Arch Madness: How to handle the hype of being a Manning and the nation’s top QB recruit

Sports

NEW ORLEANS — When Texas coach Steve Sarkisian connected with one of the country’s most famous high school football players on FaceTime one afternoon in July, he couldn’t hear the prospect because of a pinging noise in the background.

“Are you at an arcade?” Sarkisian asked. “Where are you?”

“Coach, it’s kind of embarrassing,” the quarterback said. “I’m babysitting. I’m at an arcade, but they’ve got enough coins to keep them busy for the next 30 minutes.”

That’s right, Arch Manning, the No. 2 high school player in the Class of 2023 and part of the third generation of football’s most famous family, babysits two days a week during the summer and occasionally on the weekend. He doesn’t play video games and isn’t active on social media.

“He has such a good level of humility,” said Nelson Stewart, Manning’s coach at Isidore Newman School. “He doesn’t like attention and he doesn’t draw attention to himself. He just likes hanging out with his friends.”

As the son of Cooper, grandson of Archie, and nephew of Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks Eli and Peyton, it would be easy for Arch to have an ego the size of nearby Lake Pontchartrain. But in the era of name, image and likeness, TikTok and Twitter, he seems like an anomaly. Outside of five posts on his private Instagram, he mostly stays off social media.

“I check it for other stuff, but I’m not really on there much,” Arch said. “I don’t really feel like dealing with all of that.”

At least for now, Arch, 17, prefers to keep details of his day-to-day life and where he might be going to college private. The junior isn’t expected to announce college football recruiting’s most anticipated decision until at least next spring.

“It is a huge rarity, but it’s also very refreshing,” Stewart said. “I think now kids look at scholarship offers almost like a patch on a letter jacket. It’s not about the offers, it’s about announcing you’re blessed and humbled and whatnot to draw attention to yourself. It’s so refreshing to have a kid that’s not that way.”

Of course, when a quarterback has an arm like this and the last name Manning, the hype and promotion is going to find you, no matter how you try to keep it at bay. Two of his games, including Friday night’s home contest (9 p.m. ET, ESPNU and ESPN App) against Berkeley Prep of Tampa, Fla., are being televised nationally.

After a 59-7 victory against Pearl River at home on Oct. 1, Arch took a few minutes to sign autographs. As far back as his freshman season, according to Stewart, the Isidore Newman football office received a handful of autograph requests in the mail each week. Stewart didn’t allow Arch to do media interviews as a freshman and didn’t let him know about the autograph requests until he was a sophomore.

“I think I am a regular guy on the team,” Arch said. “I think Newman and New Orleans do a good job with that. I’m just a regular student and high school football player. I think outside of New Orleans, they try to hype it up, but I don’t really think much about the whole Manning deal. I’m just trying to enjoy high school.”

Arch’s unofficial visits to campuses have even become events. Georgia might be undefeated with eyes on a national championship, but on Sept. 18 against South Carolina, thoughts were with a kid who couldn’t suit up until 2023 as a group of fans painted “We Want Arch!” on their backs. When he went to Alabama two weeks later, Ole Miss fans outside Bryant-Denny Stadium urged him to choose the Rebels. Manning has also visited Clemson and Texas and will go to Ole Miss this weekend; the Rebels are retiring Eli’s No. 10 jersey during ceremonies at a game against LSU.

“I’m still wide open. I’m just enjoying the process,” Arch said. “It’s cool to get to go visit some of the best schools in the country.”

The low-key Manning is getting plenty of advice and direction from his grandfather, Archie, a star quarterback at Ole Miss and for the New Orleans Saints, and his father, Cooper, the oldest of Archie and Olivia Manning’s three sons. Cooper was an all-state wide receiver at Isidore Newman School and was set to follow in his father’s footsteps at Ole Miss. But he had to stop playing football when he was diagnosed with spinal stenosis in 1992.

“Arch is a sweet kid,” Archie told ESPN. “He never gives anybody a problem. I’m proud of him. I’ve had three or four of the freshmen’s daddies come up and tell me how Arch is nice to their sons. These are freshmen who aren’t playing and are probably getting kicked around at practice a little bit. That makes me proud of him.”

Cooper, Archie and Arch’s famous uncles are reluctant to say much about him to the media, but they’re still being asked. In July, at the Manning Passing Academy on the Nicholls State campus in Thibodaux, Louisiana, there were about 30 reporters present, from local and national outlets, for a question-and-answer session with Archie and his sons. Many of the reporters weren’t there to ask about Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder, Notre Dame’s Drew Pyne, Liberty’s Malik Willis or Penn State’s Sean Clifford, who were all at the camp.

