Archie Who?

Archie Who?

How does a single individual take on Messiah-status in a young kid’s imagination? That’s what Archie Manning did in mine. In the late ’60s, in poor racist Mississippi, people needed hope-no one more than me. I listened as Stan Torgerson, the voice of the Ole Miss Rebels, described every play with David-and-Goliath-like detail.

“Here come the Rebels!”

“The Rebels are knockin’ on the door of the promised land.”

“Archie, rolls right, he avoids one tackler, he hits Floyd Franks, 30, 20, 10, 5, he scoooores! “Wooh, hooh, mercy!”

“Manning, the 6-3 redhead, brings ’em to the line…..there’s Mitchell from Columbus, Coker from Clarksdale…. Manning sprints right, he avoids a tackler…. Floyd Franks… he hits Floyd Franks, 30, 20, 10, he scoooores! Touchdown! Touchdown, Ole Miss!”

“Number 18 brings them to line; the Rebels are knockin’ on the door of the promised land. Lyman, did you get that number?”

It felt like I was sitting in the stadium, maybe even on the sidelines. On sunny days, I took the radio to the yard and laid in the grass, not dare risking interruption by the chaos in the house. If, Momma yelled, looking for me, I hid. On rainy days, I locked myself in my room. Early the next week, I anticipated the ensuing coach’s show and highlights like the Second Coming.

Moon bought me a copy of Rebel Coach and like a Bible story book, I mainly looked at the pictures. I loved the one of Coach Vaught sitting in a delta swamp, shotgun in hand, blowing a duck call, greenheads lying beside him on a log. Mainly, I liked the three pictures of Archie. My favorite, the 1969 Tennessee game, Archie’s arm cocked ready to fire, Jack ‘Hacksaw’ Reynolds in hot pursuit. Least favorite, the Houston game, because that’s when Archie suffered a broken arm. The picture of the burned-out cars beside the Lyceum, the army truck, a gas masked soldier, scattered debris, fallen road marker, smoke; I didn’t understand. It seemed out of place.

Moon was working on a history degree at Mississippi State. I turned nine on Monday in late November of 1970.

“Shane, open your birthday present.” I hastily ripped into the envelope. I was elated--2 tickets to the annual clash for the Golden Egg!

It was a cold overcast day and we sat bundled on the visitor’s side, adjacent to the Mississippi State student section. I unpinned my “Archie Who?” button from my shirt and put it on my coat, so all the State fans could see it. Pre-game, beside myself with excitement, I spotted my favorite Ole Miss players; Jim Poole, Bob Knight, Floyd Franks, Wyck Neely, Wimpy Winther, Elmer Allen, Skip Jernigan, and Vernon Studdard.

“Do you see Archie down there, Shane? That’s him near the 30 yard-line in the long white coat.”

“Yeah, I see him!”

Three weeks before in the Houston game, Archie had suffered a broken left arm. Interim head coach, Bruiser Kinard led the Rebels onto the field, Charley Shira, the Dogs. Beloved legendary Rebel coach, John Vaught, suffered a heart attack in mid-October. Future NFL quarterback, Joe Reed, led the maroon and white; Chug Chumbler, the navy and crimson. The Ole Miss offense sputtered most of the day. Late in the fourth quarter Ole Miss trailed, 19-14.

Smelling blood, chants loudened from the State student section beside us, “Go to hell, Ole Miss, go to hell.” I tried to hold back tears. State’s drive stalled, they had to punt. There was still hope.

Moon leaned over, “Shane, don’t worry, Vernon Studdard is gonna’ run this one back for a touchdown.”

I watched the punt rise high in the air, exceeding eye level, fish tailing toward the east endzone. Vernon momentarily hesitated and then ran forward to field the punt. He fumbled; State recovered. Pandemonium erupted in the State student section, louder, deafening, “Go to hell, Ole Miss, go to hell!” Tears streamed down my face; I couldn’t hold them back.

“Let’s go, Shane, and see if we can beat some of this traffic.”

State fans streamed toward the exits of Vaught Hemingway, funneling into the narrow corridor still bellowing their evil chant. A State fan noticed my tears and zeroed in, “Archie, who?” “Archie, nobody, that’s who!”, then rejoined the sickening chorus.

I surmised, “State fans must be wicked, they don’t like Archie and they don’t mind saying ‘hell’ and telling other people to go there.”

The Manning Passing Academy

In 2013, I had the privilege of a conversation with Archie. My son, Moss was attending the Manning Passing Academy at Nichols State University in Thibodeau, Louisiana. Hungry, I decided to take a break from watching quarterback drills and star gazing. Below the stadium, waiting in line for a hotdog, I detected a familiar Mississippi drawl.

I was curious so I introduced myself. “I’m Shane, from Denver, my son’s here attending the camp. I used to live in Mississippi.”

“I’m from Mississippi too.”

As I dressed my dog, we casually conversed about all the people we knew in Mississippi, it’s just what real Mississippians do.

“What do you do?”

“I’m a Presbyterian minister, my parish is in downtown Denver.”

“Well, that’s terrific.”

“What do you do?”

“Oh, I’m Archie’s personal assistant, I’m in charge of his scheduling. How’d you like to meet him, that’s him sitting over there on the golf cart?”

“Sure, I’d love to.”

“Archie, this is Shane Sunn, he’s a Presbyterian ‘preecher’ in Denver.”

I was donning a Denver Broncos football t-shirt.

“Peyton and Ashley sure do like it out there in Denver.”

“Yeah, Denver’s a great place to live. Think we can win the Superbowl this year?”

“I don’t know, that’s hard to do.”

I told Archie I listened to Stan Torgerson call every game he played at Ole Miss. I wanted to tell him what he’d meant to me over the years, but I knew he’d endured a thousand such tales. I wanted to tell him when I was a kid, I had an Archie’s a Saint bumper sticker on the blue peg board in my room, and that I’d watched every Saints game.

How does a grown man convey to an icon sitting in front of him on a golf cart the full significance he’d played in my life? Words seemed inadequate. I tried anyway.

I launched into the story about the day long ago when I attended the 1970 Ole Miss-State football game, with Moon, not omitting many details. Archie patiently listened. I finished, feeling like a complete idiot.

Archie, looked up and said, “That was a long time ago!”

“Yeah, yeah it was.”

The truth was, on that day in the humid air of south Louisiana, this story (Moon Sunn) was incubating in the deep waters below.

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