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?"