For the past eight years, over a thousand high school football players from all over the country — and the world — have converged on Thibodaux, La. for the four-day Manning Passing Academy.
It’s known by many as the premier offensive football camp in the country.
Former NFL quarterback Archie Manning first realized that Nicholls State University had potential for a football camp when he was training with the New Orleans Saints back in the summer of 1975.
It had dormitories, lecture rooms and a cafeteria, right next to lots of wide-open green space that could be used as practice fields. Manning has held the camp for the past eight years, along with sons Peyton, Cooper and Eli Manning, at Nicholls State’s small, rural campus.
The University loves the Manning Camp because it brings national attention.
“You know we get ESPN, Vanity Fair, The Los Angeles Times,” covering the camp, says Rob Bernardi, the athletic director at Nicholls State. “There is nothing we do at Nicholls State, or has ever done in the past, that unfortunately draws this type of media coverage. You know, on a normal day we’re lucky if we can get the attention of The Times-Picayune or the Baton Rouge Advocate, so for us it’s an incredible opportunity that we love to take advantage of.”
And the Manning family’s reputation also attracts big names from the NFL.
“In the past we’ve had Joe Montana’s kids, we’ve had John Elway’s son, we’ve had Frank Gifford’s son, Chris Mortensen from ESPN has sent his son, and even former Saints player Jack Del Rio” has sent his, Bernardi says.
But hosting such high profile guests takes some doing, and the camp expects top-notch facilities. While the Mannings love the intimate, removed setting of Thibodaux — well, it is in the swamp, after all.
A number of the practice fields have insufficient drainage, and an afternoon thunderstorm can turn a field into a big puddle.
“The Manning Family would like to keep this camp here; however, you can’t come to a camp where you’re practicing half the time in a parking lot and half the time on an actual field,” says Vic Lafont, the CEO of the South Louisiana Economic Council. Lafont says it would have cost Nicholls State a million dollars to solve the drainage problem on their own.
That’s a lot for a small school.
“So what the South Louisiana Economic Council did, we went to the state legislature with that exact case,” Lafont says. “The solution was fix the 25 fields, the drainage problem, to the tune of a million dollars, which was appropriated through House Bill 2 this year out of capital outlay, and that will fix the fields to where they will drain off.”
Construction on the drainage project should begin within the next year, allowing the Mannings to keep their down-home field advantage.
It’s not just the university rooting for the camp to stay at Nicholls. Local businesses benefit quite a bit from 1200 high school kids coming in from all over. Lafont and his organization found the Manning Passing Academy has a $1.8 million overall economic impact on the region.
“Parents are not just, for example, coming from Nebraska, dropping this high school kid off, going back home and saying ‘We’ll pick you up in 4 days, Junior.’ They’re actually coming and they’re staying here. They’re staying in our hotels, eating our meals, they’re taking our plantation tours, our swamp tours, our cultural tours.”
That impact is felt by people like Tina Swanner, who owns Bubba’s II, the Thibodaux restaurant and sports bar. Swanner says sales double to triple during the camp, so she stocks up on food and plans her workers’ schedules a month before the camp starts.
“When they hear there is a sports bar and a local restaurant that has Cajun cuisine, everybody usually comes to try it out; and we have people that come back every year,” Swanner says.
As the camp kicks off, Swanner will take requests from customers to sit on the patio, so they can watch the alligators in the bayou.
It’ll be four days of packed restaurants, hotel lobbies, and swamp tours for families. While their sons have four days of football drills, seminars and, hopefully, not too many thunderstorms.