It’s a treasured keepsake from a time of youth, of the unbreakable bonds of teammates.
Of being the toast of his state. Of changing times.
Of what Archie Manning calls his best — and happiest — football season.
The Miller-Digby Trophy which Manning, then a junior, received for being the outstanding player in Ole Miss’ 27-22 victory against Arkansas in the 1970 Sugar Bowl is now “on loan” in the foyer of the building that bears his name at his alma mater.
“It’s hard to believe it’s been that long,” Manning recalled. “When you’re a kid growing up in Mississippi, those guys at Ole Miss were your heroes, and the Sugar Bowl was the high point of the season.
“So that was a pretty special day for me.”
And now, for the first time since that day 46 years ago, an Ole Miss player has a chance to follow in Manning’s footsteps when the Rebels meet Oklahoma State in Friday’s game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Manning, naturally, will be there, but not just as a proud alum but as a member of the Sugar Bowl committee.
“Yeah, I’d say I’ve gotten a few ticket requests,” said Manning, who, with wife Olivia, has lived in New Orleans since the Saints made him the No. 3 pick in the 1971 draft. “I think we’ve been able to take care of most people.
“But I can tell you that for Ole Miss, coming to New Orleans for this game is really exciting. And the entire Sugar Bowl organization is excited to have them.”
There was an era when Ole Miss and the Sugar Bowl were synonymous. Seven times between 1953 and 1964 the Rebels played in the game in old Tulane Stadium.
“Coach (Johnny) Vaught absolutely loved us being in the Sugar Bowl,” Manning said. “And the Sugar Bowl folks loved him. He was able to do some lobbying for us to get in that year, but they wanted us, too.”
The lobbying would come late in the season, and would be needed.
Early on, that wasn’t the case.
Ole Miss began the 1969 season ranked No. 8 nationally and favored to win the Southeastern Conference.
But in the second game, at Kentucky, Vaught played conservatively because his team was facing Alabama the following week and the Rebels lost 10-9.
The Alabama game was one of the most memorable of Manning’s career.
In the first nationally televised prime time game, he ran for three touchdowns and threw for two more in a 33-32 loss.
“There we were: 0-2 in the SEC and the season had barely started,” Manning said.
But the Rebels righted themselves, knocking off Georgia, LSU and, most memorably Tennessee while losing only to Houston.
Ole Miss was 7-3, but thanks to Vaught’s lobbying ability, the Rebels wound up in the Sugar Bowl against a 9-1 Arkansas team which was coming off a 15-14 loss to Texas in the “Game of the Century.”
“We thought Arkansas was the better of those two teams,” Manning said. “But by the end of the season, we were a doggone good team too.”
In the Sugar Bowl itself, Manning threw for 273 yards and a touchdown while running for another as Ole Miss got off to a 14-0 start and then held on for the victory.
“It was an exciting game,” Manning said. “We managed to jump on them early and held on. We’d had a great time in New Orleans all week, and we knew we’d beaten a really good team.”
Manning had finished fourth in that year’s Heisman balloting, and he entered the 1970 season as the favorite.
But he suffered a broken arm in a midseason loss to Southern Miss, and when he returned for the season-ender at LSU, the Tigers put a 61-17 whipping on the Rebels. Ole Miss finished 7-4 after losing in the Gator Bowl.
In 1971 the post-Manning Rebels went 10-2.
But Ole Miss would not reach double-digit victories again until 2003, when Eli Manning led them to a 10-3 season capped by a victory against Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl.
Many elements went into the slide into mediocrity, not the least of which were the school’s nickname and other elements associated with the Confederacy.
Earlier this year Manning was among those supporting eliminating the Confederate element from the state flag.
“It’s just something that needs to be done,” he said. “We’ve had great leadership at Ole Miss that has taken the right steps in the last few years, and this is another one.
“There are some things that have gotten in the way. We need to get rid of them and move on.”
It’s a statement about how things have changed that Ole Miss’ current recruiting class is one of the best in the country.
Manning gives himself a modest pat on the back for the Rebels’ return to football prominence. He was co-chair of the committee that picked current Rebels Coach Hugh Freeze.
Under Freeze Ole Miss is in its second straight New Year’s Six Bowl and fourth straight overall after having only two winning seasons in the previous eight years.
“I may be a better coach-picker than I ever was a player,” Manning joked.
What’s not is that this is a very happy week for the Mannings.