PHOENIX (AP) -The patriarch of the NFL's first family settled deep into a plush sofa and recalled the day his sons announced they intended to make football their business, too.
``In a way,'' Archie Manning said, ``it kind of scared me.''
His two older boys, Cooper and Peyton, weren't much taller than a pair of football pants at the time. They walked into the house wearing expressions so serious Manning wondered what was coming next.
``'Dad,''' they told him, ``'you really need to push us a little more.'
``That's not what I do,'' Manning said, chuckling at the memory. ``I'd already seen a little too much pushing at the ballpark. But I supported them, and the most I did, really, was explain that it's not just about showing up at practice. It's about the offseason, too, lifting and running and such all the time. But that's exactly what they went out and did.
``When Eli came along five years later, I thought he might go another route, do something different, because he didn't say much. But very quietly, he followed the same path and one day he just comes out and says, 'I want to play quarterback,''' Archie added. ``And then he just went to work at it, too.''
Because Eli did, the whole Manning clan is back at the Super Bowl for the second year in a row, this time with a rooting interest in the New York Giants. It's a game Archie never dared dream about while starring for 11 years as quarterback of the woeful New Orleans Saints, followed by one-season stints as a backup with the Oilers and Vikings.
His middle son, Peyton, capped last season's Super Bowl with an MVP-winning performance that gave Indianapolis its first championship. The Colts got knocked out of the playoffs this time around. But Eli's ascendance not only softened that blow, it has made the premise of all those games the Manning boys played on the lawn behind the big house in New Orleans' Garden District a real possibility - brother vs. brother with a Super Bowl on the line.
``It would be hard to tell you until that night what the reaction would be,'' Peyton said. ``I believe Eli and I would be pretty good about it.
``But that guy over there,'' he added, with a nod toward Archie, ``would have a rough two weeks, along with my mother.''
It's hardly far-fetched. Most people, Archie included, are surprised to find out what a family affair the NFL has become.
Sons have followed their fathers into the league 161 times since pro football opened shop in 1920. Brothers following each other is more common still. There were 313 sets recorded when the 2007 season kicked off. There have even been nine instances of brothers following their father into the family business, with celebrated names like Shula, Matthews, Hannah and Hasselbeck joining the Mannings.
``In 1984, I was in the twilight of a pretty mediocre career in Minnesota and we had a journeyman tight end named Don Hasselbeck,'' Archie said. ``He had three boys and I had three boys and they used to play together. Think about it: Four of those kids wound up being NFL quarterbacks.''
And there might have been a third Manning in the league if Cooper's playing career hadn't been cut short. He was a wide receiver at Ole Miss who had to quit the game following surgery to correct a chronic spinal condition.
``I try to put myself in his shoes and it would be hard to take,'' Eli said this week. ``But I never heard him have a regret, any bitterness or complaints. He got his cards and played them the right way.''
Cooper, two years older than Peyton, honed the middle brother's competitive skills in a way few coaches could, usually on the small basketball court behind the house that required Archie to step in more times than he cares to remember.
``Every day,'' he said ruefully, again leaning back on the sofa in the G2 Lounge, set up to promote Gatorade's new drink. ``You play to 20 by twos and when it got to 18, there was going to be blood before somebody scores. It was just a big fouling match, then a fight, then screaming.
``But Eli was five years back. They abused him a little bit, had fun with him, but they probably took care of him more than anything. It wasn't until Peyton came back from college where they started competing a little bit. But they were never competitors,'' he added, ``and they're really not to this day.''
Eli confirmed that version of events. But just as Cooper taught Peyton a few things - not always purposefully - Peyton passed on a few to him.
Because Eli spent several years as the only son still at home, he and his mother, Olivia, bonded closer than she did with either of the other boys. He absorbed her quiet, levelheaded demeanor - ``I call her the 'Great Equalizer,''' Archie said, ``because she can take a crisis and get it back to normal in no time'' - and happily accepted whatever role his brothers carved out for him in their games.
Most of the time, that meant being the center. But being quiet and easygoing didn't mean he wasn't soaking up important lessons.
``I still remember when Peyton was about to start tackle football in the seventh grade, his first year of playing with pads and everything, and him being nervous about taking snaps under center,'' Eli said. ``In pickup games, I'd just snap it from the side, or shotgun-style, but then he actually made me be a real center, you know, he's underneath, and I was doing real snaps.
``And the whole time he's getting mad at me,'' he added, with a familiar shrug, ``because I wasn't snapping it with the laces up.''
Peyton doesn't have any stories that revealing, at least none he wants to share, about his little brother. But he's picked up a lesson or two from Eli.
``Eli's taught me not to read the papers,'' he said. ``But if somebody e-mails you something and it flashes in front of you, it's hard to ignore. You might want to take that older brother's protective stance, but it's a no-win situation. Soon as I come out and defend him, it's 'Oh, the little brother can't speak up for himself.'
``So I don't say anything. But it's not the kind of thing where I have to call and say, 'Keep your head up,' because his head's in the exact same place after a tough game as it was after they beat the Packers. I think that's his best quality as a quarterback.''
Archie insists the boys learned more of the craft from each other than they inherited from him. Few things, though, have given Eli and Peyton more satisfaction than paying him back, no matter how large or small that contribution was.
``He is enjoying this as much as any of us are,'' Eli said. ``This is kind of getting to go to his Super Bowl in his own way.''
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at

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