This photo of Walter Payton was taken at a UMMC fundraiser in 1994. Payton was a frequent visitor to the hospital.


By now you know, Eli Manning was named co-recipient of the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award on Super Bowl weekend in Houston. But what you might not know is that the Payton and Manning families go far back and that the late Walter Payton and Archie Manning, Eli’s dad, were good friends who shared a mutual admiration.

“I guess it was because we were two small-town Mississippi boys playing in the NFL at the same time,” Archie Manning said by phone from New Orleans Thursday. “We got to be buddies. Ol’ Walter, he was easily one of the greatest players in football history, but he was also a pistol. Nobody loved a prank more than Walter.”

Archie Manning remembers the day after his second son, Peyton, was born in 1976.

Archie Manning (left) and Eli Manning at Ole Miss

“The phone rings and it’s Walter on the other end,” Archie Manning said. “He congratulates me and says he knows we are good friends and all, but he was really surprised and honored that Olivia and I would name our son after him.

“So, I finally said, ‘Walter, I love and respect you, but I named Peyton after my uncle up in Drew. It’s spelled P-E-Y-T-O-N, with an E, not an A. Well, Walter didn’t even acknowledge that. He said he couldn’t believe I was such a dumb ass I misspelled his name. He just always considered Peyton to be his namesake. He loved Peyton.”

And that leads us to a story from the 1980 Pro Bowl in Honolulu. Payton represented the Bears. Archie Manning represented the Saints.

“It was the first Pro Bowl in Hawaii, a big deal,” Archie Manning said. “Olivia and I took Cooper, who was 6 and Peyton, who was 4. Eli hadn’t even come along yet. We spent a lot of time out on the beach at Waikiki.

“Well, one day Olivia and I looked around and we didn’t see Peyt. We asked Coop where his little brother was and he said he didn’t know, and all the sudden we got a little panicked, started looking all over. And then we look out in the water and there’s Walter and Peyton sailing by on one of those catamarans.

“I remember thinking, I know Walter is one of the greatest athletes in history, but I don’t think he knows anything about sailing. We were mighty glad when they got in.”

Rick Cleveland

Archie and Olivia Manning spent a lot of time in Jackson during his years with the Saints. That’s when he first got to know Walter Payton, when Walter was interning at WLBT as a sports announcer. Occasionally, Archie and Walter would work out together in the off-season.

“I had a pretty good workout regimen back then,” Archie said. “I was pretty much a workout warrior or so I thought. I couldn’t hang with Walter. We’d go over to Memorial Stadium and he’d start running those steps. No way I could keep up with him. No way anybody could.”

Walter Payton, said Archie Manning, shares more than football stardom and good deeds with Eli Manning. Payton was the all-time prankster, a guy who delighted in tying a referee’s shoes together from underneath a pile after being tackled. That’s the kind of story Archie tells Eli about Walter.

“Eli really appreciates that part of Walter,” Archie Manning said. “Most people don’t know this about Eli but he is one of the biggest pranksters ever. He could give Walter a run. Don’t ever let Eli close to your cell phone.”

Comedian Kevin Nealon found out the hard way after a Saturday Night Live appearance with Eli and Peyton Manning. Nealon gave Eli his cell phone and asked him to take a photo of Nealon and Peyton. Eli did, but when he gave the phone back to Nealon the language was switched to Chinese. Nealon had to go to the Apple store to get it fixed.

“That’s Eli’s signature prank,” Archie Manning said. “He’s got lots of others.”

Another similarity between Walter Payton and the Giants quarterback who won the Man of the Year award? Their affinity for sick children.

The Walter and Connie Payton Foundation continues to benefit both ill and underprivileged children. And, long before there was an Eli Manning Clinic at Batson Hospital at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, Walter Payton was visiting sick children there.


Eli Manning signs Batson Children’s Hospital patient Anthony Gastireau’s cast during a visit to the state’s only children’s hospital in 2015.

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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.