' starting quarterback. Despite their lofty stature, they are in the trenches with the kids, instructing, correcting and encouraging. If a drill is designed to teach rollouts after play-action fakes, Peyton and Eli will often stop the proceedings, demonstrate the proper technique, and watch everyone in the group to make sure they do it precisely as they were taught.
"I went to a lot of camps where it took half the day to do the camp picture and then you have time to go swimming," Peyton said. "Hey, this is football camp, we are here to talk about football, how to be a better quarterback, how to be a better receiver, running back and tight end. We don't do a camp picture. We don't tell them to bring their swimsuit or their tennis racket. We're here to coach them and teach them football, but at the same time to hug them up, to high-five them and to be sure they have a lot of fun. Our goal is to teach them the drills and the fundamentals so that when they go back to schools and work on these things, they can become better players. And most of them do."
"I went to a Penn State camp and I never saw Joe Paterno," Eli said. "That's kind of the whole point. We're going to do this camp and we're going to be there every day and we're going to try to see every kid. I think between Peyton and I we do that. We try to get on the field and try to someway interact with them, maybe give them one little tip. You say, 'Hey, that was a good throw, try to keep your eyes down field,' or whatever. You try to see every kid and talk to them."
While Peyton and Eli are famous professional athletes and Archie has been a Southern football icon for decades, it is oldest brother Cooper who is the most memorable Manning for many campers. Cooper is two years older than Peyton and seven years older than Eli. As a senior at Isidore Newman High School in New Orleans, Cooper caught 76 passes, all of them thrown by Peyton, then the sophomore quarterback. A top wide receiver prospect, Cooper followed Archie's footsteps to the University of Mississippi (where Eli later played). But Cooper was diagnosed with spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal canal, and never played a down for Ole Miss. Cooper eventually endured three surgeries and is today much thinner than his NFL-playing brothers.
Now married with three children (Archie and Olivia's only grandchildren), Cooper is a successful institutional stock broker in New Orleans. Friendly and funny, his barbs, quips and jokes are as much a part of the Manning camp as airborne footballs and sweat-soaked T shirts. One of the highlights of camp is the evening session chaired by Cooper where the campers are encouraged to ask any question they may wish. That, in turn, gives Cooper a chance to respond with any witty, sarcastic, biting response that he chooses.
"Essentially it's a deal where parents aren't supposed to be there," Cooper said. "We have 25 college players (who are there as instructors) and it's a chance for the campers to ask them things off the record: what happens on a (recruiting) visit, what are the girls like, things that high school kids want to know and probably would be too embarrassed to ask otherwise. I give them a hard time when they ask knucklehead questions and it's a pretty spirited event, it's a good time."
Did the kids ask good questions last year?
"Not really - it's always a disappointment, which makes the whole thing fun," Cooper said. "(They ask), 'Who is the hardest hitter, what stadiums are loudest,' stuff like that. But it's a pretty lighthearted environment. I rip them pretty good, I'm almost amazed at times that people want to continue to try to ask questions because they get so brutalized when it doesn't measure up, because they know they're on the hot seat once they raise their hand."
Archie, Peyton and Eli get as big a kick out of Cooper as the campers do.
"Don't ask a stupid question in front of Cooper, because he will nail you," Archie said. "But that's what they think is so fun - kids love that. Cooper is a big part of the camp. He coaches, but he's kind of a character.
"We have a lot of fun. It's always been my theory with my kids and still, when I talk to Peyton or Eli, I talk to them on a Saturday, I tell them have to fun when they play on Sunday. Have fun. That's what we tell our kids too. You're going to play football, you've got to work hard, you've got to do this and do that, but you've got to have fun."
Archie said much of the feedback he gets from campers is about Cooper.
"Kids are glad to meet Peyton and Eli," Archie said. "I get emails from people who said Eli had worked with them, or Peyton came by their group and helped somebody on their three-step drop. But 80 percent of it talks about how funny Cooper is, how crazy he is. It's been like that for 11 years. He absolutely keeps our staff meetings going."
Largely because of the respect that Mannings have in the football world, their camp attracts some well-known and influential instructors. Those who have taught at the camp include NFL quarterbacks Jake Delhomme of the Carolina Panthers, Philip Rivers of the San Diego Chargers and Tim Rattay of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Peyton Manning's receivers on the Colts, Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, have been there. Two of top quarterbacks in college football in 2006 - Florida's Chris Leak, who won the national championship and LSU's JaMarcus Russell, the first pick in the NFL Draft - were on the field with the campers last year. Tom Moore, Peyton's offensive coordinator with the Colts, was also there. Former NFL players, including Phil Simms, have helped instruct the campers. John Elway was there last year, but not to teach; his son, Jack, was a camper. Also attending the camp were children from Tony Dungy's family, the Rooney family (which owns the Pittsburgh Steelers) and the grandson of longtime NFL assistant coach Jim Hanifan. The campers came from 44 states – 49 in 2005.
