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Cooper Manning

Times photo: Bill Serne

Cooper Manning, Archie Manning's oldest son, and the least known - in the famed football family, and you can't help but wonder what might have been.

Cooper was born in 1974. The only Manning brother not playing professional football.

Cooper is the Manning whose first name you probably don't know, the oldest son of a legend in his town, former New Orleans Saints quarterback Archie Manning. Cooper is a coveted player on a different team, trading oil and gas stocks for an energy research firm, Howard Weil, Labouisse and Friedrichs Inc.

But everything was once so different.

When a 10-year-old Cooper used to beat up on Peyton, two years his junior, run circles around him in football and basketball, and start to instill the competitive fire that helped make Peyton an All-American at Tennessee and one of the NFL's most feared quarterbacks.

Cooper was the pride of New Orleans private school Isadore Newman High, wowing little brother Eli, seven years younger. Cooper was an all-state senior wide receiver who caught everything thrown his way by a sophomore sensation quarterback named Peyton, and soon caught the attention of Division I-A schools such as Texas, Virginia and ultimately his dad's alma mater, Ole Miss.
During his senior year he was selected to the all-state team, the same season his brother Peyton started at quarterback as a sophomore.

Then, just like that, it all ended, 

not with an injury but with a medical diagnosis in 1992 that left him more numb than the feeling in his hand. And Cooper, who had only begun to embrace the world of opportunities before him, had no choice but to start over without the game he loved.

He would need to redefine himself. But first, he would have to learn to walk again.

Cooper was diagnosed with spinal stenosis in 1992.

 There's no way of knowing how far he would have gone in football.

Of course, judging from the genes passed down from his father and the track record of his brothers, it's fair to assume that Cooper - in his prime a muscular 6-foot-4, 185-pounder with 4.7 speeds in the 40 - would have been a force in college. And he certainly would have had a chance to catch more passes from Peyton, who had planned to follow his big brother to Ole Miss and pick up where they'd left off in high school.

He was always athletically gifted, always a kid who gave his parents, Archie and Olivia, reason to be proud - and also to wince.

Growing up, he was a natural cutup with a live-wire personality, unlike his more formal dad and more serious younger brothers. Cooper would tell off-color jokes at his parents' parties and once even donned a paper bag - coaxing Peyton to do the same - at a Saints game in which their father was playing. Their parents were not amused.

Cooper started off trying to follow his father's footsteps as a quarterback. But he was third string, and by his sophomore year, he longed for more playing time. So he worked relentlessly to become a wide receiver, spending hours with his father working on drills, including an unforgiving one called "Ten Balls." Archie would gun all kinds of 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 says.

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

"Being on the same team with Cooper was one of the best years I've ever had," says Peyton, who often communicated with his brother with their own set of hand signals.

Their father, meanwhile, remembers Cooper's intense dedication to excel. "He worked really hard at getting himself bigger and trying to be fast enough to be a college receiver," says Archie. "He probably had further to go than Peyton and Eli to become a college prospect. And I was so proud of his work ethic and accomplishing that. Then all of a sudden, it was taken away."

Cooper had started noticing his right pinky and ring finger going numb. Sometimes, the sensation felt more like pinpricks. Other times, the hand seemed to lose all its strength. Late in the season, Cooper dropped some passes uncharacteristically.

He kept the problem to himself. He was still so good, nobody suspected anything was wrong.

But there was something wrong, indeed.

At the start of basketball season, Cooper could tell his shots lacked the normal touch and control. He worked on dribbling and shooting left-handed and still averaged a dozen points on a team that won the state 2A championship. He remained mum about the problem, not wanting opponents to target him, but did confide in his father.

After the season, Archie took Cooper to a New Orleans surgeon, whose diagnosis was an injured ulnar nerve, a common ailment for football players that can cause numbness in the fingers and hand. Surgery was performed and Cooper worked through the pain after the cast was removed, excelling in a summer all-star football game. He left for Mississippi, hoping to get healthier as a freshman. But the pain and numbness persisted during August practices.

At the urging of the team doctor, Archie took his son to specialists at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and the Baylor Medical Clinic. Cooper was tested by a half-dozen doctors through September. One of them from Baylor finally called Archie with the shocking news. Cooper suffered from a congenital condition called spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal canal. The upshot: He needed surgery and had to quit football immediately. Furthermore, the doctor said, he was fortunate not to have been paralyzed in the years he played, due to all the hits to his upper body.

Peyton was devastated by the news but vowed in a heartfelt letter to his brother that they'd always be a team. Cooper underwent a three-hour operation during the summer of 1993. He awoke hardly able to move. His entire right leg was useless, his left leg numb. And when therapy started, he was unable to walk. But he worked tirelessly in rehab. He fell frequently, yet slowly regained his balance with a walker and cane.

After a successful surgery in 1993, he eventually graduated from Ole Miss and entered the business world as an oil and gas stock trader. Cooper married Ellen Heidingsfelder in 1999 and together they have three children, a daughter named May born in 2002, and two sons, Arch and Heid, born in 2004 and 2006, respectively.

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