On a tree-lined
street in a shaken city, two men and their mother took a detour down memory
lane. Following lunch in New Orleans's Garden District on a warm July
afternoon, Peyton Manning had a sudden urge to see the house in which he first
dreamed of becoming an NFL quarterback. With his mother, Olivia, riding shotgun
and his younger brother, Eli, in the backseat, Peyton steered a Honda pickup
toward Seventh Street and parked in front of a goldenrod-yellow wooden cottage.
He opened the cast-iron front gate and waited as Olivia reluctantly followed,
while Eli stayed in the car and chatted on his cellphone. Looking back at the
youngest of her three boys, Olivia smiled and thought, Eli wouldn't do this in
a million years.
At first glance the house appeared to be a single-story shotgun structure, but
Peyton, who lived there until he was almost seven, knew otherwise. He had fond
memories of the large upstairs bedroom that he had shared with his older
brother, Cooper, the second story hidden by the extended shingled roof in
front. This was a 19th-century camelback house, designed to fool building
inspectors who rode by on horse and buggy into undervaluing the property. It
was on that second floor that Peyton had learned to compete, battling Cooper
and their father, Archie, in heated contests with a foam basketball. This was
where he was determined to go.
After ringing the
bell, Peyton smiled as an elderly man opened the front door. Reaching out to
shake hands, Peyton introduced himself and asked to come inside. Although he
didn't buy the home from the Mannings when they sold it in 1983, the owner was
aware of its history and recognized the Indianapolis Colts' star. He invited
Peyton and Olivia inside but rebuffed the quarterback's request to go upstairs.
"I'm sorry," the man said. "It's just not in good enough
shape." Peyton pressed his case, at one point ascending a couple of steps
before being told--again--that the second story was off-limits.
Olivia took the man
at his word and went back to the car, where Eli had finished his phone
conversation. The third-year quarterback of the New York Giants was two when
the family moved a half dozen blocks away to the house his parents still
occupy, and he seemed utterly uninterested in revisiting the past. But back
inside Peyton persisted. A few minutes later he returned to the car and said,
"O.K., y'all can come on in." As Eli shrugged and followed, his big
brother turned back and told Olivia, "And I'm going upstairs."
This Sunday night
in East Rutherford, N.J., Olivia Manning will be upstairs in a luxury suite at
Giants Stadium, part of a sellout crowd watching her sons make history. A
former Ole Miss homecoming queen who began dating a Southern football
legend-to-be during her freshman year, Olivia has experienced a lifetime of
thrills and chills as the most emotionally invested fan of the four men in her
life. She and Archie once attended 17 of their sons' basketball games in a
single week. "One day when the boys were young, I pulled out of my driveway
and headed up the one-way street going the wrong way," Olivia recalls.
"That's when I realized, O.K., I'm losing it--too many games."
What makes Sunday's
different is that Peyton, 30, and Eli, 25, will become the first brothers to
start at quarterback in the same NFL game. Given that Peyton's Colts went 14--2
last season and won the AFC South for the third year in a row, while Eli's
Giants were 11--5 and took their first NFC East title since 2000, the matchup
would be sexy enough without the family drama. That the brothers were each
drafted with the No. 1 pick--and that their father played 14 years in the
league--adds to the intrigue. Throw in the backdrop of New York City and NBC's
nonstop promotion of its new Sunday night NFL slot, and what you have is the
pro football's most hyped season opener, ever.
Think of it as the
league's answer to Venus and Serena Williams at Centre Court in Wimbledon.
"It's kind of exciting to be part of football history," Olivia says,
pausing to sip ice water in her living room. "I don't want anybody to say,
'Oh, poor Mrs. Manning.' This is a great thing."
Olivia smiles as
she says this, but should we believe her? After the game, one of her boys will
be miserable, a mother's concern long after the kids have left the nest. To
know this, merely mention last season's playoffs and watch the color drain from
January was as bad
for the Mannings as August was for Pluto. In his first postseason start, a
wild-card game against the Carolina Panthers at Giants Stadium, Eli threw three
interceptions and suffered a 23--0 defeat. A week later in a divisional-round
clash at Indy, the Pittsburgh Steelers pounded Peyton and the top-seeded Colts
and then held on for a stunning 21--18 victory. Faced with yet another long
off-season of he-can't-win-the-big-one chatter, Peyton became so upset during
his postgame press conference that he criticized his offensive linemen.
"It's not easy
to be around either of them after a loss," Olivia says. "Your heart
just hurts for them."
Nearly eight months
later two quarterbacks seek redemption, and neither is thrilled about
discussing the uncomfortable circumstances: One will jump-start his season at
the other's expense. It is why, as the 32-year-old Cooper says, Peyton and Eli
"seem to have developed a case of lockjaw" in recent months. While both
Mannings profess to being excited about the matchup--"It's going to be an
awesome atmosphere," says Peyton--they'd rather play it down. Referring to
each team's All-Pro pass rusher, Eli said during training camp, "[The
Giants' Michael] Strahan and [the Colts' Dwight] Freeney don't care if it's two
brothers playing quarterback. For the other 52 guys on each team, it's a
football game, not a [story]."