"I like the camp because the Mannings are real professional, they're known to give back to the state of Louisiana," said former NFL quarterback Tommy Hodson, who has coached at all but one Manning camp. "I also like it that they get a lot of current college players, because the kids here don't know who the heck I am, but they know the Michigan State quarterback, the LSU quarterback, the Florida quarterback, and that carries a lot of weight. These guys have a lot of football knowledge to give the kids, so I think it's a super camp. Only the Mannings could pull this off and get that kind of quality coaching staff here to coach the kids.
"When I come, I like seeing all the guys, I see old teammates of mine. (Former tight end) Greg Baty was a teammate of mine in Miami. (Quarterback) Doug Nussmeier was a teammate of mine in New Orleans. I hadn't seen him in 10 years before I saw him here. So it gives me a chance to see all these guys."
Hodson has another good reason for spending three days every July in Thibodeaux's stifling heat and humidity.
"My kids," he said, "get a kick out of me hanging out with the Mannings."
In addition to the players, the Mannings enlist a number of coaches and other non-players to help organize and run the camp. They include Buddy Teevens, who came aboard when he was at Tulane in New Orleans and has returned while his career has taken him to Illinois, Florida, Stanford and Dartmouth; Greg Blackwell, who is the Director of Communications for the Sugar Bowl; and Jeff Hawkins, the director of football operations at the University of Oregon, who also met the Mannings when he was at Tulane. All letters, emails and phone calls to the Manning Passing Academy actually go to Hawkins, who is in charge of all logistics concerning the camp.
"When I was hired (at Oregon), the first thing I asked my coach (Mike Bellotti) was if I could I continue doing this and he said I could," Hawkins said. "I don't know if I would have accepted the job if he said otherwise, because having the opportunity to work with this type of people is special. Usually you go to a football camp that has a high profile name and they'll make an appearance. The Mannings are the first ones here and they are the last ones to go. They sleep with the kids, they eat with the kids and they play with the kids. The great thing about here is there is one giant rectangle of fields so that they can touch every kid, they just keep rotating. They don't make an appearance, they actually coach. They coach the coaches. What they're taught here are the techniques that the Mannings believe in, those fundamentals that they believer are lacking in high school."
In addition to seeking a Bowden-like bonding experience, Archie and Co. started the camp because of what they perceived as a lack of basic skills in many high school quarterbacks. Actually that was really Peyton, who looked at the state of prep football and was unhappy with what he saw.
"When Peyton was at Tennessee, it was his idea that high school quarterbacks weren't adept enough at throwing the football," Archie said. "They don't get enough coaching, enough off-season work. He said when you look at the box scores on Saturday morning, you'll see some team got beat 33-3 and the losing team's passing statistics were one-for-four or two-for-six. Some schools are just built around running and they don't have much semblance of a passing game. He said, 'Let's have a camp and try to make the high school experience a better one for quarterbacks and receivers by teaching them better mechanics.'
"So, selfishly, my inspiration was Coach Bowden. By starting this camp, I'm going to guarantee having my boys together every summer. So that's kind of where it started, Peyton was a sophomore at Tennessee and Eli must have been a freshman in high school and Cooper was a senior at Ole Miss."
- QB Eli Manning
About 180 boys attended the first Manning camp, which was held at Tulane, where Teevens then coached. Tulane couldn't accommodate more campers, so the Mannings moved the next year to Southeast Louisiana University in Hammond, where about 400 kids participated in the camp. The camp continued to grow by about 200 campers a year. SLU had the dorm and cafeteria space, but, "we were running out of grass," Archie said. Three years ago, the camp moved to Nicholls State, which is about 45 minutes southwest of New Orleans.
The Manning camp is not for the superstar high school quarterback who is heavily recruited by Notre Dame or USC. It's for good prep players who have some ability and want to play better in their last year or two.
"We really try to teach the fundamentals and the basics," Peyton said. "We say, 'Guys, we can't make you into a great quarterback here in three days, but we'll teach you the fundamentals, the footwork, the drop back, the mechanics, the throwing motion, the balance. If you go back and work on those drills with your receivers, you can become a better football player.'
"There's not enough people who understand enough about the passing game in high school, so we're trying to teach these kids about throwing the football and about running the routes and having some timing in the passing game and help these kids become some of the best high school players they can be. I just enjoy being around these kids. I still miss my days of high school football. I think high school football is one of the greatest institutions around and I cherish it and I truly enjoyed my four years of high school football.
