Thank you Peyton
To the delight of grateful Vols fans, Petyon Manning will spend another year prepping for the NFL
By Tim Layden
After he announced his decision, this is what Peyton Manning heard most from people: "Congratulations." That and, of course, "Thank you" from love-struck Tennessee football fans, shocked that Manning would return to quarterback their Volunteers for another autumn, when it seemed so certain he would leave for the NFL. Their ardor is understandable -- but congratulations?
By electing to play a fourth season of college football instead of accepting many millions of dollars as the probable first pick in the NFL draft, Manning was perceived by many as seizing some high moral ground and planting his personal flag in it. One Knoxville television station even sent a crew to ask schoolchildren what they had learned from Manning's virtuous choice.
Following dinner last Thursday night, almost 36 hours after the news conference that stopped Tennesseans in their tracks, Manning drove his Oldsmobile Bravada through West Knoxville, passing under a huge, orange billboard that read THANK YOU PEYTON. The statewide canonization struck him as sweet but misplaced. "What I did is selfish," said Manning. "I didn't do it because it's right for any other college athlete who has to make the same kind of decision. Michael Jordan, when I talked to him, told me to do what I want to do. That was the key word here: want. And believe me, the decision was close."
It was so close, in fact, that if an NFL coach or scout or personnel man had given Manning a clear evaluation of whether his skills were NFL-ready, Tennessee might be sizing up sophomore Tamaurice (Tee) Martin or junior Jermaine Copeland as starting quarterback right now. If Manning had only heard from somebody like Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, who told SI before Manning's announcement, "I think he's phenomenal. He makes every throw. His mechanics are second to none. He runs the no-huddle flawlessly. I told [Broncos coach] Mike Shanahan, 'If the Jets [who have the first pick in June's draft] get this kid, they're going to turn it around in a hurry.'"
But the NFL strongly discourages teams from pursuing or even commenting on an underclassman until the player has declared for the draft. The league takes great pride in shielding underclassmen -- a ridiculous classification in Manning's case; he has played 36 games and should graduate on May 16 with a 3.53 in speech communications -- from the knowledge that would help them make an informed decision. Former NFL quarterback Archie Manning, Peyton's father-friend-adviser and about as connected as anyone when it comes to football, turned over a cartload of rocks looking for information and didn't find enough to satisfy Peyton. "I'll tell you," said Archie, "the league stands up on that promise about juniors."
Peyton found a staggering list of people on the fringe to consult. There was not only Jordan but also former NFL luminaries Hank Stram, Fran Tarkenton, Roger Staubach ("Peyton, it was an honor to win the Heisman," he said, "but it didn't make me a better NFL player. Please do not go back just to win that") and Phil Simms ("I watched your bowl game, and I know you're ready," Simms said, making a 180-degree turn from last fall, when he told Archie that Peyton should stay four years).
He quizzed current NFL quarterbacks Troy Aikman ("I've seen you a lot on television," he said. "I think you're ready"); Drew Bledsoe ("Peyton, pro football is the best job in the world, because you're playing football and that's all you have to concentrate on"); and Rick Mirer ("I wouldn't trade my last year at Notre Dame for anything").
Just 11 days before his announcement, Manning was in Charlottesville, Va., visiting his longtime girlfriend, Ashley Thompson, a senior at Virginia. The Wake Forest basketball team was in town to play the Cavaliers, so Manning visited with Demon Deacons senior center Tim Duncan, who has twice bypassed the NBA draft and might have been the overall No. 1 pick a year ago.
Manning: "I'm going through a tough decision. I could use a little advice."
Duncan: "What pick will you be?"
Manning: "From what I understand, first."
Duncan (eyebrows raised): "O.K., how close are you to your degree?"
Manning: "I graduate in May."
Duncan: "What are you asking me for? What's the advice?"
At the end of his quest Manning found that only Mirer supported the idea of staying at Tennessee. Manning had assumed since early fall that he was playing his last season of college football, yet as he wrapped up his research he felt a creeping uncertainty. The argument to go pro still seemed somehow unconvincing and incomplete. "Aikman said I was ready, Simms said I was ready, and I valued their opinions," said Manning. "But I got no clear-cut evaluation from an NFL coach. In a lot of ways, I wanted that. I don't care what Mel Kiper Jr. says. Maybe the NFL people were scared because they're not supposed to give that stuff out. I don't know. But as my decision got closer, I started imagining myself at some NFL training camp, throwing from the five-step drop. I've heard in the pros that with the five-step, it's 'Five steps, make a move around a rusher, then throw and still not be late.' What if I got out there and I just hadn't done it enough times and I was late? I'd be thinking, Damn, I'm not ready. I should have stayed. Maybe I did need one more year."
