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The Draft That Still Blows Cold

Someone in Eli Manning's party -- which included his agent, Tom Condon; his father, Archie, a former star with the New Orleans Saints; and brother Peyton, quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts -- told the Chargers,
Someone in Eli Manning's party -- which included his agent, Tom Condon; his father, Archie, a former star with the New Orleans Saints; and brother Peyton, quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts -- told the Chargers, "Don't consider us" in the weeks preceding the 2004 NFL Draft. (Nick Laham - Getty Images)

Told this, Archie Manning sighs into the phone from his New Orleans office. "I'm not going to go there," he says.

"Hey, listen," he continues, "the Chargers are having a great year. What happened years ago is done."

Archie Manning has taken these calls a lot about Eli over the last two years. Lately it seems his phone rings several times a week with reporters on the line wondering how Eli will handle his latest failures. The father tries to be patient, but he reads the papers, he hears what is being said and he hates it. His youngest son has been in the NFL for less than three years, has only been a starter for about two.

Yes, Eli has had his struggles and Archie dies with each interception, each screaming headline in the New York tabloids. But he also thinks this: Eli has an ability to tune such things out. He rarely gets pulled into discussions about the trade and why he didn't want to play in San Diego. Archie marvels at his boy's skill at blocking the noise around him. He believes it will serve him well in a place like New York.

Archie Manning also hates the idea that he meddles in his sons' careers. When they were in youth football, he stood on the sideline, away from the coaches. When they played in high school, he never went to practice and always sat on the last row of the bleachers on game days. The other parents would come up to him suggesting he should maybe call the team's plays, but he always shook his head "no." The thought of getting involved in one of his boys' games appalled him.

The suggestion that he strong-armed the Chargers into trading Eli to a place that might be disastrous for his child offends him, he says. Which is why he is as sensitive to Smith's remarks about him as Smith seems to be about Eli's refusal to play in San Diego.

"I think to this day A.J. thinks what he tells people about me," Archie says. "He said at the time that 'Archie Manning didn't want his son playing for the Chargers.' That's what a lot of people believe."

It's a point Archie has gone to great lengths to refute. He says he tried to squelch the suggestion at the draft, right after Eli was traded to the Giants, but he fears that he was not successful. The story had already been blown out of proportion.

The fact is, if he's right, Smith doesn't believe him. If the Chargers' general manager appears to be playing up the inequities of the trade, it's because he felt scorned by what happened. His anger is still raw.

"It was humiliating and embarrassing. I don't understand why somebody would put themselves above the National Football League, above the system," he says at one point.

"It's something that I will remember for as long as I'm in this game and as long as I'm out of this game or the day I retire," he says later in the interview. "It's etched in stone forever. There's no question about that."

When he first heard Eli Manning didn't want to play for the Chargers, Smith said he began making calls to find out why. He phoned coaches, executives, players and even members of the media, eventually compiling a list of explanations. One was the perception that Smith was just a scout, another was that the Chargers were seen as one of the worst-run organizations in the league and were owned by the Spanos family, which has been embroiled in disputes with San Diego over a new stadium. But there were other things: The organization was in disarray, devoid of significant talent and the coach, Marty Schottenheimer, might soon lose his job.


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