"We try to have a 10-1 camper to staff ratio," Archie said. "We have seven practices - three on Friday, three on Saturday, and one practice Sunday morning. And we rotate the kids in groups, put them in various drills and mix them up with receivers. They also get to work with a lot of different coaches.
"We also have a good lecture series and we have a great auditorium and one night we'll have the pros in there to talk to them, another night we'll have all the college kids to talk to them."
If a camper is improperly executing a drill or technique and Peyton or Eli is close by, he will be quickly corrected. The Manning brothers go from group to group and help as many players as possible in each session. After 20 minutes or so at one station, the campers move to another area, where they are taught another facet of the game by a different instructor. In the brief time between drills, the Mannings usually engage in lighthearted banter or pepper the campers with stories and questions.
"It is fun, and I enjoy it," Eli said. "I know how it was when I was in high school. Those guys are having fun playing high school football with their buddies and they're coming to camp because they want to get better, they want to become a better high school football player.
"You've got to have fun with them. We work them, but during down time or when you're with them you've got to laugh with them and see if you can get their personalities out and try to do different things so they'll remember something. They take home a lot of things that we teach them in drills. I think most of them remember if they had a conversation just talking with some of the coaches and players that are there."
The Manning men always have fun at camp. Just don't try to suggest to Peyton that they give the kids an hour to, say, frolic in the campus pool.
"We've gone through a lot of ideas, but in the end, we keep it simple," Archie said. "Whenever we throw some new idea at Peyton, his famous line is, 'We're a friggin football camp.' Some times I'll say that we ought to do a TV show, we ought to do this, and he says, 'We're a friggin football camp.' We're trying to make the average high school football player better, so he can have a great high school football experience. We think everybody that goes out for high school football ought to have a good high school football experience.
"Peyton is the biggest, I don't want to say critic, but if there's anybody on the staff that we get questions from, it's Peyton. He hits me with 20 a day. Suggestions you might say. He's conscientious and he wants the camp to be better. I've got a legal pad here full of notes for next year and I'd say half of them came from Peyton."
In addition to teaching and improving young football players, the camp's allure for the Mannings is the opportunity they have to spend together. Whether they're on they're on the field, attending one of the many staff meetings or reminiscing in their dorm suite, Archie, Cooper, Peyton and Eli are enjoying each other's company.
"That's kind of a big pull for me to go back, for all of us to do it," Eli said. "We don't get a whole lot of time to work together - Peyton and Coop and my dad and I. Rarely does that happen during the year. That's why we enjoy going back there. During the day we work, but we get lunch and dinners and enough breaks where we get time. And at night, when the kids are in bed, we get to spend some time together and we have a blast. You get some of these other college players and we have fun just listening to Cooper tell stories and then kind of taking control of the social event. It's a blast for us to get together and do that.
"The pranks can be made - we've gotten a little better about it, we don't have as my pranks as we used to. In the old days you'd have to watch out what's around you, your surroundings, because there'd always be some Vaseline on the doorknob or something when you're coming in."
Cooper, the family humorist, begs to differ about the pranks.
"You kind of look at your toothbrush every morning and think, 'Okay, what did they do with this?'" he said. "It's still very, very childish behavior and just kind of a throwback to being a camper. It's a lot of fun. We get three or four days together with no outside distractions. It's a lot of fun. It's real pure.
For all the Mannings, nothing is better than the camp, because it combines football and family.
"It's one of the few chances a year that I get to spend time with Eli, Cooper and my dad," Peyton said. "We room together in the dorm with all the kids and get caught up and have a good time with all the kids. So it's something I look forward to every year. And also, it's always about three weeks before training camp and it kind of reminds me that football is fun and everybody needs to have that fun in them. These kids love football for the right reasons, they enjoy it, they have a passion for it. It's a good kind of reminder and refresher for me and the other pro football players and coaches to have that fun inside of you."
Like any group of kids, the Manning boys like to make fun of their day. Archie, of course, loves it.
"It's fun, I really look forward to it," he said. "It's kind of a guarantee for three nights and four days, just the four of us. I mean, we're busy coming and going, but we're all in there. It's kind of like the old days - I'm hollering at them to get up. I'm not awake when they come in, but Cooper keeps us loose and we've got some cereal and fruit and Gatorade in there and one afternoon before we go to a night meeting, we're sitting in there with John Elway and Bubby Brister and Doug Nussmeier shooting the breeze and laughing. It doesn't get any better."
Anyone who attends the camp will say that.