There’ll be no Disneyfication of the Manning Passing Academy.
While Thibodaux and Nicholls State may seem an unlikely location for some 1,200 Archie, Peyton and Eli wannabes from around the country to converge each July, they’ve been doing just that for the past 10 years.
“It’s like being next door to ‘Swamp People,’ ” then-Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins said after working as a counselor in 2011.
And now, thanks in large part to a $1.2 million grant from the state to upgrade the drainage for the 20 campus acres that are transformed into 25 football fields this weekend, the academy, which began in 1996 at Tulane and then was held at Southeastern for the next nine years, will continue along the banks of Bayou Lafourche rather than the banks of Lake Buena Vista in Orlando, Florida.
“The Disney people did talk to us,” said Archie Manning, who launched the MPA along with then-Tulane coach Buddy Teevens. “But their idea of having parents just coming down and putting Little Johnny in our camp is not quite what we do. Every time something like that is brought up, Peyton will remind us, ‘We’re a ... football camp!’ ”
Yes, it is. It’s not called a passing academy for nothing.
The emphasis is on throwing — and catching — the football. About 70 percent of the campers, who range from eighth-graders to high school seniors, are quarterbacks; the rest are receivers, tight ends and running backs.
“Offenses change,” said Jeff Hawkins, now senior associate athletic director at Oregon, who has served as the camp’s operations head since its second year. “But our sole mission is to instill basic, fundamental skills of offensive football.
“You may run the spread and read option, but nothing changes about throwing the football or catching it or making or taking handoffs, no matter what decade you’re playing in.”
It may be fundamental, but it’s not Football 101.
“I’ve had people who were in the NFL call me to tell their sons are considering playing football and want to know about our academy,” Manning said. “I tell them we don’t want those who are just considering playing. We want those who know they’re going to, because that’s the level we’re teaching and we want everybody’s reps to count.”
In addition to the football skills work, college and NFL speakers address the campers on everything from injury prevention to eligibility requirements for college to nutrition.
Plus, of course, there’s the attraction of Peyton and Eli, who not only diligently work with the campers but also have a Q&A session with the some 40 college quarterbacks who work as counselors.
Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg, Jonathan Goff of Cal, Cody Kessler of Southern California and Kevin Hogan of Stanford are this year’s top names in that group.
“There’s nobody better than Peyton and Eli at telling quarterbacks what it means to be a field general and just what’s expected of them at the next level,” Hawkins said.
The past two camps featured three Heisman winners: Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston and infamously Johnny Manziel, who was sent home following an after-curfew jaunt to Bourbon Street.
“We don’t require a lot of our counselors,” Manning said. “But we do expect everybody to get with the program.”
Manning estimates half of the starting quarterbacks in the NFL have been campers or counselors, including Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson. But don’t ask who was in the camp when.
It has never, Manning is proud to point out, been about recruiting. And while the academy’s website may call it “The Premier Camp in the Country,” there’s no listing of famous alumni, mainly because they aren’t tracked.
“Every year I get calls from ESPN for pictures of people like Russell Wilson when they were in the camp,” Hawkins said. “I have to tell them we don’t keep them.”
The recruiting element, plus the top gathering of college QBs, is so downplayed that media access to the Mannings and the counselors is limited to a 45-minute session Friday. The only public access is Saturday’s air-it-out sessions.
Manning said he even turned down a “60 Minutes” request of a segment, wanting to avoid any intrusions on the campers getting their money’s worth.
And, in that regard, everybody pays the $605 tuition ($450 for day campers). There are no discounts or “special” invitations.
They’re not needed.
While the setting and cuisine may be alien to some, it hasn’t depressed attendance.
Registration annually reaches its limit by Christmas, and while friends of Archie and friends of friends of Archie might inquire about openings, there’s no provision for late registration.
Sizable donations to the Thibodaux area Special Olympics, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and a brain tumor research facility in California come out of the receipts.
It wasn’t that way when Manning and Teevens started the camp. The initial one had 185 attendees, including Catholic High’s Major Applewhite and future first-round pick Patrick Ramsey (of Tulane) along with Eli Manning, then a rising sophomore at Newman.
The only college counselors were Peyton Manning, who was entering his junior season at Tennessee, and the pitch-and-catch combination of Jake Delhomme and Nelson Stokley from Louisiana-Lafayette.
Cooper Manning, whose college career had been cut short because of a congenital neck condition, was there then and now emcees the nightly group sessions.
“We’d gotten our lead from the Bowden Passing Academy in Birmingham,” Archie said. “What impressed me was that Bobby told me it was a way that he and his boys were able to work together for a week. But we didn’t think it would ever be much more than a regional thing.”
The move to Hammond came the next year and, as word spread, SLU’s lack of green space necessitated a move.
“We were busing kids to a softball facility,” Archie said. “I didn’t want to do that any more.”
Nicholls State and Thibodaux had just lost the Saints training camp and had plenty of vacant land. Additionally, local officials were anxious to make up at least part of the economic impact from the loss of the Saints.
“Our registration process takes about three hours, and the folks from Thibodaux provide hospitality for the parents while it’s going on,” Manning said. “We appreciate everything they’re done.”
As for Archie himself, while he still conducts the staff meetings, his job during the practice sessions is to ride around on a golf cart, meeting and greeting the parents and grandparents on hand.
“In the early years, I had my own station,” he said. “But my back won’t allow that anymore. This is all worth it, though. I’ll keep doing this as long as I can.”
Sorry, the Magic Kingdom.