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The other Manning

Cooper Manning is the eldest son - and the least known - in the famed football family, and you can't help but wonder what might have been. He doesn't have that problem. When you have to relearn to walk, "just being normal" is enough.

By DAVE SCHEIBER
Published November 7, 2004


NEW ORLEANS - He goes to work here on the 35th floor of a sleek marble office building downtown, surrounded by a stunning panorama of the French Quarter, the Garden District and the bustling tourist city below. But for Cooper Manning, the view stretches well beyond the land of jazz and jambalaya.

On a clear day, you can almost see Indianapolis and North Jersey.

He is bound to those places now, as a proud older brother rooting for the NFL clubs of his famous younger siblings, a source of strength and inspiration to each.

A week doesn't go by when Cooper isn't on the phone talking about football or life in general with his two kid brothers. There's Peyton, the seven-year star quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts in the midst of a career season. And there's Eli, the rookie No. 1 draft pick of the New York Giants, currently riding the bench and biding his time until another Manning legacy unfolds.

Then there's Cooper, pronounced the Southern way, with the "oo" sounding like it does in cook. At 30, he is the Manning whose first name you probably don't know, the oldest son of a legend in this town, former New Orleans Saints quarterback Archie Manning. Cooper is a coveted player on a different team, trading oil and gas stocks for an energy research firm with the decidedly unsnappy name of Howard Weil, Labouisse and Friedrichs Inc.

But everything was once so different.

It was two decades ago, when a 10-year-old Cooper used to beat up on Peyton, two years his junior, run circles around him in football and basketball, and start to instill the competitive fire that helped make Peyton an All-American at Tennessee and one of the NFL's most feared quarterbacks.

And it was just more than a decade ago, when Cooper was the pride of New Orleans private school Isadore Newman High, wowing little brother Eli, seven years younger. Cooper was an all-state senior wide receiver who caught everything thrown his way by a sophomore sensation quarterback named Peyton, and soon caught the attention of Division I-A schools such as Texas, Virginia and ultimately his dad's alma mater, Ole Miss.

Then, just like that, it all ended, not with an injury but with a medical diagnosis in 1992 that left him more numb than the feeling in his hand. And Cooper, who had only begun to embrace the world of opportunities before him, had no choice but to start over without the game he loved.

He would need to redefine himself. But first, he would have to learn to walk again.

* * *

There's no way of knowing how far he would have gone in football.

Of course, judging from the genes passed down from his father and the track record of his brothers, it's fair to assume that Cooper - in his prime a muscular 6-foot-4, 185-pounder with 4.7 speed in the 40 - would have been a force in college. And he certainly would have had a chance to catch more passes from Peyton, who had planned to follow his big brother to Ole Miss and pick up where they'd left off in high school.

It's no stretch picturing Cooper a success in the pros, either. But he laughs off such speculation sitting in the company board room last month, his boyish good looks and wavy brown hair resembling his dad as a younger man and a bit of Peyton, too.

"I think it would be silly of me to say I was going to the NFL," he says. "I had a hard time thinking much beyond college. I really was just hoping to be a decent college wide receiver and make some plays and hopefully catch a few touchdowns."

He was always athletically gifted, always a kid who gave his parents, Archie and Olivia, reason to be proud - and also to wince.

Growing up, he was a natural cutup with a live-wire personality, unlike his more formal dad and more serious younger brothers. Cooper would tell off-color jokes at his parents' parties and once even donned a paper bag - coaxing Peyton to do the same - at a Saints game in which their father was playing. Their parents were not amused.

"My personality probably stood out a little bit more because my dad's kind of a bashful, yes sir, no sir type of guy, so the fact that he produced kind of a character was funny," he says. "I can remember early on when I'd do something, he'd say they found me on the doorstep, they didn't know where I came from. And I guess when you're young, you kind of get labeled, so it was like, "Here's Cooper, he's a nut. Here's Peyton, he's kind of serious.' So you hear people say it, and it's like you have a license to perform under that heading."

