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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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"He taught me about toughness," says Manning. The payoff has been extraordinary. Manning's preparation has turned the college game into a plaything for him. Last Oct. 7, Dunn, then the defensive coordinator for Arkansas, which would win the SEC's Western Division, threw everything but Nolan Richardson's 40 Minutes of Hell at Tennessee. Manning completed 35 of 46 passes for 384 yards and four touchdowns in a 49-31 victory. "We tried to make it complicated for him." says Dunn. "And he handled everything. He's really good."

It is Manning's mind that NFL teams covet most. As the pro game has become more complex, it has become more difficult for young quarterbacks to excel. "I don't think there's ever been a quarterback who has been as prepared, mentally, as Manning is." says one NFL personnel director.

But some of his physical attributes and tools are ready for the pros, too: the height, the quick release. Bobby Beathard, general manager of the San Diego Chargers and an old friend of Archie's, called Archie one night last winter. "I was just watching the Tennessee-Alabama tape." said Beathard, who was evaluating an Alabama defensive back. "Tell me, how does your boy get rid of the ball so fast?"

The scouts whisper about Manning's weight and his arm strength, but most haven't seen him since last fall. He has gained nearly 10 pounds. He can squat 400 pounds and bench 315—a vast improvement from his freshman year. "The idea that Peyton is just this mental machine is way off," says Cutcliffe. "He's got that, but he's got quick feet, great balance, velocity on the ball."

There is little doubt about Manning's future. The questions are about details: how many dollars over how many years, paid by which NFL team and when? A speech communications major with a minor in business, Manning has a 3.58 GPA and is on course to get his degree as early as next summer. If he leaves Knoxville after this season, he will have given Tennessee three years, 28 to 30 wins. 20 home sellouts and maybe that first Heisman. His would probably be about the most logical early departure in history.

But, he says, "I've done crazier things than stay four years at Tennessee. Like coming to Tennessee in the first place [instead of going to his dad's alma mater, Mississippi]. All I know is I'd like to play this fall without looking one day ahead."

His passion doesn't How from the promise of NFL stardom but from his vision of college football as a pristine institution. He lives for Saturdays, not Sundays, because he grew up the son of Archie Manning, who—before he was the beaten, beleaguered quarterback of the New Orleans Saints, Houston Oilers and Minnesota Vikings (1971-84)—was one of college football's last great heroes.

Archie went to Ole Miss in the fall of 1967 from the tiny Mississippi Delta town of Drew (pop. 2,143). By the end of his junior year he had restored the Rebels to a place among the nation's elite teams and had been hailed as perhaps the best quarterback in a national class that included Stanford's Jim Plunkett, Notre Dame's Joe Theismann, Santa Clara's Dan Pastorini and Ohio State's Rex Kern. Archie was also the object of a statewide adoration that hasn't abated 26 years later. "He was a legend, much larger than life," says author John Grisham. who grew up in Southaven, Miss. Grisham, who is six years younger than Archie, has twice invoked him in novels, putting a poster of Archie on a character's wall in A Time to Kill and naming a Supreme Court justice Archibald Manning in The Pelican Brief.

Peyton immersed himself in his father's college legacy after an Ole Miss fan sent the Mannings audiotapes of the Rebels' epic 1969 upsets of Georgia and LSU. Peyton, then a junior in high school, popped the tapes into his stereo, lay across his bed and let history wash over him. He listened as his dad's offense, every member a Mississippian, was described by the play-by-play man: Manning brings 'em to the line. There's Mitchell from Columbus, Coker from Clarks-dale.... Manning sprints out right, throws...touchdown! Touchdown, Ole Miss! Peyton memorized the calls and embellished them: "Manning, the 6'3" Drew redhead, brings 'em to the line...."

He quizzed both his father and his mother, Olivia, the Ole Miss homecoming queen whom Archie married in 1971. They told him what college football was like, how magical Saturdays were, how they had double-dated with Archie's teammates and their steadies. Peyton embraced his father's past and formed a picture of his own future. He would be a quarterback, but not in the NFL. "Dad's college career was such a bright memory," says Cooper Manning, Peyton's older brother. "His pro career was... what? Guys in the Superdome with bags on their heads." So Peyton wouldn't aspire to be Marino or Phil Simms or Dan Fouts. "I never once heard him say. "I want to be a pro football player,' " says his mother. "It was always, 'I want to play college football.' " He would be a college quarterback. In the South. Just like Archie.

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