Then there is a long pause. Manning knows some people suspect that he's afraid to take the challenge of the NFL, that he's like some delicate child, swaddled in the cocoon of college football, that he left more on the table than any underclassman, ever, out of fear. That's a wild misperception. Manning is a savage competitor, and if he once thought of college football as the final rung on his ladder, that's surely no longer the case. "I need to get into the NFL," said Manning. "I can't wait to get there, and I want that challenge. But I want it with every bit of ammunition I've got. When I came to Tennessee, I attacked the job. Well, I promise you, come next January 2 or 3, I'm going to attack the NFL. Drew Bledsoe told me that no matter when I came out, I was going to struggle in my rookie year. I believe I'll struggle less by staying here this year, playing with the bullets flying. And I have every intention of being in exactly the same draft position next year."
One other silly perception: Manning hasn't given due thought to the possibility of a career-ending injury, which would cost him those millions. Manning's older brother Cooper's football career was ended with the discovery of a congenital spinal condition when he was a freshman at Mississippi in '92. "With what happened to Cooper," said Peyton, "I've counted every day of football since my junior year in high school as lucky."
His decision to stay at Tennessee evolved into an uncomplicated matter, if not a painless one. College football is what he knows, and the NFL remained a great unknown. Peyton Manning does not do unknowns. He would sooner play Florida helmetless than venture forward unprepared. "I have the opportunity to do this," he said. "I'm entitled to play four years, so I'm going to."
His return makes Tennessee, with 15 starters back from last season's 10-2 team, an SEC and national-championship contender again. "Those are team goals, sure, but they're not why I came back," Manning said. "I'm ready for anything." He can feel his arm getting stronger every day, and through special drills, feel his feet getting quicker too. He's edging closer to the 225 pounds (on a 6'5 1/2" frame) and the 4.7 in the 40 that seemed so unrealistic when he was a frail freshman. Moreover, Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer met with the Mannings in January, seeking small ways to make him more comfortable if he stayed. Subtle changes could result, in everything from the Vols' offensive philosophy to better management of Manning's public appearances, which tended to break down into hero-worshiping autograph sessions.
But the bottom line was, he couldn't shake the caveat that not just Jordan but also every other celebrity he spoke to offered: You do what you want to do. Manning rolled that one around in his brain and heart. "I want to be around [senior wideout] Marcus Nash for a few more months," Manning said. "I want to walk to class and hear people say, 'Good luck in the game.' I want to see that little orange section in the stands at road games. I really do. I want to tailgate with my parents after the games and then go out to dinner. I don't know if you tailgate in the NFL, but we've been doing it for three years here, and I want to do it for one more."
Manning also vowed to tap the brakes, to bring the superstar collegian, pro-in-waiting bandwagon nearer the speed limit. He started taking classes in the summer before his freshman season and loaded up academically with such gusto that he will be finished in three years. "He's just piled all this school on, such a rush job," said Cooper on Friday. "It's been all hurry up and do this and do that." This winter, at 20 years old (he turns 21 on March 24), Peyton found himself throwing with an NFL-issue football and honing his seven-step drop for the pros when it seemed he had just left high school. Rush job, indeed.
In the fall he will take a light load of graduate courses. "I'm not going to kill myself," Manning said. "I'm going to really be able to concentrate on football and enjoy it."
Two days after his announcement, he showed up for a 6 a.m. off-season running and weightlifting session. "Could have been the first guy in the draft, and he's here at six," said strength coach John Stucky.
"I was 50 pounds lighter after the decision," said Manning. Now he can be in Nash's August wedding. Now he can take a jab at Virginia Tech quarterback Jim Druckenmiller, whom Manning saw quoted as ridiculing his indecision and who is now sure to be enriched by Manning's absence from the draft. "Jim Druckenmiller owes me a cold beverage," Manning said. Now he can play in Gainesville again. And now he can truly be ready for the NFL in a year. He walked from the football complex into the cool morning air with two game tapes in his right hand. College game tapes. Tap, tap.
Issue date: March 17, 1997