Because of Cooper's injury, Peyton not only confronted what every player denies ("Football could end, so you might want to think about getting a degree along the way," Peyton says) but also began considering schools other than Ole Miss. Tennessee fit his needs best: It was in the South, it had a tradition of good quarterbacks and offensive lines, it had great facilities, and, most important, it had people with whom Peyton instantly connected—Cutcliffe in particular. When Peyton signed with the Volunteers, his parents got some vicious phone calls from Ole Miss fans, calls that hurt. Cooper, however, wore a Tennessee cap around the Ole Miss campus the day of the signing, daring anybody to rip his brother.
The bond that Cooper's letter to Peyton helped forge nearly four years ago has never been stronger. The brothers talk at least twice a week, even during the football season. Peyton tells Cooper the game plans; Cooper helps keep Peyton loose. On Saturdays, Cooper usually figures out a way to get access to the sidelines and find his brother's ear. In their daydreams. Peyton sees defenses spread out before him and threads completions to Cooper through their soft spots; Cooper sees himself playing again. Each sees the other. "I always see us playing Georgia, in the daylight, always in the daylight," says Cooper. "We're driving down the field, the place is packed, Peyton hits me on a little post corner route...."
"We're both in Ole Miss uniforms, gray and red," says Peyton. "I picture how it would have been. He comes into my dream, catching a pass. Then he throws the ball up into the stands...." Touchdown! Touchdown, Ole Miss!
Father and son are sitting on a couch in the den of the Mannings' yellow house in the Garden District of New Orleans. Archie is at one end, Peyton at the other, both of them signing plastic footballs to be given away at a Newman function that weekend. They also are signing other items—real footballs, hats, jerseys—that are regularly sent to the house. Their work is quiet, interrupted only by the occasional "Finished with that one?" from Archie, followed by a soft "Yessir" from Peyton. They could be brothers, and in a sense that's what they are. Brothers in history.
Yes, the game Peyton's father knew has changed forever. Yes, Peyton will soon play for more money in a season than most men make in a lifetime. But this autumn can be the sweetest of all.
There is a rematch with Florida on Sept. 21, a trip to Memphis 12 days later for an emotional game against Ole Miss. The national-championship game is the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, two miles from the bedroom where Peyton listened to those scratchy old tapes. He can do things that his father never did: win an SEC title, go undefeated. "This fall," says Peyton, "this fall could be something else."
In this home there is a syrupy faith, a belief that history doesn't die. "I'm telling you, college football is special," says Archie.
He reaches to his left and pulls a new football from a box. He signs it and passes it to his right. Peyton scribbles his name on the ball and sets it gently on the coffee table. Archie reaches for another new football. Sunlight streams through long windows. The only noise is the squeak of a black marker against the fresh, pebbled leather.