Last Friday, Archie Manning began what must qualify as one of the all-time great weekends in the history of parenting.
On a sunny afternoon in Dallas, he watched as his youngest son, Eli, led the University of Mississippi to its first January bowl win since 1970. The Rebels defeated Oklahoma State, capping a 10-win season. Two days later in Indianapolis, Archie's middle son, Peyton, quarterbacked the NFL Colts to a 41-10 playoff win as his dad watched from the stands.
Such good fortune will be tested Sunday, when Peyton and the Colts travel to Kansas City for a second-round playoff game. Whatever happens, there seems little doubt about who bears the mantle of football's first family: the Mannings of New Orleans.
"It's kind of scary, to tell you the truth," says the elder Manning, a former star at the University of Mississippi and later with the NFL's New Orleans Saints. "I tell my wife all the time that I need to be careful crossing the street. Things are going too well."
Football experts say several factors have generated such success. Archie and Olivia Manning, college sweethearts at Ole Miss, are by all accounts parents who made extraordinary efforts to spend time with their family at the same time Archie was playing in the NFL. Their three sons - Cooper, Peyton, and Eli - grew up in a home where sports were encouraged but not pushed.
All three of the boys displayed athletic gifts at an early age. Each earned a spot in college football, though Cooper's career was cut short by a back injury that forced him to give up the game. He now works as a broker in New Orleans. "They're kind of like the Cleavers of football," says Len Pasquarelli, senior pro-football writer at ESPN.com. "They are very likable, well-grounded people who are also exceptionally good at playing football."
The Manning boys grew up around NFL players and locker rooms. Archie recalls Cooper and Peyton playing pickup games on the Saints' home field after games, using wadded-up tape for a ball. "The lights would be dim and they'd still be out there," he says.
This season, it seems, everything has fallen into place. Eli Manning returned for his senior year at Mississippi and led the school to its best finish since his father's playing days there.
He was also a finalist for the Heisman Trophy - just as Archie and Peyton were during their college days. The youngest Manning is a guaranteed high selection in next spring's NFL draft.
"Eli has it all," says Bill Curry, an ESPN analyst who played and coached in the college and pro ranks. "Steel-trap mind, lightning-quick release, and a great work ethic. More than anything, though, he comes from that great family."
Bob Griese, an ABC Sports analyst and two-time Super Bowl winner, has three sons, just like Archie Manning, his NFL contemporary. Mr. Griese's youngest son, Brian, plays quarterback for the Miami Dolphins, just as his father did.
"It's not something I ever pushed, just as I'm sure Archie didn't," Mr. Griese says. "The odds are too long, for one thing. I wanted my kids to be well-rounded, but that was it. I told them, 'Don't count on doing what I did. Just enjoy your life.' "
Already an established Pro Bowl performer, Peyton Manning rose to new heights this season. He shared MVP honors and, last weekend, won his first NFL playoff game while throwing five touchdown passes. Since he didn't win a national title at the University of Tennessee and hadn't won an NFL playoff game until Sunday, some questioned his ability to win big contests. Such notions don't sit well with those who have played the game
Those experts say too many other factors - the play of the defense and special teams, among them - lie beyond the quarterback's control.
"The people we talk to around the league know how great he is - they don't like to play against him," says Bill Polian, the Indianapolis Colts executive who decided to select Peyton Manning instead of another highly touted quarterback, Washington State's Ryan Leaf, in 1998. Mr. Leaf, who is no longer in the league, was considered Manning's peer coming out of college. Mr. Polian says the deciding factor was the Manning family's reputation.
Although the Mannings will soon boast three NFL quarterbacks, they aren't clones. Archie relied on a scrambling style fueled by porous offensive lines that forced him to run for dear life. Peyton and Eli, by comparison, are classic drop-back passers who rely instead on arm strength and extensive studies of opposing defenses.
Following tradition, Archie still finds himself scrambling - between Peyton's and Eli's games. It will only get harder as Eli heads to the pros next season. "I told Archie I don't know how he does it," says Roger Staubach, an NFL Hall of Famer and family friend. "Watching your kids perform is nerve-racking anyway. At the level Eli and Peyton have reached, it must be excruciating. And a lot of fun, too."