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Peyton in Place

Colts' New Quarterback Is Squeaky Clean to the Core; So What's Wrong With That?

September 04, 1998|T.J. SIMERS

INDIANAPOLIS — What a nice young man--nothing like that other guy from San Diego.

Quarterback Peyton Manning's first endorsement deal here was for St. Vincent Hospitals and Health Centers. He turned down weekly TV and radio show opportunities. It's always, "Yes, sir," and "No, sir."

When the Colts' publicist met with the team and advised players how to deal with the media, he looked down and noticed Manning was taking notes, although Manning could have given the speech.

A local TV guy asked him to scowl into the camera for a promotion. "Sorry, sir, but that's not me," he said.

Asked to wear a jazzy shirt that would spruce up the background the TV station was using for its promotion, he said, "Sorry, sir, but that's not me."

He took his offensive line out to dinner Wednesday night to Indianapolis' most famous restaurant, St. Elmo Steak House.

After graduating cum laude with a 3.6 grade-point average--the highest mark in speech communications at the University of Tennessee--he received a citation from the school's chancellor for "extraordinary campus leadership and service."

He won the Sullivan Award as the nation's top amateur athlete, which is based on character, leadership, athletic ability and the ideals of amateurism.

"No, that's not me," he said.

He passed on millions of dollars and a chance to mint millions more in endorsements playing in New York to remain in college a year longer, just to enjoy still being a kid. He's just a kid, all right, but mature enough to choose to wear No. 18 in the pros to honor his father, Archie, who wore it while playing football at Ole Miss.

"I felt kind of lucky growing up with my mentor and hero in my house," he said.

He recites NFL history as if he'd been there to witness it. And asked what he intended to do with his $11.6-million signing bonus, he said, "Put it in the bank."

The other guy in San Diego refers to him as a nerd, calling him "Perfect Peyton," and "Golden Boy," but as soon as he realizes he's being petty, he quickly points out that the two are really good friends.

Some friend. But Manning won't criticize.

"I feel like I'm pretty normal and make mistakes," he says. "Don't know what a Golden Boy is. . . . My girlfriend likes my personality, so I think that kind of takes care of that. I just try to do the right thing."

Push him, prod him and the guy's just too good to be true.

"I guess that's a category he could fall in," says teammate Tony Mandarich. "He's the total package."

But can he play football as well as, or even better than, the other guy, whose bravado and dazzling preseason play have already captured the attention of most football fans? Or will he be like his father, known best for taking a good punch as the NFL's all-time most gracious loser with the New Orleans Saints?

"You want me to say he's God's greatest gift, I can tell you that," said Marvin Harrison, Colts' wide receiver. "But we haven't played a regular season game yet. We don't know how the rookie quarterback is going to play in this league. Once he gets four quarters under his belt, we can talk.

"The egg's cracked, but it hasn't hatched."

Such anticipation. For the first time since 1989, the Colts will have a sellout crowd for their home opener when Manning makes his debut against Miami Sunday. It's Manning versus Dan Marino, who was the exception to the rookie rule, winning seven of nine starts in his first season 16 years ago.

Since 1970, 50 quarterbacks have been selected in the first round of the draft or supplemental draft, and only eight went on to have winning records in Year 1. John Elway was a loser his first season. So were Terry Bradshaw, Drew Bledsoe, Jim Plunkett. . . . Troy Aikman went 0-11

So what about Perfect Peyton? His first exhibition-game pass went 48 yards for a touchdown.

"Worst thing I could have done; it was like this game is too easy," he said.

In 45 starts in college he won 39, but now he will be leading a team that won three games last year, a franchise that has not won more than nine regular-season games since moving here in 1984. It's a team that has gone through 16 starting quarterbacks and eight coaches since trading Elway to Denver. And Manning will be asked to stand firm behind an offensive line that allowed a club-record 62 sacks last season.

The other guy's admittedly got it tougher: He's being coached by Kevin Gilbride.

The Colts have been trying to shield Manning, raising 20 x 30-feet banners of Marshall Faulk and Jason Belser on the outside walls of the RCA Dome to hype their team. But who are they kidding? If there's no Manning, there's no reason to spend Sundays under the dome.

So many expectations for both young men. The other guy from San Diego was the second pick in the first round, just like Archie Manning in 1971 followed New England's selection of Plunkett. Quarterbacks have gone 1-2 only one other time since the merger with the American Football League in 1970, when Drew Bledsoe and Rick Mirer topped the 1993 draft.

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