As the Mannings were lined up against a wall, they were peppered with questions about Arch.

“Arch has a good approach,” Archie said then. “I don’t worry about Arch, but I don’t want people to expect too much. He’s getting attention; he’s not asking for that. But I guess that comes with it. … The only thing I ever tell Arch is, ‘Have fun.'”

Peyton Manning, a five-time NFL MVP and Pro Football Hall of Famer, was asked about Arch flying to Denver to work out with him.

“I just don’t…. he’s getting plenty of attention, and I’m just not adding to it with QB analysis,” Peyton said. “I do a little QB analysis with ESPN and I gotta keep that to the NFL. I don’t do that with high school quarterbacks, even if they’re related to me. I want him to have fun being a junior in high school, and I want him to enjoy this experience. Cooper is giving him great guidance.”

Trying to temper others’ expectations for Arch seems like a futile effort. At 6 feet, 4 inches with a rocket arm, lightning-quick release and good mobility, he is widely considered a can’t-miss prospect, wherever he ends up.

“He looks a lot like his two uncles, at least when they were coming out of high school, and probably has even better arm strength,” said one major college football coach, who has watched Arch’s film extensively. “He’s definitely more mobile and always knows where he’s going with the ball. The comparisons aren’t fair, to Peyton and Eli, but I also don’t think any of that fazes him. As much as anything, his presence and composure are what stand out. Sound familiar?”

“He’s got the quickest release that I’ve ever seen, just how fast the ball gets out,” Stewart added. “His load to release is almost eerie. He snaps his wrist and the ball is out. He has tremendous footwork and takes pride in that. His drops are very fast. He has a really good pocket presence. Young quarterbacks sometimes get flushed out and feel the pressure and want to spin and run outside the pocket. He’s not that way. He hangs in there and is willing to take shots.”

This season, Arch has completed 66% of his passes for 1,188 yards with 16 touchdowns, leading the Greenies to a 4-1 record. In his three-year career, he has passed for 5,507 yards with 71 touchdowns and 15 interceptions, while running for 608 yards with 17 more scores. It hasn’t all come easy. In last week’s 12-7 loss to St. Charles, Arch was 16-of-28 passing for 136 yards with a touchdown and his first interception of the season. The Greenies are expected to get another stiff challenge from Berkeley Prep, which is led by defensive end Keon Keeley (Notre Dame), Xavier Townsend (Iowa State) and C.J. Hawkins (Stanford).

“At Newman we’re not blessed with a lot of wide receivers that can run 4.3 or 4.4 [seconds in the 40-yard dash], and he’ll have to take velocity off some of his balls,” Stewart said. “He’s very accurate and can really squeeze it in there. His athleticism is different; he’s not just a one-dimensional guy. He can run all over the place and has great top-end speed with good agility. A lot of people like to turn on SportsCenter and see those 70-yard throws from the [Patrick] Mahomes types when they’re scrambling, and he can do those things.”

Stewart was a defensive lineman at Isidore Newman from 1991 to 1994; he was a freshman when Cooper was a senior and Peyton was a sophomore. He played guard at Tulane and is in his 23rd season coaching the Greenies, the last 16 as head coach. Arch and his younger brother, Heid, a sophomore center, are the first sons of a former high school teammate that he has coached. Heid added 30 pounds in the offseason to move to center. He accompanied Arch on his unofficial visits, and Stewart joked that Heid has committed everywhere he’s gone.

“As Arch started here in middle school, I think everybody’s goal has been to just give him as normal of a life as we can, just a level of normalcy because you never want to stunt his growth,” Stewart said. “I’ve always tried to treat him just like everyone else. We’re not trying to protect him, but he is still a teenager.”

Cooper followed his father’s rule that prohibited playing tackle football until it was offered at school. So, Arch and Heid played flag football until middle school. As an eighth grader, Arch practiced with the Isidore Newman varsity team in the spring of 2019.

Stewart still remembers the first time Arch took a snap with the first-team offense. On that play, Arch noticed that the defense was shifting from a Cover 3 scheme, with corners and safeties protecting the deep thirds of the field, to Cover 1 with all but a safety playing man-to-man. Arch checked at the line of scrimmage and fired a 50-yard touchdown to Jarmone Sutherland, an all-state receiver, who now plays at Dartmouth.

“He saw the cornerback flip his hips,” Stewart said. “He just did a little hand signal and they both nodded. To be honest, we hadn’t even worked on that a lot because I’d only had him at the varsity level for a couple of weeks. He saw it and just loaded his shoulder and let it rip. He looked back at me, and I just kind of nodded. It was very poetic.”

