And if he is not quite the folk hero in the South that his father was—who could be?—he is still a celebrity. Last fall he sat in a Tennessee dorm with teammate Will Newman and student Eric Barley. Struck by late-night hunger, Barley ordered a pizza and was told the wait for delivery would be one hour. He asked Manning if he could use the quarterback's name.
"O.K.," said Manning, reluctantly.
"Five minutes," said the pizza guy.
When the pie arrived, the delivery man said to Manning, "You must sign this hat for the owner of the restaurant. Please sign it WELCOME TO AMERICA, AMIR." And so Manning did.
On April 1 he attended a concert to celebrate the opening of the Lee Greenwood Theater in Gatlinburg, Tenn. Near the end of the show, a man wearing a suit hustled Manning to a backstage dressing room. "I walk in," says Manning, still amazed, "and there's George and Barbara and the governor." That would be former president Bush and his wife and Tennessee governor Don Sundquist. "Next thing I know," says Manning, "we're all posing for pictures together."
Manning is not seeking stardom; he is chasing an entire life—one that he has sought to re-create since he first listened to those Ole Miss tapes in high school. "I would love to have played in the '60s," he says. "Now that would have been fun." Perhaps he is playing in the '60s. His own version of the '60s. Manning may make an ideal quarterback for the mid-'90s, but in many ways he belongs on Nick at Nite. His language is a fusillade of yessirs and nosirs, each accompanied by a deferential nod. Last April, at 7:30 a.m. on the day of Tennessee's spring game, he was honored at a ceremony as the male athlete with the highest GPA in Tennessee's sophomore class. "Must be a soft sophomore class," he told the audience, holding the plaque in his hands, trying to suppress a smile.
When it comes to the game itself, however, Manning is reverential in a way that is rare among college players. On game days he sits in front of his dressing cubicle and reads the official program from cover to cover before he puts on his pads. When he meets with Cutcliffe, who played briefly at Alabama, the conversation turns inevitably to some slice of SEC history. "Then you see him just light up," says Cutcliffe. "For so many kids, college football is a means to an end. Peyton has a true love of college football. He knows the way Saturday afternoons are supposed to smell in the South."
The smell is different now. Players are celebrated as much for their projected draft positions as for their college exploits. All the games are televised, which demythologizes the participants. The difference between Archie's era and Peyton's is only highlighted by the fact that Archie played at the smallest university in the SEC and on a team made up entirely of Mississippians. "That's how I heard college football was, listening to my parents," says Peyton. "I'm trying to get the whole experience, but the game has changed. We've got guys on our team from all over the country. They're all great guys, but everybody does his own thing. It's different, that's all."
And it's no reason to weep for Manning. It just turns out that in the throwback business, success is accompanied by a touch of disillusionment. "I think sometimes I talked too much," says Archie. "I never knew he was setting it in his mind that just because things were a certain way for me, they would be the same way for him. Something is missing for Peyton. He's on top of college football, and it's different from what he expected."
Father and son are sitting on a couch in the den of the Mannings' yellow house in the Garden District of New Orleans. Archie is at one end, Peyton at the other, both of them signing plastic footballs to be given away at a Newman function that weekend. They are also signing other items—real footballs, hats, jerseys—that are regularly sent to the house. Their work is quiet, interrupted only by the occasional "Finished with that one?" from Archie, followed by a soft "Yessir" from Peyton. They could be brothers, and in a sense that's what they are. Brothers in history.