Sunday, September 30, 2007

Drew, Mississippi

I'm throwing this into my archinves, just in case the New Orleans paper doesn't keep it online....

The hometown Archie once knew is no more
by Billy Turner, Staff writer
Saturday January 26, 2008, 9:54 PM
DREW, MISS. -- Looking on this football field on a cold, gray day, with the clouds pumping in from the north, one can't help but marvel at how far it is from this Delta town in Sunflower County to Phoenix.
But if there was a starting point for the Manning clan's legendary football career, with three NFL quarterbacks, two of whom will have played in the Super Bowl in back-to-back years, it was this football field. The baby of the bunch, Eli Manning, will quarterback the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII on Feb. 3.
This day, however, beyond the muck and the muddy unpaved road that surrounds what was once called Beef Maxwell Field, near the large brick buildings that serve as public housing in this quick breath of a town that it is said holds 2,000-plus residents, there are children playing outside. An ice cream truck roams the streets of the complex, and it is playing tunes, cheery tunes, calling for children to run to it.
The football field's bleachers seat maybe 300 and it has a "press box" that couldn't possibly hold the press or much of anything else. The stadium is behind the grass-covered baseball field where Manning played.
As visitors walk the warped bleachers of the football field, the ice cream truck plays, "It's a Small World, After All."
In this town, that surely is the case, still.
But there is nothing particularly cheery about the song this day.
"It's kind of sad up there, isn't it?" said the town's most famous former resident, Elisha Archie Manning III.
Times and towns change.
"When we grew up there, I had no complaints at all. You could keep your house unlocked and your keys in your car. That was a long time ago. I remember that sometimes convicts would get out from Parchman, which is but eight miles down the road. But my daddy (Elisha Archie Manning II, whom everyone called Buddy) always said, 'If they come this way, they ain't stopping in Drew.'¤"
This is a piece of poor Americana, where the surrounding land is as flat as unleavened bread and farming is about all that is left.
At one point, Drew had more cotton gins than any town in America. Now, there's one. There's some corn, some beans, but mostly, there's no business.
It's a place where desegregation fought its way into town 40 years ago at the high school, and almost immediately the town's white residents headed to North Sunflower Academy, re-creating segregation in another form. Today, the high school where Archie Manning walked the halls, where he first scrambled out of trouble on the football field, where he learned to bat left-handed, is made up of 90 percent African-American students. Residents said "they" do what they do and "we" do what we do.
The truth is, this town, that piece of Pleasantville Manning remembered, where sodas were drawn at the drugstore and Sunday school was a part of every week, , that place where a high school quarterback became Archie Manning to the world, no longer exists.
"It really doesn't," said Mary Frank Wise, at 79 years old a longtime resident and member of the Chamber of Commerce. "I still have hope, hope that every day I can make it better."
If you can't find anything else vastly different, this football stadium is symbolic of that change. It once was filled as Manning was rolling out right and either passing or galloping down the field. This season, the stands were nearly empty on Friday nights, and the team needs new equipment, players said.
You ride into the city today, turning onto Main Street a mile or so from Highway 49 West up from Yazoo City and you're struck by the juxtaposed elements of Drew.
On Main Street, there are women playing bridge in the back of the Main Street Deli and Gifts. A couple of distant cousins to the Mannings, Sandra and Joanne, are there. Joanne's daughter, Cathy, was second-runner-up to Miss America awhile back and that's how Joanne is introduced, the mother of.
Joanne said she's in the running for a couple of Super Bowl tickets, but it has nothing to do with her name. She entered a contest at a casino. She said she would never dream of calling Archie and asking for some help with tickets.
A Lexus sits comfortably outside the strip that, according to Archie, used to be completely filled and beautiful. Today this street is being refurbished by Drew Enterprises and the Chamber of Commerce. Wise and her husband, Billy, who recently bought the house where Manning grew up, are key parts of that rebuild.
This day, the eight women were playing cards on two tables as their fur coats rested on a nearby stool.
Four blocks down Main Street, on the way in from 49, two trailers are dilapidated. A house with a muddy front yard has six dogs, two of which have recently had pups. On the highway, a pig hangs from a tree by its feet, as the blood flows out of its body. It will be processed after hanging there a day.
No sign of Manning tribute
