Tennessee coach Philip Fulmer remembers a practice last fall when the team was doing a blitz-pickup drill, in which offensive linemen and running backs work on blocking. "There are no receivers in the drill," says Fulmer. "All the quarterback has to do is take a snap and drop back to give us the proper depth. But here's Peyton coming up to the line, giving signals to receivers who aren't out there, doing his checks, dropping back full speed, setting up...and there's nobody out there. All the coaches were laughing, but that's the way he lives his life. Peyton lives to be better. He's like the coach's little son who's 5'9" and can't break an egg when he throws—except Peyton is 6'5", with a world of talent."
In his sophomore year at Isidore Newman, the private school in New Orleans that he attended from kindergarten, Peyton first quizzed his father about studying game film. This was logical, because his father, Archie Manning, played quarterback in the NFL for 14 years. Archie didn't push his son to study film then; the quality of tapes from high school games wasn't very good anyway. But two years later, when Peyton expressed an interest in perusing some NFL game films, Archie told him, "If you're going to watch film, do it the right way." By that he meant, Don't watch the ball, watch the defense; fans watch the ball.
With this tiny piece of advice Archie helped create a monster who watches more videotape than Bob Saget. Reporters have phoned the Volunteers' film room late at night in search of offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe and instead reached Manning. Pizzas have been delivered to the film room so that Manning could eat a midnight meal while breaking down Alabama's goal line defense. Cutcliffe has done extra work on the weekends lest he be caught unprepared at Monday afternoon's quarterbacks meeting. "I know he's going to have a bunch of questions right away," Cutcliffe says of Manning. "He's somebody very special, and I don't want to let him down."
During his freshman year Manning was so eager that he couldn't keep himself from jumping on all queries made to Cutcliffe. One day Helton (who was selected as a first baseman by the Colorado Rockies in the first round of the 1995 baseball draft) lost his temper. "Peyton, don't answer my questions!" he shouted.
Last September, in the six days leading to Tennessee's drubbing by Florida, Manning watched more than 20 hours of tape on his own. In February his apartment mates moved Manning's VCR to the living room. "We figured maybe we could bring dates over and watch movies." says Vols senior linebacker Greg Johnson, one of Manning's best friends on the team. "That lasted maybe a month." The VCR was moved back to Manning's room.
Manning's apartment mates call him Caveman and his bedroom the Cave. On Saturday nights after home games he often returns to his apartment to watch a tape of the game. "I'm guessing most college players are out celebrating on Saturday night," says Ashley Thompson, the 21-year-old University of Virginia senior whom Manning has dated since they met in the fall of 1994. ("Even Peyton's love life is set up pretty well," says his father. "He's crazy about Ashley, but he just doesn't have time for a girlfriend on campus.")
By the summer of '95, Manning was organizing the informal passing drills that he had crashed the previous July. He left messages on the answering machines of wide-outs and defensive backs. "It was tough for me, adjusting to his work ethic," says senior wideout Joey Kent, who caught 69 of Manning's passes last season, nine for touchdowns. "He was so young."
Over time, Manning has only tightened the screws. This year he began coordinating workouts in January, only days after the Vols' 20-14 Citrus Bowl win over Ohio State. Often he would gather a dozen teammates in Tennessee's field house, only to find the baseball team practicing there. The ballplayers gave Manning 15 yards to work with—it was their season and their practice, after all. Manning took their 15 and raised them 10, until defensive backs were bouncing off infielders. Turf skirmishes ensued. Finally athletic director Doug Dickey confronted Manning and said, "Peyton, give way."
It was like telling Larry Bird not to shoot jumpers after practice. "He's telling me I can't come out here and throw," says Manning. "Well, I don't want to push it, but I stuck my opinion in there. We threw for 3,000 yards last year, completed 64 percent, because of what we were doing in January and February. You ask some quarterbacks, 'Hey, you been throwin'?' They say, 'Yeah.' Well, their idea of throwing is two quarterbacks playing catch. My idea is getting receivers and defensive backs out here. Something tells me it hasn't been done much here before, and that's why there was controversy."
It is not the first time that Manning's hypercompetitiveness has led him to cross an athletic department official. In his junior year of high school, after Manning made his annual transition from football to basketball (before going on to baseball in the spring), Newman basketball coach Billy Fitzgerald chose not to start him. Fitzgerald, a tough, successful coach who posts aphorisms by Bob Knight on the walls of his office, didn't think Manning was ready. Manning thought he was, so the two argued. The team's sixth man as a sophomore, Manning left the basketball team by mutual agreement, "it was typical of Peyton the competitor," says Fitzgerald. "I don't fault him for it. It was a privilege to coach him." On the morning that Manning signed with Tennessee, Fitzgerald was the second person he called.