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Published: Saturday, 2/2/2008

The flamboyant brother

ASSOCIATED PRESS

NEW ORLEANS - Cooper Manning, the eldest and least-known of the Manning children, is used to taking care of his brothers.

So at halftime of the NFC championship, with Eli Manning and the New York Giants trailing the Green Bay Packers, Cooper moved to a box suite with his mother and father.

"We were playing well, but still behind," said Cooper, who spent the first half sitting in the stands at frigid Lambeau Field. "So I made the move to the suite. I always kind of feel making a change if they are behind helps."

From a simple superstitious change of scenery to advice on tipping, Cooper is always there for Eli and Peyton, and happy to avoid the spotlight that follows the quarterbacks.

He's even willing to do what he can to help the Giants spoil the New England Patriots' perfect season tomorrow in the Super Bowl. That is, within reason.

"Someone said I should wear what I was wearing at Green Bay to the Super Bowl," the 33-year-old Cooper said. "But I don't think long underwear and a big coat is going to make it in Phoenix."

Cooper, first son of Archie and Olivia Manning, has two years on Peyton and seven on Eli.

When the brothers were growing up, Cooper was the athletic star they looked up to. And he helped instill a competitive streak in his younger siblings.

The brothers were in charge of dragging the trash cans to the street, and they decided who was going to do the hauling by grabbing a basketball and playing HORSE.

"Anybody that got even close to scoring would get a forearm to the nose," Cooper said. "It would end up with Dad coming out and breaking up the fight."

Cooper played wide receiver in high school, caught passes from Peyton and was good enough to be recruited by schools from Texas to Virginia before settling on his father's alma mater, Ole Miss.

"He was an outstanding athlete," said Billy Fitzgerald, who coached the Isidore Newman High School basketball teams Cooper played on, including one that won a state championship. "And a great guy. A real pleasure to coach."

Cooper, 6-foot-4, 188 pounds, looks strikingly like Archie, who played for 10 seasons with the New Orleans Saints, achieving an exalted status in the community. But unlike his sons, Archie never played for a team with winning record.

Cooper may look like his reserved father, but he earned a reputation for a more flamboyant personality when he was a child.

When his father was struggling through the 1-15 1980 season that enshrined the Saints as the "Aints" , Cooper put a paper bag over his head and persuaded his younger brothers to do the same. Not funny, his mother said.

"My personality was very different from my dad's," Cooper said. "I can remember early on when I'd do something, he'd say they found me on the doorstep, they didn't know where I came from."

Frank Gendusa coached Cooper, Peyton and Eli on the football field in high school, and said there were clear differences between the three of them.

"Cooper is a great guy, the class clown, he always kept things lively," Gendusa said. "Then you had Peyton who was serious as a heart attack, and Eli who was laid back and relaxed."

By the time Cooper left high school, he appeared ready to lead the Manning brothers into the NFL.

Unable to progress beyond third string at quarterback, he decided to make himself into a wide receiver, calling on Archie to help him. He worked on a drill in which Archie would rifle passes at him from 10 yards away and Cooper would have to catch 10 in a row.

"If you got up to eight but dropped one, you had to start all over," he said.

Cooper didn't drop a pass his entire junior year as an all-state wideout. Then came his senior season, when he and new quarterback Peyton led the Newman Greenies to the state semifinals. Cooper caught 76 passes for 1,250 yards and was named the team's most valuable player.

"Cooper was a special person and a great athlete," Gendusa said. "His senior year Peyton was a sophomore and our quarterback. It was a real special year for them and for us."

Then Cooper started noticing the fingers on his right hand going numb. Sometimes he seemed to lose strength in the hand, dropping passes that he once caught, and, when basketball season began, losing his touch on shots.

At first Cooper was diagnosed with an injured ulnar nerve, not uncommon for football players. Surgery was performed to correct the condition, but at Ole Miss the pain and numbness were still there.

Cooper made trips to the Mayo Clinic and the Baylor Medical Clinic, and a string of doctors tried to find out what was wrong. When the diagnosis finally came, it shocked him.

He needed surgery to correct a problem with his spine and had to quit football immediately. The doctor told him he was fortunate not to have been paralyzed in the years he played, because of all the hits to his upper body.

In 1993, Cooper underwent a three-hour operation that left him almost unable to move. His right leg was useless, his left leg numb. He started therapy unable to walk.

"It was terrible; I had been playing football since fifth grade," Cooper said. "Suddenly they tell you you can't play anymore. I had to struggle with it for a while."

Now a partner at the energy research firm Howard Weil, Labouisse and Friedrichs, Inc., Cooper is married with three children. And he's still the caring big brother, talking with both Peyton and Eli at least once a week.

"I just got a call from Eli," Cooper said. "He'd played golf and wasn't sure about what to tip the caddies, so he called me."

Although his right hand is somewhat atrophied, Cooper said he feels fine these days, playing golf and tennis, where he still enjoys competing with his brothers.

The Mannings don't get much time together anymore - Peyton and Eli aren't in the plans for Thanksgiving or Christmas, which fall during football season.

The family reunion comes during the quarterback camp the Mannings run each summer. Cooper is the social director, arranging activities such as crawfish boils.

"I get to do a lot of things my brothers can't, like spending more time with my family" he said. "I like being the other brother."



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