In his sophomore year at Isidore Newman, the private school in New Orleans that he attended from kindergarten, Peyton first quizzed his father about studying game film. This was logical because his father, Archie Manning, played quarterback in the NFL for 14 years. Archie didn't push his son to study film then; the quality of tapes from high school games wasn't very good anyway. But two years later, when Peyton expressed an interest in perusing some NFL game films, Archie told him, "If you're going to watch film, do it the right way." By that he meant, Don't watch the ball, watch the defense; fans watch the ball. With this tiny piece of advice Archie helped create a monster who watches more videotape than Bob Saget.
Last September, in the six days leading to Tennessee's drubbing by Florida, Manning watched more than 20 hours of tape on his own. In February his apartment mates moved Manning's VCR to the living room. "We figured maybe we could bring dates over and watch movies," says Vols senior linebacker Greg Johnson, one of Manning's best friends on the team. "That lasted maybe a month." The VCR was moved back to Manning's room. His apartment mates call Manning Caveman and his bedroom the Cave. On Saturday nights after home games he often returns to his apartment to watch a tape of the game.
By the summer of '95 Manning was organizing the informal passing drills that he had crashed the previous July. He left messages on the answering machines of wideouts and defensive backs. "It was tough for me, adjusting to his work ethic," says senior wideout Joey Kent, who caught 69 of Manning's passes last season, nine for touchdowns. "He was so young." Over time, Manning has only tightened the screws. This year he began coordinating workouts in January, only days after the Vols' 20-14 Citrus Bowl win over Ohio State.
The payoff has been extraordinary. Manning's preparation has turned the college game into a plaything for him. Last Oct. 7 Joe Lee Dunn, then the defensive coordinator for Arkansas, which would win the SEC's Western Division, threw everything but Nolan Richardson's 40 Minutes of Hell at Tennessee. Manning completed 35 of 46 passes for 384 yards and four touchdowns in a 49-31 victory. "We tried to make it complicated for him," says Dunn. "And he handled everything. He's really good."
The scouts whisper about Manning's weight and his arm strength, but most haven't seen him since last fall. He has gained nearly 10 pounds. He can squat 400 pounds and bench 315—a vast improvement from his freshman year. "The idea that Peyton is just this mental machine is way off," says offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe. "He's got that, but he's got quick feet, great balance, velocity on the ball."
There is little doubt about Manning's future. The questions are about details: how many dollars over how many years, paid by which NFL team and when? A speech communications major with a minor in business, Manning has a 3.58 GPA and is on course to get his degree as early as next summer. If he leaves Knoxville after this season, he will have given Tennessee three years, 28 to 30 wins, 20 home sellouts and maybe that first Heisman. His would probably be about the most logical early departure in history.
But, he says, "I've done crazier things than stay four years at Tennessee. Like coming to Tennessee in the first place [instead of going to his dad's alma mater, Mississippi]. All I know is I'd like to play this fall without looking one day ahead."
His passion doesn't flow from the promise of NFL stardom but from his vision of college football as a pristine institution. He lives for Saturdays, not Sundays, because he grew up the son of Archie Manning, who—before he was the beaten, beleaguered quarterback of the New Orleans Saints, Houston Oilers and Minnesota Vikings (1971-84)—was one of college football's last great heroes.
Peyton immersed himself in his father's college legacy after an Ole Miss fan sent the Mannings audiotapes of the Rebels' epic 1969 upsets of Georgia and LSU. Peyton, then a junior in high school, popped the tapes into his stereo, lay across his bed and let history wash over him. He listened as his dad's offense, every member a Mississippian, was described by the play-by-play man: Manning brings 'em to the line. There's Mitchell from Columbus, Coker from Clarksdale.... Manning sprints out right, throws...touchdown! Touchdown, Ole Miss! Peyton memorized the calls and embellished them: "Manning, the 6'3" Drew redhead, brings 'em to the line...."
He quizzed his father and his mother, Olivia, the Ole Miss homecoming queen whom Archie married in 1971. They told him what college football was like, how magical Saturdays were, how they had double-dated with Archie's teammates and their steadies. Peyton embraced his father's past and formed a picture of his own future. He would be a quarterback, but not in the NFL. "Dad's college career was such a bright memory," says Cooper Manning, Peyton's older brother. "His pro career was...what? Guys in the Superdome with bags on their heads." So Peyton wouldn't aspire to be Marino or Phil Simms or Dan Fouts. "I never once heard him say, 'I want to be a pro football player,' " says his mother. "It was always, 'I want to play college football.' " He would be a college quarterback. In the South. Just like Archie.