Next Friday, a group of elderly guys will gather at Millsaps to eat lunch, tell stories and reminisce about a week and a memorable night that happened 50 years ago this summer. They won’t have to exaggerate any of it.
The truth will suffice.
The big, banner headline on the front page of the July 30, 1967, Clarion-Ledger sports section read: “Manning-led Yankees romp Rebels, 57-33.”
The main story told of an “aerial circus that looked more like pros than just-graduated high school seniors.”
It was the week and night that introduced “Archie Manning III,” as the newspaper referred to him, to the world outside the tiny Delta town of Drew. But it was more than that. It was precursor to the wide open, passing sport that football has become. Archie Manning threw for four touchdowns and ran for another to lead the North team over the South in the Mississippi High School All-Star Game before a crowd of 12,000 at Veterans Memorial Stadium.
And here’s the deal: Almost nobody knew who Manning was before that night.
“I remember seeing this skinny, and I mean skinny, red-headed, freckle-faced kid and thinking: Who is that stick?” says Skipper Jernigan, later Manning’s teammate at Ole Miss and his fast friend for these past 50 years.
“I’ll tell you this much, we found out who he was that week,” Jernigan said. “Everybody found out. I remember thinking: ‘Holy mackeral! Who is that guy and where did he come from?’”
Jernigan had played at Jackson Murrah in the Big Eight Conference, and, as he put it, “We didn’t much keep up with what was going on in the Delta Valley Conference.”
Manning had quarterbacked Drew to a 5-5 record as a senior. The year before, he played only three games because of an injury. He was unknown, even to Bob Tyler, then at Meridian High, who was the North team’s head coach.
“I had never heard of him, but when I was picking the players to be on our roster I got a call from Coach (John) Vaught at Ole Miss,” Tyler said last week. “Coach Vaught said he sure would appreciate it if I would put this quarterback from Drew on the roster. Back then, when Coach Vaught asked you to do something, you just did it.”
Besides, Tyler wasn’t worried about the quarterback position because he had his own quarterback, Meridian’s Bob White, a high school All-American on his roster, too. He knew he had a dandy.
Said Jernigan, “I knew who Bob White was. Everybody knew who Bob White was. He was the guy. Archie was an afterthought.”
Future Mississippi State standout Jan Gwin, a guard from Greenville, could have told everyone at least a little bit about Manning. He had lived just outside Drew the first nine years of his life. He rode the bus to school in Drew, where Manning lived just across the street from the school.
“Every day we’d pull up in that yellow school bus, and this little, skinny red-headed kid would be out there playing in his yard, usually throwing something,” Gwin said. “I distinctly remember the bus driver saying to no one in particular: ‘That red-headed boy is gonna be a quarterback or a pitcher. That kid has an arm.’”
That’s what Tyler learned when he gathered his squad of 33 for an orientation practice weeks before the game.
“We had our quarterbacks throwing to our receivers and Coach (David) Fly and I were standing back behind them watching and I’ll never forget watching Archie throw for the first time,” Tyler said “I had never seen such a perfect spiral with such zip. I mean, he could throw it.”
So could Bob White, by far the most heralded of Mississippi’s quarterback crop that year. Tyler’s plan was to play White the first quarter and Manning the second and then improvise.
That changed early. White took the North to an early score, hitting his Meridian teammate and future Alabama star George Ranager with a touchdown pass. Then, on the next series, White took off around end, got hit near the sidelines and didn’t get up. The resulting knee injury effectively ruined his career.
Enter Manning, who threw three more touchdowns to the splendid Ranager, another to Greenville’s Jackie Bruce and also ran one himself.
Gary Grubbs, an end from Prentiss who later played at Southern Miss and has made his living as a Hollywood actor, played for the South team that night.
“We went up and down the field,” Grubbs said. “They couldn’t really stop us. I mean, we scored 33 points. But we couldn’t even slow them down. I distinctly remember when Bob White got hurt and we thought, ‘Hey, we got this now,’ especially when they put that skinny number 11 in the game. We didn’t know who the heck he was. We found out. Everybody found out who Archie Manning was that night.”
Many of us found out the next morning when we read about it in the newspaper.
I was 14 and I remember thinking two things:
• One, 90 points in an all-star game? You gotta be kidding.
• Two, who the heck is this Archie Manning III?
Obviously, the game made an impact. Otherwise, why would a group of guys who were together for one week in the 18th year of their lives be holding a reunion half a century later?
The idea was concocted by Tyler and Gwin. Manning signed on. Six of the team’s 33 players are deceased. Twenty-five of the 27 others will be at Millsaps, where the team stayed and trained all those years ago.
“Some of us became lifelong friends,” Manning said. “Others I haven’t seen since that Saturday night 50 years ago. I can’t wait to see them again.”
Stories will be told. Surely, they’ll talk about the practices.
“Coach Tyler almost killed us,” Jernigan said. “I mean he worked us darn near to death. I don’t think any of us were expecting that for an all-star game, but he worked our butts off. I’ve never run so many sprints.”
Manning likely will tell about being summoned, along with teammate Bubba Tolleson of Ruleville (now deceased), to an interview with Carl Walters, the legendary sports columnist of The Clarion-Ledger.
Said Manning, “I told Bubba, ‘Man, we’ve really hit the big-time. We’re fixing to get interviewed by the Carl Walters.’ Old Carl asked us if a lot of folks were coming from Ruleville and Drew to watch the game, and Bubba said, ‘Mr. Walters, there ain’t gonna be anybody left in Ruleville or Drew except the watchmen.’ ”
Jernigan or Gwin might tell about the night they and several others got hungry in the Millsaps dorm, so Jernigan called his buddy, Billy Van Devender, to the rescue.
Said Jernigan, “We pooled our money, and I called V.D., and he went and got us 300 Krystal burgers. There wasn’t a one left either. You could smell ’em from outside the dorm. I’m pretty sure Coach Tyler wasn’t too happy about that.”
Manning might tell about being more than a little nervous when White was hurt and Tyler sent him in to play quarterback.
“Everybody remembers all the touchdowns,” Manning said. “I remember the first snap. I fumbled it.”
All the players and coaches should enjoy reading over the newspaper clippings.
A newspaper article the day before the game quoted Tyler as saying, “We feel the only way we can cope with the South’s big advantage in size is to put the ball in the air on offense and show some real courage on defense. That is what we propose to do.”
They did half of it, at least.
And this, also from Tyler, “Our boys have been completely well-behaved gentlemen off the field field and hard workers on it. … I do believe everyone in our group has developed a real appreciation for the others.”
Half a century later, that seems all the more true.