Friends tell of Peyton being so self-conscious in bars that he would conceal his beer when certain onlookers—or cameras—were present. "He's more of an instigator," says Baldwin Montgomery, a lifelong friend. "He might tell you to do something stupid, but he's not going to be the one to get nailed for it."
Though he was intentionally low-key as a rookie, Manning, a self-described "smartass," has let his sense of humor shine in '99. He's a frequent locker-room prankster, dumping cold water and baby powder on teammates in bathroom stalls, placing clear shampoo on third-string quarterback Kelly Holcomb's towel while his teammate is in the shower. In the Colts' season-opening win over Buffalo, Manning livened up the huddle with a dead-on impression of stoned Fast Times at Ridgemont High savant Jeff Spicoli: "There's nothing wrong with a little feast on our time." When Holcomb trotted out to a recent practice sporting a mild outbreak of acne, Manning altered his presnap cadence, barking out, "Whitehead 80!"
Manning also has a throwback brashness. He detests the modern specter of players prancing after making routine plays, which he views as "bush league. If a defensive back breaks up a pass and poses, I'm going right at him on the next play." Manning typically won't call out a teammate for dropping a pass in a game, but if a decoy receiver goes half-speed on a route during practice, he says, "that's worthy of an ass-chewing." Another of Manning's pet peeves is the ebullient postgame fraternization mat goes on between opponents. "Just get the hell off the field," he says disdainfully. "You just lost; what are you smiling about?" Even pregame schmoozing irritates him. Manning and Holcomb often spot Indianapolis players and opponents kibitzing, then amuse themselves by conducting mock conversations: "Y'all are gonna kick our ass today.... How are the wife and kids?...Cool, dude, it's all good."
Ashley Thompson is on the phone from eastern Tennessee, playfully discussing her boyfriend's penchant for "being boring," when she hears a call-waiting beep. Manning's number comes up on her caller I.D.
"Do you need to click over?" you ask.
"Nah, whatever, he'll call back."
"Uh, are you sure?"
"Trust me, he'll deal with it."
All right, then. Manning may be a take-charge dude in the huddle, but he chose a pistol of a mate in Thompson, a marketing manager for a land development company. "Sometimes you have to remind him that there are things in life other than being a star," Thompson says. "When he decided to stay at Tennessee for his senior year, everyone started treating him like a god, and I think he sort of got caught up in that for a short time. No one else will criticize him, so I've had to put him in his place a little bit, to keep him down-to-earth. So he has to call me."
Thompson, who grew up in Memphis and graduated from Virginia, was introduced to Manning while visiting friends at Tennessee just before his freshman year. They spoke briefly at a frat party, and she wasn't overly impressed. "He was wearing this really ugly pastel shirt," she says, "and I had a feeling he was going to be a nerd." But Thompson agreed to go out with Manning when she returned for another visit later that fall, and he won her over with his manners (opening doors and pulling out chairs, for starters) and maturity.