|ESPN.com: NFL Playoffs 2009||[Print without images]|
Archie Manning's assistant, a polite Southern woman with a worn-out phone ear and a steely resolve to stay on task, says Archie is slammed. It's days before the Super Bowl, one of his boys is going for another ring, and, since the Colts are playing New Orleans -- the Mannings' New Orleans -- it's impossible for him to talk. If he says yes to one interview, he's got to do 100 more.
|Peyton Manning runs the show.|
You understand, right? The burden of oversaturation? Of spawning not only one of the NFL's most legendary quarterbacks, but its most visible face? After 12 years in the NFL, a few dozen commercials, and several "Saturday Night Live" skits, the secrets on Peyton Manning are limited.
He beats his opponents through massive preparation, he has four MVP trophies, and, in other news, rain is wet.
Larry Bird, one of the numerous celebrity friends of Peyton's, was asked recently to provide an anecdote of Manning, something his minions might not have heard. "I ran this by Larry," a PR guy from the Indiana Pacers replies, "and he said he didn't have anything. Sorry."
But dig deeper, and there are morsels out there. Eighteen of them, in fact, which just so happens to be Manning's jersey number.
If there is dirt to be found on Peyton Manning, a logical place to start would be Ryan Robinson. For four years, Robinson was a loyal sidekick, and served as executive director of Manning's PeyBack Foundation. Now Robinson is the communications manager with the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Colts' AFC South rivals.
The two men had slightly differing personality traits. Manning is Type-A-plus; Robinson was, well, a little less regimented. He knew this, going in, how tough the job would be because of Peyton's perfectionism. This is the man who, in an era when athletes don't mind being fashionably late, insists on showing up five minutes early for interviews. This is the guy who took a 41-6 clobbering to the Dolphins on "Monday Night Football" during the 2001 season, rolled in at 4 a.m. after a late flight home and had an 8:30 charity engagement that morning. Of course Peyton was there, 8:30 sharp, fresh as a 5 a.m. donut.
If Manning can spend 17 weeks hunkered in a video room, rewinding over and over so no one can stop him or completely grasp him, then by God, his assistant better strive to be perfect, too. On several occasions, when Robinson fell short, he'd hear the same thing from Manning.
Ryan, you're not getting the job done.
Sometimes, they'd bicker. To this day, Robinson speaks glowingly of Manning, and spent roughly 90 percent of a phone conversation going on and on about his former boss' passion and oversized heart. There were very few bad moments, and they usually came in a car, on the way to a speaking gig or charity event, when the MapQuest directions were wrong and the clock crept five minutes past punctuality.
Manning would pick and gripe, and Robinson would be annoyed enough to momentarily ponder jumping out the window. But then Manning would do his speech, and all was forgiven.
"I think that [punctuality] came from his dad," Robinson says. "The thing is, they just respect people.
"I learned a lot from Peyton. I learned a lot about preparation. I'd never say a bad word about that guy. He's taught me about wanting to be the best at everything you do."
A few things Manning doesn't want publicized: He bought laptops for roughly 20 underprivileged kids in Indianapolis. He took a dozen or so foster children out for steaks at St. Elmo's in downtown Indianapolis just so they'd know what it was like to eat at a fancy restaurant. Manning's wife, Ashley, became so close to some of the kids she met in the PeyBack Foundation that she'd sit in the bleachers for their football games.
Often times, when Robinson would ask if he could call the TV stations, Manning would say no.
"He doesn't do it for publicity," Robinson says.
"You know how some athletes say, 'I want to start a foundation?' This was an everyday deal. I mean, he was fully committed. He put a percentage of his salary in there every year. He was very serious about it. He did not want to fail."
|Brother Cooper Manning is the one who keeps things light in the family.|
The scene in the locker room two weekends ago was about as jovial as the Colts can be. In a front corner, Peyton's little brother, Eli, the quarterback for the Giants, spoke to players in hushed tones. In the middle stood the oldest Manning brother, Cooper, who was cracking jokes to the media.
Cooper is the one who keeps things light, and according to one family friend, is the glue that holds the brothers together. He's a 35-year-old partner at an energy investment firm in New Orleans whose college football career was cut short by a congenital narrowing of his spinal canal. Peyton wears the No. 18 jersey in part because his daddy did, but also for Cooper, who had it in their high school days in New Orleans.
On this particular night, when the focus was on Peyton's mastery of the Jets' defense, Cooper shifted into a conversation about his little brother's other skills. He says Peyton knows all the words to just about every song from the Beach Boys, Dion and Elvis because he listened to them in the backseat of his parents' station wagon. He says Peyton isn't the best singer, but he's an excellent dancer.
