Last year Peyton passed for 2,345 yards and 30 touchdowns, with only four interceptions. This year he's on pace to better those numbers. The only knock against him has been his foot speed, although he has improved on that. In the off-season Peyton trained with shoes designed to lengthen his Achilles tendon, giving his stride more spring. Last year he ran the 40-yard dash in 5.0 seconds; now he's at 4.8. Not that it matters much. As one recruiter said, "With a quarterback that big, who can throw the ball like he can, you'd be silly to have him running anyway."
Archie was known as a scrambler with a flair for improvisation; he could pass the ball underhanded if need be or run the blind bootleg unbeknownst to everyone on the field but himself. Although Peyton's physical resemblance to his father is uncanny, he's a classic drop-back passer more in the mold of a Namath or a Marino, and his arm, some contend, is already better than Archie's ever was.
"He's got great athletic ability," says Saint coach Jim Mora, who watched Peyton work out this summer. "If there's any better quarterback his age out there in the country, I'd just like to see him."
"Nothing but genetics can explain how that boy looks," says Jim Poole, a former college teammate of Archie's.
Is Peyton really that good, worthy of his place at the top of virtually every recruiting service's list of high school talent? Or was he simply born with the right pedigree? "When I first heard that Peyton was Archie Manning's son, I admit that operated negatively in my evaluation of him," says Allen Wallace, publisher of Super-Prep magazine. "I wondered whether the hyperbole used to describe him had something to do with the fact that he was the son of a former great player. But I've talked to more than 20 different programs, and they all say the same thing: Peyton is simply a great player. And that's why we've listed him Number One."
Two years ago Peyton and his brother Cooper, then a senior at Newman, formed one of the most prolific pass-and-catch tandems in Louisiana. It was, Archie says now, "the greatest fall I ever spent in my life. The only problem was that after the games I had to cover my head and hide from the other receivers' parents." When Cooper earned a scholarship to Ole Miss, it seemed a lock that Peyton would follow. But as a freshman, Cooper was found to have a congenital spinal condition that resulted in surgery and the end of his football career. With the Manning-to-Manning scenario at Ole Miss no longer a possibility, Peyton's future suddenly was less certain. "I honestly don't know where I'm going," he says.
The debate among those who follow the Manning saga now goes like this: Should Peyton attempt to resurrect the glory that has eluded Ole Miss since his father's days, or should he choose a school like Florida State or Michigan, where he would be certain to compete for the national championship and personal awards such as the Heisman Trophy?
"Peyton doesn't take much crap," Cooper says with no small hint of pride. "If somebody were to tell him that he betrayed Ole Miss [by choosing another school], he's the type who'd get right in his face and tell him to shut up."
Archie is determined to let Peyton decide for himself, and Olivia, herself a former Ole Miss homecoming queen, is trying to do the same. "Some of my buddies have called and said, 'You make him go to Ole Miss,' " Archie says. "They're real hard-core about it. And though I'm sure they mean well, they aren't thinking about what they'd do if Peyton was their son."
The quest for Peyton, frantic since last spring, peaked in mid-September when he started telling some schools he wasn't interested. By this point Tony Reginelli, Peyton's coach at Newman, had dubbed so many highlight tapes for recruiters that he had nearly worn out the school's heavy-duty VCR. And the Mannings were under siege at home, where they had installed an extra phone line to handle the crush of recruiting calls, 23 of which came the first day college coaches were allowed to contact high school players, in August.