When Cooper wasn't performing, he and Peyton were often competing or tussling. "Because we were two years apart, we fought a lot," Cooper says. "My dad always tried to emphasize to us that we didn't know how lucky we were to have each other, and we should appreciate that. But we kind of had a hard time doing that, as opposed to Eli, who was clearly my younger brother and there was no competition."

Cooper wouldn't allow other kids to pick on Peyton. "But I was allowed to pick on him because he was my brother, so it worked out nicely," he adds. At their dad's urging, Cooper let Peyton win a few of their one-on-one basketball games to keep him from getting demoralized. In time, the brothers would forge a strong bond on the football field.

Cooper started off trying to follow his father's footsteps as a quarterback. But he was third string, and by his sophomore year, he longed for more playing time. So he worked relentlessly to become a wide receiver, spending hours with his father working on drills, including an unforgiving one called "Ten Balls." Archie would gun all kinds of passes at him from 10 yards away and Cooper would have to catch 10 in a row. "If you got up to eight but dropped one, you had to start all over," he says.

Cooper didn't drop a pass his entire junior year as an All-State wideout. Then came his senior season, when he and new varsity quarterback Peyton led the team to the state semifinals. Cooper caught 76 passes for 1,250 yards and was named the team's most valuable player.

"Being on the same team with Cooper was one of the best years I've ever had," says Peyton, who often communicated with his brother with their own set of hand signals.

Their father, meanwhile, remembers Cooper's intense dedication to excel. "He worked really hard at getting himself bigger and trying to be fast enough to be a college receiver," says Archie. "He probably had further to go than Peyton and Eli to become a college prospect. And I was so proud of his work ethic and accomplishing that. Then all of a sudden, it was taken away."

Cooper had started noticing his right pinky and ring finger going numb. Sometimes, the sensation felt more like pinpricks. Other times, the hand seemed to lose all its strength. Late in the season, Cooper dropped some passes uncharacteristically.

He kept the problem to himself. He was still so good, nobody suspected anything was wrong.

* * *

But there was something wrong, indeed.

At the start of basketball season, Cooper could tell his shots lacked the normal touch and control. He worked on dribbling and shooting left-handed and still averaged a dozen points on a team that won the state 2A championship. He remained mum about the problem, not wanting opponents to target him, but did confide in his father.

After the season, Archie took Cooper to a New Orleans surgeon, whose diagnosis was an injured ulnar nerve, a common ailment for football players that can cause numbness in the fingers and hand. Surgery was performed and Cooper worked through the pain after the cast was removed, excelling in a summer all-star football game. He left for Mississippi, hoping to get healthier as a freshman. But the pain and numbness persisted during August practices.

At the urging of the team doctor, Archie took his son to specialists at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and the Baylor Medical Clinic. Cooper was tested by a half-dozen doctors through September. One of them from Baylor finally called Archie with the shocking news. Cooper suffered from a congenital condition called spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal canal. The upshot: He needed surgery and had to quit football immediately. Furthermore, the doctor said, he was fortunate not to have been paralyzed in the years he played, due to all the hits to his upper body.

"It changes your whole world," he says. "I'd played organized football since fifth grade. And here I was at school, making friends, living in an athletic dorm, and all of a sudden, they tell you you can't do that anymore. I had to struggle with it for a while."

Then, he adds with a touch of his trademark humor, "Yeah, I guess I played my entire career a hit away from the wheelchair; thank God I was kind of a wuss and ran out of bounds so many times."

Peyton was devastated by the news but vowed in a heartfelt letter to his brother that they'd always be a team. Cooper underwent a three-hour operation during the summer of 1993. He awoke hardly able to move. His entire right leg was useless, his left leg numb. And when therapy started, he was unable to walk. But he worked tirelessly in rehab. He fell frequently, yet slowly regained his balance with a walker and cane.

Back at school in early 1993, he hung around the football team, watching practices and mingling with ex-teammates in the locker room. But one day, a player asked him why he was still there.

"He was being nice, but I said, "What do you mean?' " Cooper recalls. "He said, "Man, I'd be out golfin' or fishing or chasing girls.' He was right. I don't think I went to too many practices after that. It was a matter of me accepting that things had changed and realizing there were other things out there for me to do."