"I mean, if I'm gonna dance one last dance, it's gonna be with him," Cooper says. "He's got great moves. Great hips. He gets no credit for the hips."
|Manning has remained close with his high school coach, Tony Reginelli.|
A couple of weeks ago, Peyton called his high school coach, Tony Reginelli, in New Orleans. They've stayed tight for 20 years, through playoff games, knee surgeries and health scares. Reginelli suffered a heart attack the day before the AFC Championship Game three years ago, and begged doctors to let him watch Peyton play on TV while they placed a stent in his chest. He missed that one, so Manning called in the days before the Jets-Colts game to ask how the 76-year-old was feeling.
They didn't talk about football. Manning just asked if Reginelli received the Colts sweatshirts that he sent. Reginelli hung up and thought it was kind of strange, that Peyton was so concerned about the Colts gear right before he played in the biggest game of the season. But then it made sense.
"He probably sent me this stuff so I had something to wear for the Super Bowl this Sunday," he says.
A handful of people were asked if Manning still devours game film in the dark hours of the night, when his opponents have nodded off to sleep. He probably doesn't need to do it. He's Peyton Manning.
The answer was that he most likely watches more now than ever.
"As good as he is," says Colts tackle Ryan Diem, "I don't know if he's ever content.
"I think every year he probably challenges himself to take it up another level."
The Jets had the NFL's No. 1 defense heading into Jan. 24, and Manning prepared for every blitz and personnel package, then smirked when the clock ran down and the Colts had outsmarted them.
"I don't know who he was looking at, if it was the whole D or what," Diem says. "But that's definitely his game. He loves his little chess matches."
There's a group called FFAPM (Football Fans Against Peyton Manning) on Facebook. In various photos throughout the page, Manning's smiling mug has been defaced. One photo depicts him with horns and a missing front tooth.
"If you hate those awful commercials that interrupt every football game starring Peyton Manning and talking about how he has a laser rocket arm and all other crap, then this is the group for you," the description on the page says. "Join FFAPM and stand up against stupidness."
The group has 84 members.
A local New Orleans waiter who has seen the brothers as kids and All-Pro quarterbacks says the boys still engage in boyish horseplay, and after all these years, one thing is clear: Olivia Manning is in charge.
The Mannings stop in sometimes to the same joint where the boys sat in high chairs, and they'll playfully tease one another, mid-meal. But all it takes is one sideways look from Mom to make them stop.
"They put their eyes down," the waiter says.
The shenanigans stop.
She's the quiet voice in a family that runs on testosterone. The neighborhood boys called the Mannings' mom "Miss Olivia." She cooked dinners while Archie and the boys sat at the table strategizing, and occasionally served as family ref.
"That whole wet willy, wet finger-in-the-ear thing?" says family friend Keith Graffagnini. "Oh yeah, that's legit. His brother Cooper can be the ringleader. That guy is a freakin' clown.
"Miss Olivia, oh man, she's fantastic. She's the nicest, sweetest woman."
|Colts lineman Ryan Lilja says Manning is intensely competitive.|
A YouTube video from 2005 shows a far less playful Manning. He's leaping off a spot on the bench, charging over to center Jeff Saturday. He's yelling -- wait, screaming -- for Saturday to quit calling "the f------ plays." After a heated exchange, with his linemen watching, former Colts tackle Tarik Glenn tells Manning to sit down.
Manning is shown a few seconds later drinking a Gatorade on the bench as if nothing happened.
It should be noted that Saturday and Manning are great friends. They've played together for more than a decade. And in that particular game, the Colts stormed back from 17 points down and beat the St. Louis Rams 45-28.
"I mean, he's a competitive dude," Colts guard Ryan Lilja says. "That's his way of getting it done. I don't think anybody takes anything personal. He doesn't attack anybody personally. He'll just hold guys accountable for what they do on the field."
The exchange was quickly forgotten. Today, Lilja says, the linemen laugh at it.
|Center Jeff Saturday and Manning are great friends.|
At the end of every season, Manning rewards his linemen with extravagant gifts. Last summer, he gave Saturday his all-time favorite present: a trip to Augusta National to play golf.
"He's extremely generous," Saturday says. "I can assure you, he goes above and beyond the call of duty."
Here's how seriously Manning takes his role as a leader: After his senior season of high school, when the team picked captains for the following year, Manning took the captains out to eat at Domilise's, his favorite po-boy restaurant in town. Manning spent the next hour explaining to the teenagers, in great detail, the importance of being in charge of a team.
"He had such a maturity for his age," says Nelson Stewart, a former teammate of Manning's at Isidore Newman School. "You always hear that. But he never put himself above the team. He always kept you on the same pedestal as him."
