The 1971 Gator Bowl was understandably billed as a battle between Auburn junior Pat Sullivan and Ole Miss senior Archie Manning, two of the best players in the country.
Sullivan hated that.
“I hope people don’t build it up as a game between he and I,” he told reporters a month before the game. “It’ll be between two teams, and the best one will win.”
He was right. Auburn held on to win 35-28 after going up 21-0 in the first quarter. Sullivan put up the best numbers of his career to that point, accounting for 386 total yards. Manning was magnificent, broken arm and all. The two superstars wouldn’t stop gushing about the other’s performance… because, hey, why stop now?
The SEC’s most dynamic quarterbacks had regularly been asked to comment on the other’s abilities throughout the season, and they regularly obliged.
In mid-October, after Sullivan’s second week in a row as the AP’s Back of the Week (which came on the heels of the same honor from Sports Illustrated), the Plainsman actually called Manning for his thoughts on Sullivan’s rising supernova.
“I have nothing but praise for Pat,” Manning told sports editor Joe Cook. “I met him last year in Birmingham at the Quarterback Club meeting and I like him very much as a person. I think he is one of the finest quarterbacks around and is very much deserving of any national honors given to him.'”
Cook obviously asked Sullivan to reciprocate.
“I have the uttermost high respect for Archie,” Sullivan said. “He’s a tremendous athlete as well as a real fine person.”
But the mutual admiration society extended beyond press conferences and interviews.
Sullivan and Manning were actually pen pals, at least they were for that year.
We know that Manning wrote Sullivan that season when Sullivan overtook the pack as the nation’s top yard-gainer. We know that Sullivan wrote Manning when Manning broke his left arm.
But the specifics of what the Huntsville Times called “those secret letters” were not going to end up in the sports section, at least not if Sullivan had something to say about it.
“I kind of wish you wouldn’t ask me about the letters,” he told the Times. “I don’t know Archie that well and I don’t know how he’d feel about me talking about them.”
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Photo: Birmingham News / More here.
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