The Manning Passing Academy held its 18th year of camp this past weekend, bringing more than a thousand high school football players to Thibodaux, La., a town many of them couldn’t even pronounce.
The camp kicked off Thursday afternoon, with a rainy first practice at Nicholls State University’s John L. Guidry Stadium. Following practice, campers remained on the field to hear lectures from professional and college players. They told campers exactly what it takes to get to the top: good nutrition, self-discipline and academics. Serious medical issues were also discussed, like what to do for a concussion or a staph infection, and how to properly take care of their shoulders (something especially important for quarterbacks).
But the real trick play was getting 1200 teenagers to pay attention to a classroom-style lecture while they’re on summer vacation. For that, former NFL quarterback and camp founder Archie Manning has developed a playbook to combat a teenager’s attention span.
“My experience with these kids, they don’t want to listen to one guy lecture on one thing for an hour, or an hour-and-a-half,” Manning said. “They don’t want to hear that, so we get six people who will talk for 15 minutes.”
Eating right, self-discipline and studying are no-brainers when educating young athletes, but Manning and his staff have added social media training to that mix. “Social media can really get athletes in trouble. It can get anybody in trouble,” Manning says. “There is nothing wrong with it. I don’t do it. But like anything else, I think there’s a right way and a wrong way.”
Each year the Mannings bring in big name players to help them coach the campers. Among this year’s coaches were University of Alabama QB A.J. McCarron, Tulane University’s Nick Montana, and even 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel.
Many might think playing in front of celebrity players would be pretty intimidating. But Bob Kolbe, who brought his son all the way from upstate New York, said this level of exposure to football’s finest humanizes the whole experience. “Society puts these guys on such a pedestal,” Kolbe said. “The fact that, you know, my fifteen-year-old son is here rubbing elbows with the top quarterbacks in the country — if anything, it’s a confidence boost for the kids.”
Tuition to the Manning Passing Academy this year was $420 for day campers and $575 for overnight campers, who were in the vast majority. But that’s not including travel, lodging and food expenses, which can add up fast for families traveling from places like New York or West Virginia.
So, why come to the Manning Passing Academy, when there are often many football camps closer to home? Interviews with campers were prohibited, as the camps says it would disrupt students’ learning, but every parent gave the same answer: They choose the Manning Passing Academy because they wanted their sons to get real coaching, not just an opportunity to update their autograph collection.
One of those parents is ESPN’s Senior NFL Analyst Chris Mortensen. He said he sent his own son Alex to the program in the past because, as he says, “There is no agenda here other than ‘We’re going to work.’”
It turned out to be worth every penny, Mortensen says. One of his son’s first touchdown passes as a high school quarterback was a perfectly executed screen pass, a skill he had learned just a month before at the Manning Passing Academy.
Mortensen said that universities all over the country, large and small, offer summer football camps, but he thinks the Manning Passing Academy is the most reputable. “Some of those camps are held so that their support staff can make a few extra dollars,” Mortensen says. “And there’s also a marketing part to it, because you have some potential quarterbacks you end up recruiting.”
Other camps are also selective, only working with top prospects. The Manning Camp is first-come, first-served. “Peyton and Eli, they get excited working and watching guys get coached who are maybe trying just to make their JV team or compete for a job as a junior,” Mortensen says.
While the Manning name immediately wins over most parents, Kim Henning had his doubts. “It was like it was too good to be true,” he says. Henning didn’t believe that all of the celebrity players the camp advertised would actually work with his son.
But he was pleasantly surprised. “I think they’ve been getting a great amount of attention,” he said. “Whether it’s the coach that is working with them on a specific skill, or Peyton or Cooper or Eli just walking by, they stop and point out the things that they’re doing right and reinforce it. And if they’re doing it wrong, they show them what they need to do to do it right.”
On the last day of camp, the skies cleared for the final morning practice at Guidry stadium. And by 2 p.m. everyone was gone, Nicholls State returning to its summertime, ghost-town state.
For all the high-profile players and coaches, the four days of camp gave them a needed break from the rigors of summer training. For the campers, those four days will drive them the rest of the season and, hopefully, the rest of their careers.