You can travel all over town in a few minutes, since it is only 1.1 miles square, and you will find sections of homes that are government-owned, houses that have sold for $6,000 to $8,000 in the past year and some that would go for more than $120,000, residents said.
But nowhere will you find a sign that recognizes Archie Manning, who left here to go to Ole Miss. His mother, Sis, stayed here until she died on Dec. 30, 2000. His sister, Pam, moved to Oxford, Miss., after their mother's death. Archie sold some farming land, and that was all the ties he had left to the town.
If you want to find a sign that says something about the man named by a newspaper as the favorite athlete in Mississippi history, you better bring it with you.
Signs? Signs that this is the birthplace of the NFL's First Family, the place where back-to-back Super Bowl quarterbacks Eli and Peyton used to come during summers and play at old Drew High School?
There was one years ago that said "Home of Archie Manning" and underneath it read, "Land of the pretty girls."
It fell down years ago, and nobody ever bothered to put it back up, Joanne Manning said.
"That never bothered me," Archie Manning said. "I've never tried to be a hero in Drew, Miss."
Now there's a large green sign at the edge of town that tells everyone this is the "waterfowl capital of the state." Ducks have beaten out football, apparently, in the scheme of things.
"My husband (Jeff Andrews, a Drew dentist and head of Drew Enterprises) and I were talking the other day, and he said, 'You know, we ought to change Park Avenue or something and name it for Archie.' We should," said Penny Andrews, who works for the Chamber of Commerce.
The search for Archie
With about an hour left in class on a Wednesday afternoon, four Drew High School students were asked where one could find evidence that Archie Manning went to that school.
A short teen named Deirjohn Williams said he thought there was a picture on the wall, and he was more than willing to look rather than go back to whatever class he had temporarily escaped. He looked around at graduating classes of all-white students from the early 1960s to graduating classes from the late ¤'60s with black students dotted throughout the photo. He said it might be in a conference room, and he skipped inside. No go. Not there.
Asked if the students think anything about Eli Manning being in the Super Bowl next weekend, Williams said, "Hey, we don't think nothing about Archie Manning because he doesn't want to come back here."
Carlos Lakes said, "He tells people he isn't even from Drew."
That, however, is not accurate.
"I get back up there as much as I can, but I don't make a big deal about it. I don't call ahead," Manning said. "I get up there when I'm nearby and I slip in and go to the cemetery or whatever. We've got a place in Oxford, but we only got up there twice this fall. I just don't have time. When anyone asks me where I'm from, though, I say Drew. I don't even say New Orleans."
Manning still hunts a lot in the area with friends, and he came to the 25th reunion of his high school class. He said he hopes they have another soon. You have to have two or three classes together, the school was so small, and getting everyone together isn't easy.
Bloodlines run deep here. The Mannings have a section of the Drew Cemetery, where headstones for Archie's parents, grandfather and uncles rest.
In the book "Manning," which Peyton and Archie did with author John Underwood, Peyton Manning talked about a visit with his father to Buddy Manning's grave after Peyton's rookie season in Indianapolis.
Said Peyton: "He got a little emotional telling me about it. ... He said what a shock it had been ... Then he said he knew his dad loved him but had never told him so, and I was reminded how often he tells us -- Cooper and Eli and me. How he never ends a telephone call without letting us know. How he's always been there for us."
Those graves are well tended . You see from where the name Eli comes, from the Elisha Archie Manning line. You see from where the name Peyton comes, from John Peyton Manning, an uncle.
But at the high school, there is little evidence they ever went to school there.
Still, the students (Williams, Colton Lakes, Carlos Lakes and Quinterius Polk) help search, and the picture of the 1967 class is found and there's Manning, smiling broadly.
Dorothy Burton, the school's retired principal, said the fact the kids don't know where Manning's picture is located is not unusual.
"When the schools integrated, the white kids went to North Sunflower Academy and the white teachers followed," Burton said. "The kids who remained didn't keep up the legacy very well.
"Besides, these kids don't care anything about Archie Manning. They love Peyton and Eli."
Said Manning, "I get that a lot."
'My mother was special'
The Manning house, the home where he grew up, the place where his father committed suicide when Archie was about to become a junior in college, is on the corner of Green and Third, across the street from the high school.
