Dak Prescott throws at the Manning Passing Academy in 2015. Eli Manning (far left) watches from behind. (Photo by Parker Waters, MPA.)

Question: What do all eight starting quarterbacks remaining in the NFL playoffs have in common, other than an intense spotlight shining on them this weekend?

Answer: While still in college, all eight worked as counselors in the Manning Passing Academy (MPA) in Thibodaux, La. Count ’em, eight: Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys; Trevor Lawrence, Jacksonville Jaguars; Jalen Hurts, Philadelphia Eagles; Brock Purdy, San Francisco 49ers; Daniel Jones, New York Giants; Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals; Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs; and Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills.

Several of those, including Dak Prescott, were Manning campers before they became counselors later on.

Rick Cleveland

“We’d love to take credit for all their success, but they were pretty good when we got them,” Archie Manning told Mississippi Today on Tuesday. Archie Manning and his sons Cooper, Peyton and Eli are all deeply involved in the camp, which is already sold out with a long waiting list for 2023.

Besides the eight quarterbacks, Kellen Moore, the coach who will call the Cowboys’ plays for Prescott, worked as an MPA counselor when he played at Boise State. Cincinnati Bengals head coach Zac Taylor was an MPA counselor in 2006 when he played at Nebraska.

What’s more, three of the four quarterbacks whose teams lost in the playoffs last weekend were also MPA counselors. The only outlier? Tom Brady.

Deadpanned Cooper Manning, “Tom just wasn’t good enough.”

The 26-year-old MPA welcomes approximately 1,200 campers each summer for four days of intensive instruction. Over the years, thousands of those campers have been Mississippians.

“We like to keep the coach/camper ratio at 10 to 1,” Archie Manning said. “So our coaching staff consists roughly of about 80 high school and college coaches and then about 40 counselors who are college quarterbacks.”

Many of the college quarterbacks, including Prescott, attended MPA multiple years. Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts, a prime candidate for NFL MVP, was a three-year counselor, including two times when he was at Alabama and once when he was at Oklahoma.

Archie Manning speaks during the throwing competition at MPA Passing Academy. (Photo by Parker Waters, MPA.)

“The portal has really changed things,” Archie Manning said. “When I was sending out invitations for our return counselors, 11 of 21 had changed schools.”

Asked if any of the counselor-turned-playoffs quarterbacks have surprised him, Archie Manning didn’t have to think long to answer. “It would have to be Brock Purdy,” Manning said. “I mean, my gosh, from last pick in the draft to doing what he’s doing right now in San Francisco. I knew he was pretty good, but this is something like Ole Miss getting the last bid to the NCAA Tournament and then going on to win the national championship.”

That’s exactly what happened with Ole Miss baseball last year. And Purdy, a rookie out of Iowa State, has quarterbacked the San Francisco 49ers to six straight victories since becoming a starter, throwing 16 touchdowns, just four interceptions. Purdy was a third string rookie before injuries to the top two 49ers quarterbacks elevated him to a starting role.

So, how did an Iowa State quarterback end up at a football camp in Thibodaux, La.? “I was flipping channels one Saturday and started watching an Iowa State game,” Archie Manning answered. “I just loved the way Brock played and made a note to invite him to the camp.”

Purdy accepted, as nearly all do. It has become almost like a badge of honor for college quarterbacks to be invited to be an MPA counselor.

Archie Manning says he stays in touch with all “our guys,” primarily with text messaging. “I congratulate them when they do well, and probably send as many or more notes when they have a bad game,” he said. “That’s the thing with quarterbacks. You’re going to have bad games. That’s the nature of it. You’re going to throw interceptions, and not all them will be your fault. Look at Dak in the last game of the regular season. I was so proud of him the way he came back in the playoffs Monday night.”

Prescott, Manning said, is one of his favorite quarterbacks to come through MPA. “Love Dak,” he said. “Love the way he plays, love his toughness, love the way he handles himself. Love everything about him.”

That doesn’t mean Archie and son Eli weren’t above playing a joke on Dak during one summer camp. “Papa John’s made us these bright red T-shirts for our counselors one year,” Archie Manning said. “Eli and I took the one for Dak and added some stripes to it and made it look like an Ole Miss game jersey.”

Prescott wore it – after removing the stripes.

Trevor Lawrence made an impression at the 2019 Manning Passing Academy. (Photo by Parker Waters, MPA.)

Archie Manning recalls watching Trevor Lawrence in person for the first time at the MPA in 2019 when Lawrence was Clemson’s star quarterback. “What I remember is watching Trevor work out and throw and thinking, ‘This is what God drew up when he decided to make a perfect quarterback.’”

Trevor Lawrence, far left, with Archie, Eli and Peyton Manning in 2019. (Photo by Parker Waters, MPA.)

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow was invited to MPA in the summer of 2019 just before his breakout National Championship season at LSU. Archie Manning also invited Amory native Jimmy Burrow, a college coach and Joe’s dad, to the camp that year.

“Jimmy wrote me a note the next week and told me how much they enjoyed it,” Archie Manning said. “He told me Joe told him on the way home that he believed he was the best quarterback at camp and he probably was. Joe has never lacked for confidence.”

“What I remember most about Joe, besides how good he was, was how his hair and his sunglasses had to be perfect,” Cooper Manning said. “Joe was always stylin’. Still is.”

One of the annual highlights of the camp is a Friday night throwing competition among the counselors. In 2017, the competition was delayed by a heavy rainstorm.

Josh Allen loads up, as Cooper Manning watches from behind. (Photo by Parker Waters, MPA.)

“Usually, in Thibodaux, when it rains like that there’s lots of lightning and they have to come off the field,” Archie Manning said. “That day, Josh Allen (then of Wyoming, now the Buffalo Bills) comes up to me in the locker room and says, ‘Mr. Manning, it’s not lightning. Let’s go out there and do this.’ Josh is so competitive. He couldn’t wait.

“So we go out there and it’s wet as can be, and I’ll never forget it. It’s hard to throw a wet ball because it gets slick and heavy, but Josh threw that thing like it was perfectly dry. I turned to Peyton and said, ‘Can you believe this guy?’ Peyton couldn’t believe it either. Never seen anybody throw a wet football like that. I always said Matt Stafford had the strongest arm I had ever seen, but then I saw Josh Allen throw it. Unbelievable.”

Cooper Manning concurs. “It was raining like crazy. Everything was soaked and wet. And there’s Josh, slinging it 80 yards.”

Of course, throwing at targets in shorts and t-shirts is not a good predictor or how someone will throw the football when the blitz is coming and huge, angry people are coming at you intent on rearranging your body parts.

Patrick Mahomes would be Exhibit A.

“I remember when Mahomes came,” Archie Manning said. “In the competition he was like just another guy. There were several who could throw it as well or better. When Pat really impresses is when he’s throwing on the move, improvising, extending plays. Nobody does it better. He just makes plays.”

Nine-time Pro Bowler Russell Wilson is another who attended MPA both as a camper and then a counselor. Wilson didn’t make the playoffs this year with the Denver Broncos, but Archie Manning well remembers when Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks trounced the Broncos and Peyton Manning in the 2014 Super Bowl. In fact, Archie remembers watching a mid-Super Bowl week TV interview with Wilson. “Russell was wearing a Manning Passing Academy t-shirt there at the Super Bowl,” Archie said. “That blew me away.”

Said Cooper Manning, “It has gotten to be almost like a fraternity, the guys who have been through MPA and are now some of the biggest stars in the sport. We’re proud of it, and we don’t take it for granted.”

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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.