To raise an NFL starting quarterback is one thing. A family of two Super Bowl MVPs fathered by one of the best quarterbacks in college football history, is another.
Enter the Manning Family
With the approximate likelihood of making it from high school football to the NFL being about 0.03%, the Mannings have defied the odds. Peyton, set to enter his fourth Super Bowl at the age of 40, and Eli (age 35), champion of two Super Bowls, are brothers in one of the most successful sporting families of all time.
Archie Manning, the patriarch of the family, is a College Hall of Famer. Archie is known for his electrifying evasiveness and agility during his time at Ole Miss, resembling a modern-day Robert Griffin III during his time at Baylor.
The running abilities of the contemporary Manning quarterbacks aren’t nearly as spectacular as their father’s display in the late sixties, even though Peyton manages runs like this one in crucial moments.
Why Can’t Peyton and Eli Run Like Their Father?
Although the game of football has evolved since Archie’s era, there is a prominent distinction in the athletic ability between him and his quarterback sons. The Manning brothers share approximately 50% of their genetic material that they inherited from their parents.
Heritability is a representation of the importance of genetics in determining one’s characteristics at a given trait, whether that trait is eye color, intelligence, or disease risk (1). Athletically relevant traits that are heritable include height, body type, and aerobic endurance (2, 3, 4). Although some athletically-relevant markers have been teased out of the 20,000 genes we possess, there is no one sports gene, or quarterback gene that is deterministic for success.
Given that 50% of the Manning brothers DNA is from an NFL-level athlete may have given them a head start upon entry to the sporting world. Despite carrying around half of Archie’s genes, a distinction of the quarterback play and athleticism of the brothers is evident in comparison to early footage of their father.
Their tendency to be pocket passers versus their father’s propensity to scramble and throw on the run is a combination of both genetic and environmental influences. Although minimal, differences in genes like ACTN3 (4) can influence muscle function and potentially speed. Their lack of speedy abilities likely also has a heavy environmental influence acquired through coaching in college, and in their transition to the NFL.
The sibling that may have gotten the best of Archie’s athleticism is Cooper Manning, one of the best receivers of all time in Louisiana history and the oldest Manning brother. With Peyton, as quarterback, throwing the ball to Cooper, they broke high school receiving records. It seemed like Cooper was destined for a successful career of catching passes in college and potentially the NFL.
When Cooper reached Ole Miss, his father’s alma mater, it became quickly apparent that his football days were over. He was diagnosed with spinal stenosis, a genetically-attributed narrowing of the spaces in the spine that often results in nerve compression and back pain. Spinal stenosis most commonly occurs later in life instead of at 18, as in Cooper’s rare diagnosis. This condition that could only be attributed to genetics at Cooper’s young age.
The Nature & Nurture of Football Injuries
There’s no doubt that being a NFL quarterback increases the risk of physical injury; but are some QBs more susceptible than others due to the inheritance of genetic variants with some influence over injury?
Peyton sustained a herniated disc injury to his neck that caused him to miss the 2011 NFL season. His 303 sacks to date place him at 10th on the active sack leaders list. Peyton’s injury was likely triggered from the recurring blows to his body; but what about the other top QBs in the game? No other QBs in the top 10 sack list, for example Eli at 307 times, have suffered from disc or spinal injuries. There must be other factors at play other than environmental conditions.
Could it be that Cooper and Peyton both inherited genetics predisposed to poor vertebral disc health? Only a very close genetic analysis could tell for sure. Injury risks have the potential to be reduced using genetic information, much like Stanford scientists have recently done.
The Manning Family Legacy
Despite Archie’s quarterback prowess, it’s been reported that he never pressured his children into playing football. The Manning boys were encouraged to play multiple sports from a young age, a practice that The Sports Gene author David Epstein encourages.
Archie Manning teaches us an important lesson in parenting by allowing children to play what, when and where they want - without an external pressure to succeed. It appears that Peyton & Eli’s innate drive to compete and win has fueled their football triumphs to date.
Embracing our unique differences in athleticism is a key to success. Although there may be some special influences in the gene pool of the Manning family, their environment growing up and in college is pivotal to their status as NFL quarterbacks today. Like the Mannings, we should embrace our gifts and train our vulnerabilities and areas of attention.
With the possibility of Peyton’s career ending on Sunday, Super Bowl 50 may be the final chapter in the five-time MVP’s legacy. It is without a doubt that whether his team reigns victorious or not that the Manning brothers will forever be one of the greatest sporting families of all time.
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