Archie Manning received the National Football Foundation’s Gold Medal Tuesday night. That’s the highest honor the foundation, gatekeeper of the College Football Hall of Fame, gives.

I remember the first time the National Football Foundation honored Manning, which was in 1989 when Manning was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

I was dispatched to New York to cover the event at the Waldorf Astoria. The cab ride from LaGuardia to Park Avenue was memorable. The cabbie picked up on my accent immediately.

Rick Cleveland
Rick Cleveland Credit: Melanie Thortis

“Where you from?” he asked.

“Jackson, Mississippi.”

“That’s where Ole Miss is, right?”

“No, Ole Miss is in Oxford.”

“Oh yeah, that’s where the great writer is from. Hemingway,” the cabbie said, and he was obviously proud of himself for knowing.

“No, I think you mean William Faulkner.”

“Well I know that’s where Archie Manning played quarterback,” the cabbie said. “I’ll never forget that game he had on TV against Alabama. Man, that guy was something.”

I went on and told him Archie Manning was the reason I was in New York and told him some of my first-hand experiences covering Manning. By the time he dropped me at the hotel, we were fast friends, and he knew a little more about Mississippi.

• • •

We in Mississippi know of Manning’s philanthropic efforts through the years, especially where the University of Mississippi Medical Center is concerned. Less known here are his considerable contributions to football on a national level.

National Football Foundation and College Football Hall of Fame Chairman Archie Manning gives two thumbs up at the 2010 College Football Hall of Fame awards dinner in New York.
National Football Foundation and College Football Hall of Fame Chairman Archie Manning gives two thumbs up at the 2010 College Football Hall of Fame awards dinner in New York. Credit: Kathy Willens/AP

Manning surely earned the medal he received Tuesday night. His contributions to amateur football are second to none. He joined the National Football Foundation board of directors in 1993. He became the organization’s chairman in 2007 and the leader of a nationwide network of 120 chapters in 47 states with more than 12,000 members.

During his tenure as chairman, the foundation has experienced substantial growth. Most prominently, his leadership played a critical role in the recent opening of the state-of-the-art $68.5 million College Football Hall of Fame in the heart of Atlanta.

He also oversaw the launch of the National Football Foundation Leadership Hall of Fame, which has helped raise and distribute millions of dollars for the scholarships, programs and initiatives. Currently, the organization distributes more than $1.3 million each year and recognizes thousands of student-athletes for their accomplishments on and off the field

• • •

Now then, back to 1989 and that trip to New York.

The induction was – and still is – a black-tie affair. More than 200 Mississippians attended.

Among the 14 inductees that year were Larry Csonka, Roman Gabriel, Sid Gillman and Donny Anderson. Tradition has it that one Hall of Famer is chosen by others to give an acceptance speech for the group. Naturally, Manning was selected by his peers.

Dressed in a black tuxedo and looking trim enough to still play, Manning gave a memorable speech. First, he praised each of the other inductees and said how it was an honor to speak for all of them.

“We’ve left the field, we’re out of print,” Manning said. “We’re the memories. We’re the ones who can look back on college football as a measure of more than yards gained, but as a measure of our private selves and our dreams.

“Because in the end, the Hall of Fame is not about glory. It’s about dreams. We have our names added to the wall, but we all know that football is America’s game for all the names not nailed to the wall. For all the kids chucking a football around the playgrounds and the backyards. For all the third-string tackles just hoping for a chance to play.

“We’re the lucky ones who get to play one last night and get to publicly thank the colleges and universities, our coaches and our old teammates who gave us the headlines. We thank those who cheered and those who gave us this night to remember.”

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.