Fifty years ago, in 1971, Archie Manning was the second pick of the first round of the NFL Draft. He almost missed it.

The NFL Draft has become such a monstrosity of a production. We’ve had mock drafts coming out for weeks, if not months. Talking heads have been talking about it, and writing fingers have been typing about it — ad nauseam. The event is nationally televised over three days before a packed house of seemingly crazy people.

It has not always been thus. If you don’t believe it, ask Archie Manning. Fifty years ago, in 1971, he was the second pick of the first round. He almost missed it.

“I’ll never forget it,” Manning said Friday afternoon from his New Orleans home. But 50 years ago, he almost did forget about it. He almost forgot the draft itself.

“Back then it was in January, less than a month after we played in the Gator Bowl, just a couple weeks after I played in the Hula Bowl.”

Rick Cleveland

Yes, and somewhere in that busy time preceding the draft, Archie and Olivia Manning were married and honeymooned in Acapulco. They had just moved into an apartment in Oxford.

On the day before the draft, which was held in New York, Manning’s phone rang. The caller was Billy Gates, the late, great Ole Miss sports information director.

“Arch, did you know the NFL Draft is tomorrow?” Gates said.

“I guess I kind of forgot,” Manning replied.

Gates told him that indeed the draft was the next day and that seemingly everybody and his brother was calling him, asking him where Manning would be the next day.

“The Patriots have called,” Gates told him. “The Saints have called. So have the Houston Oilers. I’m pretty sure one of those three teams is going to pick you.”

The Patriots were picking first, the Saints second and the Oilers third. All needed a quarterback.

“Why don’t you come over to my office tomorrow morning at 9 and I’ll let them all know you’re going to be here,” Gates said.

Manning said he would, and he did. And that’s where he heard the news the Patriots had taken Jim Plunkett, the 1970 Heisman Trophy winner out of Stanford, with the first pick. Just minutes later, Gates’ phone rang and the New Orleans Saints were on the line. Gates handed the phone to Manning who learned he was to be a Saint.

“I talked to John Mecom, the Saints owner, for I guess two minutes,” Manning said. “Then Mecom put their general manager, Vic Schwenk, on the phone and I talked to him for a couple of minutes. And then he put J.D. Roberts, the head coach, on the phone and we talked a couple minutes more. There was an Associated Press photographer in the office taking a few pictures.”

And then?

“That was it,” Manning said, laughing. “That was my draft day. I had a 10 o’clock class. I made it to class on time. There just wasn’t a whole lot to it.”

Remember, this was after Manning, himself, almost forgot about it.

The draft just wasn’t that big a deal back then. Actually, it was more of an ordeal. The 1971 draft went 17 rounds, during which the Saints took 21 players. I use loosely the term “players.” The Saints missed on a whole lot more of those picks than they hit.

Manning remembers getting out of class, going home and learning that Michigan offensive tackle Dan Dierdorf, an All American whom Manning had befriended at the Hula Bowl, had somehow not been picked in the first round.

“I was pretty excited about that,” Manning said. “I knew the Saints needed some offensive linemen, and I knew how good Dan Dierdorf was. I told Olivia: Looks like we’re going to get Dierdorf.”

Then came the news: With their second round pick, the Saints chose Grambling offensive tackle Sam Holden. 

Dan Dierdorf played 13 seasons, was named All-Pro five times, made the All-NFL team of the decade of the 1970s and eventually was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Holden lasted one season and started as many games as you and I.

There was a lot of that kind of buffoonery going on with the Saints back then. As a result, Manning was often running for his life and sometimes throwing to receivers he scarcely practiced with. Still, 50 years later, he remains one of the most beloved Saints of them all.  You go to the Superdome on a Saints Sunday, you still see hundreds of fans wearing No. 8, and you also see No. 8 hanging from the rafters. There’s a story about that, too.

The day after the draft, the New Orleans newspaper ran a photo of the Saints brass holding up a Saints jersey, No. 18, which was the number Manning famously wore at Ole Miss, and the number the Saints were planning for him to wear with the Saints.

And this will tell you something about Archie Manning. Hugo Hollis, a Saints safety, was No. 18. Manning wasn’t about to take another player’s number. That’s how Manning became No. 8. And the 1971 draft, 50 years ago, was how he became a Saint.

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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.