The little clubhouse in the back that used to have a sign that said, "No girls allowed," still stands, but is in disrepair. The house was actually three that were pulled together, dragged in from the fields to become one. Inside, it is wood, all wood, from the floor to the ceiling.
Archie's mother Sis lived there until she died.
"As all our mothers are, my mother was special," Manning said. "She pretty much ran the town. She was a legal secretary for the three lawyers in town and she worked until she was in her 80s."
Billy Williams, who lives a few blocks away from the Manning house and who has collected what memorabilia there is in town, said Sis was a wonderful woman who refused to leave the town.
Williams kept things like the cast that Manning wore in a game against LSU after he broke his arm during his senior year at Ole Miss, a cane that Archie used after breaking an ankle in the eighth grade, programs from the only time Drew ever celebrated Archie -- Feb. 27, 1971 on Archie Manning Day -- and tons of other things. He donated those things to the drugstore.
Williams has plenty of things packed away.
For example, one Christmas before Ole Miss played Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl after Manning's junior season, he decorated his yard in Ole Miss Christmas things including a sign that read, "Weather forecast, cold, hog-killing weather." The Mannings loved it.
In a letter from Sis Manning to Williams in the year she died, she wrote, "Drew has been good to me and I say thank you each day for my life and being fortunate to spend the happiest part of my life here."
"Growing up in Drew was wonderful," Archie said. "I wouldn't trade it for anything. But the town has gone through a lot over the years."
The house has much of the original wood, and Archie's 10-by-10¤½ room had a built-in desk that would swing shut. In his parent's room, there are two built-in beds. Wise has placed two Ole Miss pillows on the bed, the first of many Manning-related items to come, she hoped.
Archie didn't know the Wises were doing this, but he instantly remembered Mary Frank.
He used to come by Mary Frank and her husband J.C. White's pharmacy downtown every day.
"He would get a chocolate milkshake," said Wise, who married Billy Wise 14 years ago when her husband died.
Archie was baptized at the First Baptist Church, which is next to the First United Methodist Church, when he was 13. He got a pin for attending 13 consecutive years of Sunday school in that old brick church.
"I remember my son Robert and Archie were baptized the same day," Wise said. "I remembered about halfway through the service that I forgot to give Robert a towel. I worried about that the rest of the service, but afterward, he just said, 'I used Archie's.'¤"
"That was just part of it when we were growing up," Archie said.
Staying put in Drew
It was a cold evening, with a little light slipping through the thick air from a couple of lightpoles, and Evelyn Primer, a lifelong Drew resident, sat in a car that was billowing smoke out its tailpipe. The car was parked next to The Corner Store, the sort of a place that has a bar in the back. Young men stood outside in the bitter cold, some getting belligerent as the night went along, shouting at the car.
"Don't worry about them," Primer said. "There's just no jobs around here. There's no work. If people want to find jobs, they have to go to Cleveland or somewhere else. They're just drinking."
Primer, slim, with dark skin and hair pulled tight, a gold left front tooth and two missing from the front of her mouth on the bottom row, smiled a bit when asked why she would stay here.
"My mama and daddy are sick. Somebody's got to take care of them."
So she stayed, in a town that according to the 2000 census, has a median household income of $19,167. Forty percent of the population was below the poverty line.
The mayor, Jeffrey Kilpatrick, called Archie last year and asked if he would help with setting up Girls and Boys Clubs. Manning said he would.
"They tried to get things set up," Wise said, "but none of the parents would help chaperone the kids and eventually they shut it down because the kids were too rowdy."
But the town darn sure knows who Eli Manning is, and everyone in this town said they would be watching the Super Bowl, including Primer. The kids at the school all talked about being excited Eli is in the Super Bowl.
Still, you can't get an Eli Manning jersey anywhere around this town or even in sporting goods stores in Cleveland, 12 miles away.
Eli mania hasn't surfaced, just yet. But "my daddy is a big Colts fan because of Peyton," Deirjohn Williams said.
"Sis used to tell me all the time that you hadn't seen nothing yet, that Eli was going to be better than Peyton," Andrews said.
So, it's Eli's time to shine.
Everyone knows it.
"Tell Eli if you see him to send us some jobs," Primer said, and she cackled.
She asked for money for a drink, pocketed a $5 bill and walked back into The Corner Store.
It was another dark night in Drew, which is a terribly long way from Phoenix..
Billy Turner can be reached at or (504) 826-3406.

1 comment:

squiggincindy said...