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Matinee Idol
Tim Layden
August 26, 1996
Now playing on Saturday afternoons: Tennessee's Peyton Manning, who is reveling in his birthright as the nation's best quarterback
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August 26, 1996

Matinee Idol

Now playing on Saturday afternoons: Tennessee's Peyton Manning, who is reveling in his birthright as the nation's best quarterback

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Rain falls through suffocating humidity, forming deep, wide puddles at the comers of Florida Field. The Gators score a touchdown. And then another, and another, until the noise from beneath the umbrellas and ponchos begins to sound like the ceaseless roar of traffic. On the visitors' sideline, Tennessee's sophomore quarterback, Peyton Manning, sits on a metal bench, hair matted to his forehead, anger fixed on his soft face.

He had opened his life to a reporter in the week before this embarrassment. The story was supposed to be about his preparation for a game, about how he started on Monday morning with a weight workout in the predawn darkness and then went straight to calculus up on the Hill, a cluster of classrooms that many Vols athletes avoid because it's too far from the sports facilities. It was supposed to be about how he studied game film every afternoon and evening and did more interviews than the rest of his teammates combined. About how when he arrived at English class on Thursday morning, two women in the class asked him to help them distill the plot of The Awakening because he had read the novel and they hadn't. About how he seemed to lit the forgotten image of what a college athlete could be.

That afternoon in Gainesville, Manning walked from the floor of the stadium and paused in the tunnel outside the locker room. There, he embraced his father, who whispered to him, "We're proud of you." Then Peyton clattered away. In the wake of this devastating loss, there would be no story.

Eleven months have passed and another college football season beckons. Peyton Manning is the player of the year before the first ball is snapped. He holds in his 20-year-old hands the dreams of Tennessee football fans, who desperately want an SEC title and the Volunteers' first national championship since 1951, and who want to see Manning become the school's first Heisman Trophy winner. He is also some NFL team's living fantasy, a 6'5½", 223-pound once-in-a-decade catch who might enter the draft alter this, his junior season. "He's the first pick," says the New York Giants' director of college scouting, Tom Boisture. "Last year, this year, next year, whenever he wants." Manning is in a magical place, soon to be a wealthy professional, but for one more year he is a throwback, living an ideal. Now there is a story.

It begins in the fourth game of Manning's freshman season, when he becomes the starting quarterback after injuries to two upperclassmen. The Volunteers would go on to win 18 of 20 games with him as the starter. Last season they finished 11-1, ranked No. 3 in the country, as Manning threw 380 passes and had just four intercepted. "Here's the way I look at it," says Mississippi State defensive coordinator Joe Lee Dunn. "Florida's Danny Wuerffel is a good college quarterback. Peyton is a good pro quarterback. Right now."

When NFL scouts make their spring pilgrimages to college campuses, they are supposed to evaluate only seniors, but when they came to Knoxville a few months ago they couldn't help but be distracted by a sophomore. San Diego Chargers quarterbacks coach Dwain Painter not only noticed Manning—"I had already heard our scouts raving about him," says Painter—but also approached him to ask about several of Tennessee's seniors. Who would know them better than their quarterback? In return, Manning grilled Painter. Having just studied a tape of the Miami Dolphins' playoff loss to the Buffalo Bills, Manning was curious about the coverages that had seemed to confuse Dan Marino. Painter was taken aback. Such inquisitiveness is not normal in a player so young. College quarterbacks normally ask about meal money. Says Painter, "After talking to him, it's obvious he's way ahead of most young quarterbacks."

Last February, Manning attended the banquet for the Davey O'Brien Award, given annually to the quarterback voted best in the nation by a panel of sportswriters. Wuerffel won; Manning was a finalist. Runners-up seldom attend the ceremony, but Manning went to Dallas with a purpose. At a reception for past winners, Manning worked the room for tutelage—from the Philadelphia Eagles' Ty Detmer ("I wanted to talk to him about the West Coast offense he played under in Green Bay, and because I knew his father coached the passing game in high school and because he went to Brigham Young," says Manning), from the Carolina Panthers' Kerry Collins ("Because he was a rookie last year") and from the San Francisco 49ers' Steve Young ("He was surrounded the whole time, but I told him I'd love to pick his brain sometime"). Not a mo merit of idle chatter. "I figured I had two hours with those guys," says Manning. "I wasn't going to waste it by making small talk."

This surprises no one at Tennessee, where Manning has flabbergasted teammates and coaches with his work ethic since the summer of 1994. "He came in with an attitude that I've never seen in any freshman." says fifth-year senior fullback Eric Lane. Manning went to Knoxville six weeks earlier than most other freshmen to acclimate himself to the football program and participate in workouts with older receivers and running backs. "He wanted to get as much work done as possible, every day," says Lane.

When senior quarterback Jerry Colquitt and junior backup Todd Helton were injured in the first and fourth games of the season, respectively, Manning got the chance to use what he had learned. He became the starter, and Branndon Stewart, another highly regarded freshman, became the backup. (Stewart has since transferred to Texas A&M and is expected to be the Aggies' starter this year.)

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