Despite the cloying Hallmark Card music and Southeastern Conference-approved pom-pom waving, “The Book of Manning” — ESPN’s latest addition to an impressive library of sports documentaries –- is pretty fascinating stuff. Writer-director Rory Karpf goes back to detail the playing career of Archie Manning, who was not only a standout player but sired two Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks, his sons Peyton and Eli. “It reads like a fairy tale,” the John Goodman narration intones, before delving into the Mannings’ three-hankie story. At the very least it’s presented like one, but that doesn’t mean this “Book” isn’t the TV equivalent of a page-turner.
Manning had established himself as a college star at Ole Miss – just beginning an impressive quarterbacking career that mixed running and passing – when his father committed suicide. Manning briefly thought of leaving school to help his struggling family, but ultimately chose to stay, eventually resulting in a 14-year pro career, a dozen of those with a New Orleans Saints team that, despite his stoic efforts, never enjoyed a winning season.
For a younger generation familiar only with the sons, this early footage does a terrific job of capturing their dad’s on-field credentials. But “Book of Manning’s” real point is about how Manning’s loss of his own father translated into the way he dealt with his kids, which included being an extremely present dad, without seeking to mold them or pressure them toward pro football careers.
There’s also a moving passage about Manning’s oldest son, Cooper, whose own promising football career (he was Peyton’s favorite receiver in high school) was cut short by injury, with Peyton citing that as motivation for everything he’s accomplished since.
Mostly, the doc (part of the SEC’s “Storied” series) presents the elder Manning as a model for the modern sports dad — one who takes enormous pleasure and pride in his sons’ accomplishments, without seeking either to live in their reflected glory or reclaim his own.
Admittedly, the tone is a little too adoring, at times feeling like a promotional video for college football at a time when the game could clearly use some feel-good publicity. Yet even with its flaws, there’s enough here and in the Mannings to make this “Book” worth opening.