Arch became the first freshman quarterback in at least the last 40 years to start an opener for Isidore Newman, something his Super Bowl-winning uncles didn’t even do. He has started every game in two-plus seasons for Isidore Newman, a 118-year-old private school of about 1,000 students located in Uptown New Orleans.

It’s difficult not to recognize the Manning legacy at Michael Lupin Field, which sits on the edge of the 11-acre campus and next to a centuries-old cemetery with above-ground tombstones. Five years ago, Isidore Newman opened the Manning Family Athletic Complex, which includes a plaza, practice field, skydeck and pressbox. In 2015, the school retired the No. 18 jersey first worn by Cooper, then Peyton and finally Eli. Arch can be reminded of his family’s legacy every time he looks up at the No. 18 on the brick wall of the football facility, with his father’s and uncles’ names just below. Archie sometimes watches practice from the parking lot.

“I think there’s a natural pressure, but I think he’s just one of those kids who is a high achiever and has high standards,” Stewart said. “It’s just how he’s wired. I know he adores his grandfather and it’s an incredibly close family. He doesn’t get caught up in it. I really do just focus on the Arch, and not the Manning, and just be his coach. I think he’s his own entity, and he knows that. There’s no sense of entitlement with him, and that’s important to me. He’s very unassuming. I don’t think he feels pressure because of [his name], but he puts pressure on himself.”

As much as anything, Arch is a film junkie. Emily Doliner moved to New Orleans from Maine to attend Tulane in 2007. While working in the Green Wave’s athletics department, a boss inquired about her babysitting availability. The Mannings were looking for a sitter for their daughter, May, and Arch and Heid. May, a volleyball player at Isidore Newman, now attends the University of Virginia.

Doliner has been a part of the family ever since. Some nights, she’d notice Arch getting animated while looking at his phone. “I just assumed it was a teenager having reactions to some gossip,” Doliner said. “I was so excited to hear what was going on.”

But Arch was actually watching highlights of one of his games two years earlier.

“I can’t believe I missed that!” he said.

When Arch took an unofficial visit to Texas in June, he spent time with Sarkisian and other coaches in front of a whiteboard. He accidentally left his notes behind. Someone found them and gave them to Sarkisian. “Coach Sarkisian called me and said it took their breath away and that it was staggering how much information he was writing down,” Stewart said.

“I just want you to know that I’ve been doing this for a long time and have worked with a lot of quarterbacks,” Sarkisian told him. “Even if I never get to coach this kid, the fact that I got to work with him today was phenomenal and makes it all worth it. That’s the kind of impression he had on us.”

Along with not playing video games or engaging in social media, Arch never showed much interest in watching TV until this past summer, when he binged Friday Night Lights. He stayed up late one night watching Titanic for the first time. He prefers to keep it simple, Doliner said, with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and snacks from Smoothie King.

After his freshman season, Arch was preparing to send his highlights to coaches around the country. He wasn’t sure which coaches should get them. “In my mind, I’m thinking, ‘You can turn on ESPN and see your tapes,'” Doliner said.

So Arch came up with a list of schools, which included pretty much the entire SEC and every other school in the final AP top 25 poll in 2019. She was surprised how unassuming he was about some of his choices. When she mentioned one particular school with a great academic reputation, he replied, “I don’t know if I can get in there.”

“He’s a great student,” she said. “It was just a real freshman boy talking about college and not fully understanding how many doors could be opened for him because of football.”

As for the question everyone keeps asking (and asking and asking), Arch and his inner circle aren’t offering many hints.

“I think he’s still slowly kind of narrowing his focus,” Stewart said. “I think he’s not rushing it. Just watching him, I think he’s still learning. I don’t think it’s just studying offenses. He really enjoys going to games, going to campus and talking to students and learning about the towns. I think he really wants a good college experience, too. I think he wants to go to a college town where he can enjoy himself and have a full college experience. He’s loved everywhere he’s been.”

For now, Arch is focused on trying to lead Isidore Newman to the Class 2A state playoffs. Once the dust settles on college football’s coaching carousel this year, he’ll make his official visits this spring and might be in position to make a college decision — or maybe not.

“Arch has got a good head on his shoulders,” Archie said. “It will come to him, and I think he’ll handle it well. I think it will be hard. It will probably be kind of like Peyton. He would make a weekend visit and on Sunday night that was where he wanted to go. He’s fortunate that he has good options.”

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