The Polaroids sit in a small manila envelope in the upper reaches of the bedroom closet. In times of distress Peyton Manning strips down to his boxers and takes comfort in the several dozen photos. He stares at a snapshot—perhaps one showing a baby-blue oxford shirt, nut-brown slacks and cranberry tie lying neatly on a sales counter—then sifts through a jungle of hangers. Thanks to these handy visual aids, the NFL's most commanding young quarterback can dress himself.
Manning, the Indianapolis Colts' second-year sensation, is as comfortable on the field as any passer with his limited experience has been in at least a decade, perhaps since Dan Marino blew into Miami in 1983. He is a burgeoning superstar who's at ease speaking in front of 10,000 people or singing before five times that many country-music fans. Yet for all his grace in the spotlight, Manning, 23, is often lost when it comes to menial tasks. He has flailed in the face of such daunting endeavors as opening a can of soup, ordering Chinese takeout and hooking up a TV set, and he has less fashion sense than Cher on Oscar night. That's why his clothes-shopping excursions—and those made for him by his mother, Olivia, in the Mannings' hometown of New Orleans—inevitably end with a photo shoot.
His fashion foibles may cause him some embarrassment, but nowhere near the humiliation that opposing defensive backs have felt at the way Manning has undressed them this season. Buoyed by his detailed preparation and unshakable poise, Manning has been the prime reason for Indy's sudden shift from cellar-dwelling afterthought to emerging power. A 27-19 win over the New York Giants on Sunday gave the Colts a 7-2 record, one marred only by last-minute losses to the AFC East rival Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots. Manning ranks among the NFL leaders in passing yards (first, with 2,519), touchdown passes (tied for second, with 17) and completions (third, with 186), and he has thrown a touchdown pass in 22 consecutive games, the longest active streak in the league and the eighth-longest in NFL history. His growth curve approximates the upward trajectory of one of his end-zone fade passes. "He's easily one of the top 10 quarterbacks in football, and that's a conservative statement, because there aren't nine guys I'd put ahead of him," says Fox analyst John Madden, who came away awed by Manning after working the broadcast of Indianapolis's 34-24 victory over the Dallas Cowboys on Oct. 31. "I always had the theory that a quarterback doesn't have a clue until his fifth year, but with this guy that goes right out the window."
In that come-from-behind victory over the Cowboys, Manning suckered Deion Sanders, freezing the NFL's best cornerback with a wicked play-fake before zinging a 40-yard touchdown pass to wideout Marvin Harrison for the winning points on the first play of the fourth quarter. The play, 218 Bastard, provided an example of Manning's scrupulous attention to detail. Manning, who has studied films of recently retired play-action masters Steve DeBerg and Boomer Esiason, sold his fake hand-off to rookie running back Edgerrin James. Sanders stood flat-footed, and Harrison, who ran a post pattern from the right side, was wide open. "I lose the ball when I'm watching him sometimes, and you see defenses lose it, too," Buffalo Bills general manager John Butler says. "A lot of things he does are forgotten arts in this league. It's amazing how quickly he has adapted."
It's not as if Manning has sneaked up on the rest of the NFL. Almost from the time he became a starter during his freshman year at Tennessee, Peyton, the son of former New Orleans Saints standout Archie Manning, was the most eagerly anticipated prospect since Troy Aikman was drafted by Dallas in 1989. Yet Manning, a 6'5" 230-pounder picked first in the '98 draft, has been even better than advertised. In the months before the draft he was repeatedly compared with Ryan Leaf, the cocky, strong-armed quarterback who had led Washington State to its first Rose Bowl appearance in 67 years. Scouts, executives and coaches, most of them speaking anonymously, popped off about Manning's alleged liabilities: unspectacular arm strength, limited mobility, a lesser upside than Leaf. It became fashionable to depict Manning as the safe pick, with Leaf cast as the potential mother lode.
We all know how things have played out: The San Diego Chargers mortgaged their future to acquire the second pick so they could select Leaf, who flopped and is currently serving a four-week suspension for berating Chargers general manager Bobby Beathard. Manning, on the other hand, has thrived for precisely the reasons that made him so attractive in the first place: his upbringing in the sport, his intelligence, his work ethic and his leadership skills.
When he joined the Colts, Manning made a point of asking to have his locker placed amid those of the offensive linemen. "I've put a lot of thought into being a leader," he says. As he intended, the men charged with protecting Manning have embraced him as one of the guys. "Peyton's approachable, down-to-earth and treats everyone with respect," says Indy left tackle Tarik Glenn. Right tackle Adam Meadows says Manning "is like an extra coach on the field. He even knows what the offensive linemen are supposed to do, so he commands respect immediately."
Manning is universally regarded as a good guy. Relentlessly polite, he gives motivational speeches ("Basically, 20 minutes' worth of ways to say, 'Work hard,' " he says), has a foundation (PeyBack) devoted to helping underprivileged youth and responds to messages sent to his Web site (PeytonManning.com). Manning not only accommodates autograph requests but also carries a pen to aid the cause. Yet Manning has an ambivalent relationship with his image: It both comforts and annoys him, clearly beating the alternative—would he rather be Leaf?—while sometimes making his actions appear contrived.
"I've tried to keep myself out of bad situations, and if that means I'm a Goody Two-shoes, so be it," Manning says. He's sitting at his favorite Indianapolis restaurant, the St. Elmo steak house, eating a shrimp cocktail that has enough horseradish to bring most men to tears. "I see myself as very normal," he adds. "Growing up in New Orleans as Archie Manning's son, I felt like a target, and I've always known that whatever I'd do, people would hear about it. So I've had my guard up, and maybe that's molded my personality. But if there's something I want to do, I'm going to do it."
Manning's older brother, Cooper, who's in the oil business, never felt so burdened by the weight of perception. "When I was 12 and he was 10," Cooper recalls, "I remember taking my shirt off on the golf course, and Peyton would say, 'What are you doing? You're gonna get us kicked out.' Peyton has sacrificed a lot to get to where he is, and he knows people are looking at him, waiting for him to screw up."