Prospects have leaned on family for advice

Not until he was into his mid-teens, an age at which most kids have already required a few sutures from participating in rough-and-tumble neighborhood sandlot games, was Kellen Winslow permitted to pursue football with any degree of serious intent.

When it was time to choose a position, his father battled him over playing tight end, the spot at which Kellen Winslow Sr. earned Pro Football Hall of Fame honors. Which is not surprising, considering the two went to war over elements as mundane as clothes and cars.

When Winslow wanted to enroll at the University of Washington, his father refused to sign the letter of intent.

And so one might surmise that, after two-plus decades of tough love and sometimes meddlesome maintenance, Kellen Winslow views his father's leadership role through a multi-faceted prism. And one would be wrong.

"He has had," said the University of Miami tight end, speaking of his father, "the biggest impact. It's like the Lion King, or something like that, you know?"

A fitting analogy, particularly timely as well, given that the NFL circle of life has never been more graphically illustrated than in this weekend's draft. There are nearly 20 draft prospects whose family tree includes either fathers or brothers who preceded them into the league. The extended families of another 20-25 league wannabes include cousins and uncles and half-brothers with NFL experience.

Three quarterback prospects are the sons of NFL alums. There are five tailbacks with NFL ties, among them the son of the late Walter Payton, on draft boards. And there is Florida offensive lineman Max Starks, who didn't find out until he was 17 that he was the son of former NFL defensive lineman and college Hall of Fame member Ross Browner. Indeed, this year's draft family tree appears to have been treated with Nutra-Gro.

So loaded is this draft with familiar names that league personnel directors could claim they have assembled enough credit hours for a degree in genetics. And scouts know more about bloodlines now than do the railbirds at the Kentucky Derby. But there is no doubt, every team will tell you, that the true thoroughbreds of the pack are Winslow and Mississippi quarterback Eli Manning.

There is even less doubt about how the pair, each of whom could be selected among the top five on Saturday, have been shaped by their unique backgrounds. And the coveted prospects are prime examples of how both nature and nurture combine in a person's development.

"How could you not be affected when you grow up in a situation where sports is such a big part of things?" said Manning, the son of longtime and longsuffering quarterback Archie Manning, and brother of 2003 co-most valuable player Peyton Manning. "But I think what's important is that we were more well-rounded than some (outsiders) might expect. And while we had a lot of advantages, we weren't really treated like children of privilege. I don't think anyone would call us spoiled."

Of course, the NFL franchise that selects the latest member of football's First Family of Quarterbacks is likely to have a fan base spoiled by the success of Eli's older brother. And the younger Winslow, blessed with unique physical skills, will carry extremely lofty expectations as well, given that his father redefined the position he also plays.

That is why both players, particularly through the past year, leaned even more on family members for guidance and advice. Their fathers were first-round draft choices, Archie Manning with New Orleans in 1971 and Kellen Winslow Sr. in 1979 with San Diego, and can offer empirical and anecdotal support.

Archie Manning was viewed as the savior of the Saints in '71, the Ole Miss star who was going to transcend even his college derring-do, and lift a fledgling New Orleans franchise to a spot among the NFL's elite. But playing on bad teams probably kept the patriarch of the Manning clan out of the Hall of Fame. Peyton Manning, the '98 first-round choice of the Indianapolis Colts, is well on his way to Canton, Ohio, but had to suffer through a 3-13 record his debut season.

Since he was born in 1981, in the twilight of his dad's professional tenure, Eli remembers next to nothing about Archie's career. He has followed closely, of course, the exploits of Peyton and the two, separated by five years, are very close, conversing frequently by phone before games and swapping plenty of notes.

Of late, their discussions have diverged from just X's and O's, and now focus more on what Eli can expect, the pros and cons of starting immediately in the NFL, and how to carry and comport yourself in the locker room.

Said Eli: "I've got a wealth of information available to me, and it's right inside four walls, or just a phone call away. I'd be crazy not to take advantage of that, and I have, and it's (provided) me a lot of perspective."

The younger Winslow likewise has sought counsel from his father, who essentially raised him after his parents split up, and whose leadership he values. Kellen Winslow Sr. has become an outspoken advocate for creating more coaching and front office opportunities in the NFL for minority candidates. He recently came under fire for charging $2,500 each to the agents who wanted to interview for the right to represent his son. If the public veneer of the Mannings is that of Southern gentility, the Winslow family is sometimes viewed as confrontational.

But it is his father's passion, the competitiveness with which he played the game and the ardor with which he has attacked what he perceives as inequities in the system, that have combined to help mold the younger Winslow.

"We are who we are," said the younger Winslow, who can at times mirror his father's curtness. "And I think that's good enough."

Eli Manning couldn't agree more. While conceding that the pressures inherent to having the NFL's most famous quarterback surname are daunting at times, he allowed that he would not change things even if he could.

"I've never thought to myself, 'I wish my last name was Smith,' " Manning said. "I've always been proud to be a Manning. My dad and my brother have been through some of the same processes and I can ask questions and learn from them. That's just something that you can use to your benefit."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.