Every summer, Manning makes a trip back to his old high school to do some offseason conditioning. The kids at the school know the drill now, to leave Peyton alone so he can work.
So Jonathan Fisher would do that, stare for a minute maybe, then lift his weights as if nobody was there. Fisher headed home after a workout last summer when his phone rang. It was his coach, Nelson Stewart. Could he come back to school? Peyton wants to throw to him.
"I'm not going to lie," Fisher says. "I was speeding pretty bad to get back."
Manning probably could've found a bigger target that day. Fisher stands all of 5-foot-7 and 165 pounds, and is nicknamed "Fishbone." But when the quarterback threw to him for an hour in the wilting Louisiana heat, Fisher caught nearly every one of his passes.
Manning didn't say much during the workout. When it was over, he shook the kid's hand and said thank you.
"I know this sounds cliché," Fisher says, "but he was just like a normal person. Not some superstar."
Duke coach David Cutcliffe is out on a recruiting trip, but he'll take a quick break because he loves to tell this story. It's the fall of 1994, and Manning is a freshman who wants to know everything. He arrives on the University of Tennessee campus two months early to get a jump on the competition. He's already filled a notebook from front to back with scribblings from his private film study, and has about 50 questions on the first page that he's ready to ask Cutcliffe, the offensive coordinator at the time in Knoxville, Tenn.
So quarterbacks meet on Wednesday nights, and Cutcliffe requires them to come 10 minutes early, and of course Peyton is there, shooting the breeze with his coach. An hour passes, and Cutcliffe wonders why Manning's competition -- Branndon Stewart -- hasn't showed up.
Cutcliffe walks outside and notices that all the doors he's propped open are shut.
"There's Branndon out there, beating the door with his fist," Cutcliffe says. "Peyton had closed every door behind him to make him late. He comes walking back in and had a smirk on his face.
"That's what you call competing."
Manning has contributed $9,500 to Republican candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit campaign contribution watchdog in Washington, D.C. Bob Corker has received three of those donations. Corker is a senator from Tennessee, and got $1,000 from Manning last fall.
Naturally, most of Manning's candidates come up winners. He also supported George W. Bush's successful 2004 re-election bid.
Manning's friends are a compilation of movers and shakers. His college roommate at Tennessee is a doctor now; his childhood friends are stockbrokers and investment bankers and sell spine implants.
Manning also has a number of high-profile pals, including country star Kenny Chesney, Colorado Rockies first baseman Todd Helton and golfer Tiger Woods.
Graffagnini figures Manning's gravitation to successful people as a boy probably had something to do with Archie. But mostly, Peyton didn't want to spend a lot of time with kids who didn't challenge him.
"We had a good crew," Graffagnini says. "Highly motivated. Peyton didn't hang around any losers, I can tell you that."
Manning drove an old Jeep Cherokee with wood paneling on the sides in high school. Friends called his ride "The Family Truckster."
Manning was sacked just 10 times in the regular season, and is consistently one of the least-touched quarterbacks in the NFL. Opponents credit his quick release and even faster brain.
"He makes such quick reads," says Vikings Pro Bowl defensive end Jared Allen. "And that's the tough part about Peyton. First you've got to beat the guy in front of you, and then you've got to get to Peyton. He's so quick and his pocket presence is so great that he dumps that ball off; he gets rid of it.
"He has that internal clock that is so fast that he knows where the ball's going to go even before it's gone."
It wasn't always this way. There was a time when Manning would get clobbered, get knocked to the ground while his teammates stood puzzled and watched. He was in the seventh grade. And he was still pushing everyone around him to try harder.
He'd go to the sidelines and implore his teammates. "Come on, line, block!"
"These kids are like 100 pounds," Graffagnini says. "And they're just standing there. They don't know anything about technique. You can't expect a line to be totally organized when you're like 12 years old. It would drive him crazy."
Here's the most important thing to know about Manning: He played 2009 with a new head coach and a virtually nonexistent rushing offense. He lost receiver Anthony Gonzalez to a knee injury in the first game of the season, and played without Marvin Harrison, who had been released. And Manning has had one of the best seasons of his career.
His 4,500 yards ranked second in the league; his team won 14 straight before Manning took a seat in the second half of a Week 16 loss to the Jets. Manning's mind never stops working toward ways to get better.
The bulk of his receiving corps is made up of youngsters whose names weren't immediately called in the draft. Pierre Garcon, a second-year guy from Mount Union. Austin Collie, a rookie fourth-round pick from BYU. Manning tutored the receivers in the offseason, furiously fighting time, always demanding perfection.
"He's just always coaching," Garcon says. "Always business."Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com. ESPN.com senior writer Wright Thompson contributed to this story.