* * *

Cooper's life took a sharp turn for the better five years ago when he married Ellen Heidingsfelder, an attractive New Orleans attorney. They had known each other as friends when they were younger, but now there was chemistry.

Today, they live in a picturesque Uptown section of town in a majestic old three-story home, with a basketball hoop in the drive next to a pair of SUVs. On a recent evening, the household was filled with the familiar chatter of the couple's two young children, a 22-month-old daughter named May and a 6-month-old son, Arch - just a few minutes away from doting grandpa and grandma Manning.

Things are good for Cooper these days. He underwent another surgery, a cervical fusion, and his only restrictions are avoiding serious jolts. So he has given up physical sports such as skiing. "The most dangerous thing I do is drive a car," he says. All that lingers from his past problem: He can't shake hands quite as firmly as his dad taught him as a youngster. He keeps one small reminder of the old days in his wallet. It's his official dining pass from Ole Miss, showing Cooper as a head-shaven freshman with a well-muscled neck, looking ready for his first collegiate season. "It's from early August, about a month or so before I left," he says. "But I don't keep it for any big reason. It's for the bald effect. I always thought it was funny." Through it all, Cooper has retained his positive outlook. The upbeat kid always looking for a laugh refused to let his ordeal keep him down. He says he's not wired with a "why me?" personality and thinks maybe he was better equipped to deal with the setback than Peyton or Eli.

"Maybe the bad thing happened to the right guy," he says. "I'm just a big believer that things happen for a reason. I don't like to sit and dwell, whether it's good or bad. You can walk around and be a sad guy, but that never appealed to me."

Instead, he refocused: "Sometimes you're pigeon-holed into, "you're an athlete,' and then just like that you're not. So who are you? You've got to grow up a little bit when that happens."

"What happened to Cooper was a tough, tough deal," says his father. "It wasn't like this was a knee injury. It was something that happened gradually and suddenly you're through. And then there was the hard surgery, and I can't tell you what a warrior he was during that. The whole thing was hard on his mother and me, but Cooper's attitude and the way he shifted gears in college, we just felt so blessed."

Meanwhile, Cooper became the No. 1 cheerleader of Peyton and Eli, always offering encouragement and advice, and to this day speaking to them by phone several times a week.

"He's still my best friend," Peyton says. "It's just nice to be able to call him and talk to him about anything. I don't get to see him as much as I'd like to, being in Indianapolis. He comes to as many games as he can. But he and his wife have two kids. So I miss him a lot. I miss the chances to just hang out when we were kids."

They do get to spend time together each summer in Louisiana at the Manning Passing Academy, where father and sons instruct nearly 1,000 top high school quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers and tight ends from around the country. But Peyton and Eli feel their older brother's presence even from a distance.

"What I've always admired the most about Cooper is just his attitude on life," says the Colts quarterback. "And I know he's helped Eli out a lot over the years, too. He's always upbeat and has a tremendous sense of humor. We've had this kind of deal - Cooper helps loosen me up, and I help him be more serious at times. It's been a pretty good tradeoff."

Adds Archie: "He's been so supportive of his brothers. I tell you, there may be some dads out there whose sons didn't accomplish what they kind of wanted them to in sports. But I am so proud of Cooper in how he dealt with that situation and what he's doing now. To me, Cooper's just as successful in what he's doing as a businessman as Peyton and Eli are in football."

He still gets the predictable questions from people in public. They want to know if he's playing football, and if not, how come? Cooper has an array of responses - he's a bowler, a pianist. "A lot of people don't really care about the answer, and I don't feel like bringing the whole thing up, so I'll say anything to make light of it," he says. "I'll be checking into an airport and somebody will see I'm a Manning and ask if I play football. I'll say, no, and they'll ask why. And I'll say, well, my eligibility ran out."

Occasionally, Cooper has received requests to speak about his story. But he hasn't done so yet.

"I guess I've always had this desire just to be normal," he says. "I just want to hurry up and get back to where no one was looking at me any different, no one was feeling sorry for me. I don't want to be known as the guy who didn't make it. I just want to be known as good ol' Cooper."

The guy who did.