Why does now 70-year-old Archie Manning remain so beloved? I think I know…

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1970 AP file photo

Ole Miss quarterback Archie Manning, who engineered two Rebel touchdowns against Arkansas in the first quarter of their Sugar Bowl contest in New Orleans, Jan. 1, 1970, sets out on a five yard gain early in the game.

Archie Manning, long Mississippi’s most beloved athlete, turns 70 today, May 19, 2019.

So now seems a perfect time to tackle a question people often ask: What is it that makes Archie so cherished in Mississippi?

It is a valid question, because, as astonishingly good as he was, Ole Miss never won more than eight games in any of his three varsity seasons. When he quarterbacked in the NFL, in New Orleans, the Saints never had a winning season.

Rick Cleveland

Sports legends are almost always huge winners. Archie wasn’t that.

Now then, he did have a dashing style about him as a quarterback. Even when he lost, such as in the memorable 33-32 Alabama game in 1969 – 50 years ago if you are keeping score – he did so with a flair for the dramatic and the seemingly impossible. Just when it appeared he was about to be sacked, he would turn disaster into touchdown. He could do it running or throwing. He had a will to win – he competed – as few have before or since.

But it’s much more than that, I believe, that made him almost deity in this state. It is his genuine human-ness, his human kindness, that shows through and has through the years. I have long since lost count of the many untold stories of Archie calling a sick child – or aging infirmed – and making his or her day.

Kathy Willens/AP

Archie Manning.

He touches people. He strives to make even strangers’ lives better. He lives the Golden Rule every day, that is, he does unto others as he would have them do unto him. The same was true of another Delta legend, Boo Ferriss, who captured people’s hearts with his simple, everyday kindnesses.

What follows is a personal story that says much about Archie and, perhaps, much about where he learned to be the way he is.

This was in 1984 when Archie was playing out the string with the Minnesota Vikings. Those Vikings were abysmal. They would finish the season 3-13. By then, Archie was the backup quarterback, playing behind Wade Wilson.

This was a Thursday night game, nationally televised, matching the lowly Vikings with a really good Washington Redskins team. I had already written my column for the next day’s Jackson Daily News. I forget about what. (This was back when Jackson had two thriving newspapers, including an afternoon paper that circulated widely in the Delta.)

We tuned in the game that night at our house, not really expecting to see Archie play. What we saw was even worse than expected. By halftime, the Redskins had 31 points, the Vikings none.

In the second half, Les Steckel, perhaps fearing for Wade Wilson’s life, inserted Archie into the game. And, that night, Archie turned back the clock. He was magic. He scrambled this way and that. He turned almost certain losses into gains. He threw darts, including two touchdowns. He led the Vikings on three straight scoring drives that turned a laugher into a real game.

The Vikings lost but Archie made it a game. I called the office. I told them to save the column I had already written, that I would be writing another. And I did, about the way Archie Manning had turned back the clock.

So the next afternoon, I was sitting at my desk when the phone rang and I answered it. Immediately, I recognized the voice on the other end. It was Archie calling from Minneapolis. Remember, this was before the Internet, before people read newspapers on their cellphones. The Daily News circulated widely in Mississippi, but it didn’t much get up into the Great Lakes region.

“I just want to thank you for what you wrote today,” Archie said.

I was dumbfounded. No. 1, writers don’t receive many thank-yous like that from professional athletes. No. 2, how the hell did he read the Jackson Daily News in Minneapolis?

I asked him, and I’ll never forget his answer.

“My mother just called me and read it to me, every last word,” he said. “I really appreciate it and she does, too.”