SAN FRANCISCO -- Back home in New Orleans, a man who had endured three heart attacks, three back surgeries, an orange-sized growth on his liver, two knee replacement surgeries and a near-death encounter with Hurricane Katrina had just spotted a package on his porch. Tony Reginelli figured it was his standard shipment of medical supplies, at least until he and his wife of more than a half-century, Joan, noticed the name of the sender.
The Reginellis dug into the box and pulled out a charcoal-colored Super Bowl jacket with an NFL football patch on the back, a star on the front, the number 50 on the side, and the date of the big game, Feb. 7, 2016, stitched inside. On the phone Thursday, as Joan looked over the jacket in her husband's closet, she came across a couple of shirts carrying the Manning name and number, 18.
But no, Tony Reginelli isn't your average 82-year-old superfan living out his own glory days through the career endgame of an all-time great. Reginelli is the high school coach who junked his veer offense at Isidore Newman School to accommodate the gangly pocket passer who didn't have his old man Archie's wheels.
"Coach," a tentative, teenage Peyton asked Reginelli back in the day, "we're not going to run the option, are we?"
Reginelli allowed himself a laugh over the memory, before apologizing if the pain medication made him sound tired and weak. Manning sent the jacket the other day as a get-well gift after Reginelli's latest back surgery, and as a way to keep the old coach connected Sunday when he settles in to watch the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers on TV.
Manning called Reginelli earlier this week as a follow-up; he'd been in contact with all five of his high school, college and pro head coaches in the lead-up to what will likely be the final game of his distinguished football life. At his news conference Thursday, Manning said of Reginelli, "He was truly one of a kind and a special man."
Nearly every pro athlete holds fast to the sweetest memories of his or her high school coach, and Manning is no exception. Reginelli kept saying how shocked he was by the beautiful jacket his quarterback had sent him, at least until the old coach inside of him reached for a whistle.
"I just want Peyton to concentrate on this game," Reginelli said.
Don't worry, Coach. Peyton Williams Manning is most definitely concentrating on this game.
But even as he approaches this stunning duel with Cam Newton, a Super Bowl appearance that seemed unfathomable to his family and friends only a month ago, Manning has Reginelli on his mind. The quarterback has spearheaded an effort to raise more than $100,000 to rebuild some structures around the Newman football field and to rename its entrance "Reginelli Way," in honor of the coach who first took the head-coaching reins in 1968 and retired 26 years later. The dedication is set for the end of the month, according to Reginelli's son, Reggie, and Peyton is scheduled to attend.
Will he be an officially retired living legend at that point? The Reginellis, both two-sport athletes at Tulane, aren't in agreement on that one.
"I think it's definitely Peyton's last game," Reggie said, "but my dad seems to think that Peyton is so competitive that he might take off a couple of months and decide to give it one more year."
Of course Tony Reginelli sees his quarterback fighting on. Reginelli grew up in the Mississippi Delta as one of nine kids in a farming family that believed work was more essential to the household than education once eighth-grade schooling was complete. Tony was the first of the Reginelli kids to continue into high school and beyond, and his athleticism delivered him to a football and baseball career at Tulane, where he was an all-SEC catcher who drew some interest from the Red Sox.
"And my dad never even told me that," Reggie said. "I had to find out about the Red Sox while reading a book on Tulane's baseball history. That's the kind of guy he is."
Tony Reginelli was a worker, a grinder and a man of precious few complaints. He was in Memorial Medical Center for treatment on his liver infection when Katrina hit New Orleans with an apocalyptic fury in 2005. The levees broke, flood waters started rising in and around the hospital, and Reginelli escaped and pulled himself onto a National Guard truck already overloaded with screaming patients and residents.
"I was the last one to get out," Reginelli said.
He was transported to Baton Rouge while his daughter-in-law, a nephrologist, stayed behind to treat patients at Memorial, where several patients did not make it out and the bodies of those who didn't survive the storm were kept in the hospital's chapel.
"After Katrina my father was down," said Reggie, 55, an attorney who also runs a pizzeria business. "My mom told me he was upset and saying, 'I just don't know if I've done anything in my life.' I said, 'You've got to be kidding me. He's touched so many lives at Newman, and you'd have to put 100 people together to match that. His legacy will live through that school and everyone he touched.'"
Peyton Manning was among the hundreds upon hundreds of students who were better for knowing Reginelli over his four-plus decades at Newman. Reggie remembers watching Peyton as a sophomore, his first year as the varsity starter, and thinking in the first few games of the season that the kid still had plenty to learn.
"But by the middle of the year," Reggie recalled, "suddenly Peyton was hitting his receivers in stride. I'll never forget a throw he made at St. Martin's. Peyton threw just a dart to his older brother, Cooper, who was streaking across the middle of the field, and it was right where it needed to be. It was a major college throw as a high school sophomore. Cooper took it for about a 50- or 60-yard touchdown, and I remember thinking, 'Wow, my father has something special here.'"
Soon enough, Peyton became everybody's All-American, the target of Division I powerhouses in every corner of the land. Reggie recalled Peyton being quoted during his senior year saying he wanted to win a state championship for his high school coach; the coach's son found it an awfully mature thing for a teen prodigy to say.
It didn't matter that Newman lost in the state semis. The journey shared by Manning and Reginelli couldn't be measured by some high school scoreboard.
"It would be great if I could make it out to San Francisco," Tony Reginelli said through a sigh. "But I'm going to have to sit this one out."
The old coach laughed one more time over one more thought. Archie Manning finished up his career with Houston and Minnesota, and Reginelli was wondering what would've become of his own career at Newman had Archie moved his family -- young Peyton included -- to one of those cities for keeps.
Truth was, even if the Saints were done with Archie, the Mannings were never, ever leaving New Orleans. Peyton ended up at Newman, Reginelli revamped his offensive system to suit him, and the rest is NFL history.
"My father is my hero," Reggie said, "so it's a great feeling to see what he's meant to Peyton, and to know that Peyton is still lifting his spirits today."
This is the bond so many professional athletes share with so many high school coaches, and one the 39-year-old quarterback of the Denver Broncos will carry onto the Super Bowl 50 field.