SEARCY, ARK. – In the summer of 1966 I met Archie Manning in his home town, Drew, Miss. In a game of touch football, I caught a pass or two from the future All-Pro quarterback. A few months later he spent a Friday night at my house in Greenville, after a dance to which he took a Greenville girl he was dating.
I was a sophomore, Archie a senior. As a four-sport athlete, he’d made a bit of a name for himself. I knew him through a mutual friend, Tommy Goodwin, whom I’d met at basketball camp. Tommy and I had both been centers on our junior high teams. He was six feet five inches and growing. I was five feet ten inches and trying to become a point guard.
When Greenville played Drew in basketball that winter, I was second-string B team, a squad of sophomores only. Tommy and Archie were starters for Drew’s varsity. That spring I continued to see Archie at track meets around North Mississippi. He was a sprinter and hurdler. I ran the half-mile.
With these memories bubbling up, I make my way to the campus of Harding University, where Manning is the featured speaker in Harding’s American Studies Institute Distinguished Lecture Series. Arriving early for a reception and dinner, I wait in line with dozens of others to greet my old friend.
I’m not sure he’ll remember me, even though we bumped into each other from time to time in our early post-college years. I introduce myself, mention the summer of 1966, and hand him an envelope containing a letter and today’s I Swear Crossword.
“I remember that girl from Greenville,” he says, smiling. We reminisce briefly about the Saturday morning breakfast at which, according to my mother, he ate ten pieces of toast. I remind him that, years after his visit, she put up a sign in our guest room: “Archie Manning slept here.”
We share a laugh. I yield his attention to the next person in line. And move on.
Harding President Bruce McLarty introduces Manning as “my favorite sports hero of all time.” Archie gives a moving and well-received presentation,
Demonstrating skills honed on the corporate lecture circuit, Archie sprinkles interesting and humorous stories through his three-point speech on “Leadership Lessons Learned as a Player, Businessman, and Father.” The three points: “Think … Set goals … and Act … like a leader!” What, exactly, constitutes a leader is imparted somehow in the entertainingly interspersed tales.
As is often the case with the best of speakers, the magic happens during the Q&A. Someone asks Archie to reflect on how he chose Ole Miss as a college and to tell what efforts the University of Arkansas made toward recruiting him. Dodging the egotistic musing such a query might evoke, Archie smiles. “No, Arkansas didn’t recruit me. I’d have been here!” A thunderous ovation ensues.
In an ending that couldn’t have been scripted, a 10-year-old boy – that very last Q&A participant – says, “I know this is off the point, but will you sign my football?” Archie walks to the edge of the stage. The kid tosses the ball. Archie grabs it, signs it, and tosses it back. Touchdown!
Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at email@example.com.