Manning has long been bombarded with female attention—a Tennessee student asked him to sign her chest while Thompson glared coldly; Manning politely declined—yet he's clearly locked in on his first read. Though their relationship has been mostly long-distance, Thompson attends all Indianapolis home games, and she and Manning, in this cyber era, actually write each other letters. "She can flow through all the madness, and she's bright and funny," Manning says. "I probably like her so much because she's like my mom, thoughtful and caring."
When Thompson's not around, Manning, an obsessive watcher of game films, lives a spartan existence. He spends part of his off day at the Colts' training facility, and he has been caught raiding the coaches' dinner spreads during midweek viewing sessions that run late into the evening. Manning sometimes goes to movies alone and has eaten his share of drive-through dinners in Wendy's parking lots, figuring it's the best way to avoid attention when he's on the go. His two-bedroom apartment is sparsely decorated, and he ends his nights alone in bed with a spiral notebook and a cassette recorder, the latter to record a verbal diary he has been keeping since high school. "At times I do get lonely," he says. "A lot of my buddies are married, and I get tired of being the third wheel. One reason I put in so much work at the facility is that I have nothing to go home to. That's by design."
With Manning, almost everything is by design. His approach to assuming the role of Indy's team leader was as scripted as his Gatorade commercial with Michael Jordan and Mia Hamm. On the day he was drafted Manning received a playbook from Colts quarterbacks coach Bruce Arians. The team had a minicamp scheduled for the following weekend. "He showed up for the first practice, got in the huddle and started rattling off everything to everyone," Arians recalls. "Players were like, 'Whoa,' and by the third practice he had taken over the team."
Still, Manning lay low for most of '98, relying on advice he had received from John Elway and others. To offset the hype surrounding his arrival Manning tried to portray himself as a commoner. Of his dedicated approach to weight training, he says, "I don't believe in having a separate workout for quarterbacks. Other players hate that." During practice Manning has regularly volunteered to fill in on the scout team's kick-off coverage unit. "Part of that's for conditioning," he says, "but that defensive tackle who has been going hard on every rep sure does appreciate the breather."
All of that maneuvering is nice, but it wouldn't work without the charming clumsiness that accompanies it. There's something disarming about a multimillionaire innocently hanging up jeans in his locker with PEYTON printed in indelible ink on the inside of the waistband. "The great thing about Peyton is he comes across as being very mortal," says Carolina Panthers quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave, who was Manning's training-camp roommate at the end of his playing career in '98. "The only other person at that level I've seen who can convey that was John Elway. He and Peyton are both tremendous athletes who don't carry themselves like they're superhuman, and people can relate to their mortality."
"He's too easy to make fun of," says Montgomery, Manning's childhood chum. "He's mature beyond his years as a public figure, and he has an amazing grasp of what to do on the field, but he can't do anything else on his own. He's always going to be the guy who steps in dog poop, and every time he eats a sandwich or a hamburger, he'll end up with ketchup down his leg, mustard on his ear. He's a terrible driver, and he can't sing, though he thinks he can." To his friends' dismay, Manning, who while visiting Thompson at Virginia was known to enliven parties with warbling renditions of Montell Jordan's rhythm and blues hit This Is How We Do It, has become a highly confident crooner. Last April country singer Kenny Chesney, with whom Manning grew friendly after the two performed a duet for the NFL Country CD in '98, allowed him to hack away at an unplugged guitar and sing backup during a sold-out show at the Superdome.
Cooper calls his brother "somewhat of a domestic idiot. My mom went up to his apartment after training camp this year, and she caught him turning his underwear inside out so he wouldn't have to use the washing machine. A couple of weeks ago he called my wife and asked her how to heat up soup." Amazingly, that's not even Manning's worst soup-related display of cluelessness. Once, when he was sick, he called Thompson to ask her how to open a can of soup. "He didn't know what a can opener looked like," she says. Another time Manning placed a long-distance call to Thompson from his dorm room and expressed a desire to have Chinese food delivered. Flustered by the process, he persuaded Thompson to call a Knoxville restaurant from her apartment in Charlottesville and make the order for him. Last year Manning complained about the poor reception his television was getting. When Thompson showed up a month later for Indianapolis's season opener, she says, the set wasn't hooked up to the cable wire.
Musgrave, who became an assistant coach with the Philadelphia Eagles last season after being cut by the Colts in training camp, recalls "sitting in my office at Veterans Stadium trying to game-plan and getting a call from Peyton in his car asking for directions somewhere around Indy."
When it comes to his football career, Manning needs no navigational assistance. He took some lumps as a rookie, juxtaposing occasional bursts of brilliance with maddening mistakes and enduring a whole lot of losing. He set NFL rookie records for completions (326), attempts (575), passing yards (3,739) and touchdown passes (26), but he threw a league-high 28 interceptions, and Indy finished 3-13. Most significant, Manning says, he hung tough through the misery; he was the only quarterback in the league to take all of his team's snaps.
After a brief break he spent the bulk of his off-season in Indianapolis working with Colts receivers. The chemistry is beginning to show. "There are no secrets, no shortcuts," he says. "It's all about preparation. I was glad to be drafted by a team that has struggled, because I feel I can make a contribution and help us establish a tradition."