This story appeared in the Dec. 23, 2013, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
All the apple-cheeked babies, captured for eternity in Creamsicle onesies three sizes too big, are nearly grown. They are high school valedictorians and college athletes, Eagle Scouts and black belts, yearbook editors and engineering majors. They are in the National Honor Society. They lead Bible study. They raise money for cancer research. They lifeguard in the summer. They work part-time at Cracker Barrel. One directs short films. One blew the trumpet in a high school band at President Barack Obama's second inaugural parade. One earned a marketing award for helping develop a project to sell reusable popcorn containers at football games. One is a linebacker and a defensive end recruited by half the SEC, one is a three handicap, one runs a 5K in 18:20, and one hit an unforgettable grand slam in the ninth. One became the first girl in an all-male wrestling club, as well as the first deaf member of that club. She then captured the state championship in her weight class. Most hail from Tennessee, but you can find them as far away as lacrosse fields on Long Island. Some know each other. They were born in the same hospitals, attended the same schools, played on the same teams. Beyond that, they don't have much in common -- besides, of course, their first name.
It is an unusual name, or at least it used to be. According to the Social Security Administration, which started tracking the popularity of names in 1960, Peyton had never cracked the top 100 in Tennessee. But in 1994 the state's flagship university welcomed a freshman quarterback from New Orleans named after his uncle Peyton, a Mississippi farmer who grew cotton and soybeans, raised cattle and loved sports. When Peyton Manning enrolled at Tennessee, he took an orientation seminar with freshman football players, overseen by associate athletic director Carmen Tegano. The players were instructed to take notes. Afterward, Tegano collected their spiral notebooks and perused what they wrote. Manning had filled 30 pages. That night, Tegano told his wife, "If God is willing and I live long enough, I'll either work for that kid or I'll vote for him." A year later Manning directed Tennessee to its first win against Alabama in 10 years, and roughly 10 months after that Southern hospitals noted the first outbreak of Peytons. Call them Bama Boomers. "It was an epidemic," says Manning's older brother, Cooper, who was forced to quit football at Ole Miss because of a spinal injury. From 1996 through '98, a total of 68 Peytons were born at the University of Tennessee Medical Center alone, compared with 10 the decade before. By 1997, according to babynames.com, Peyton was the 51st-most-popular- newborn boy name in the state.
SI's The Record: Listen—Or Subscribe—Now
Families showed up to Volunteers practices, orange-clad infants in tow, and thrust them into Manning's reluctant arms for photos. "What am I supposed to say?" he asked his father, Archie, the iconic Ole Miss quarterback. "I don't know," his dad replied. "I only had dogs and cats named after me." Twins in Knoxville were named Peyton and Manning. A boy outside Nashville was named Peyton Cooper as a reminder that "there's nothing guaranteed in life." Doctors in Kentucky lobbied a woman in labor to call her son Tim, after Wildcats quarterback Tim Couch. "It will be a much more prosperous name," they told her. "He'll be so much more successful." They grudgingly delivered yet another Peyton. The unorthodox spelling caused confusion. Dr. Tara Burnette, a neonatologist at the UT Medical Center, once saw payton written on a note card attached to a baby's incubator in the NICU. "You misspelled the name," she told the nurse on duty. "No," the nurse insisted. "The mom spelled it for us." Burnette shook her head. "That baby is a Peyton," she said. Twenty-four hours later, the card had been changed.
There is no more personal display of fan devotion than naming one's progeny after an athlete, but the gesture carries inordinate risk, especially when the player is only a sophomore in college. Who knows what controversy lies ahead? Names become synonymous with scandals. Think of the Lances and McGwires running around. You can always buy a new jersey or hang a new Fathead, but rewriting a birth certificate is more difficult. "Sure, he could have been a dud," says Kim Dukes. "But I kind of knew, deep down inside, that he'd be special." Dukes was diagnosed with Hodgkins lymphoma as a sophomore in Knoxville, underwent chemotherapy, and was informed by doctors that the treatment had left her incapable of bearing children. She had Peyton Dukes anyway. "He's not a quarterback—he's not even a football player," Kim says. "But we raised him to be a good, honest person, and that's the most important thing he shares with his namesake."
Though Uncle Peyton died a bachelor, his name will live forever. Archie remembers reading an article, in the early 2000s, in an education newspaper about a first-grade teacher with nine Peytons in her class. In 2007 the Knoxville News-Sentinel put out a query for Peytons and received more than 160 responses. "You hope your children are going to do great things no matter what you name them," says Dana Lara. "Going into it, you do think maybe this will give them a leg up by association." Peyton Lara is now a senior at West High and an aspiring nuclear engineer with a 4.46 grade point average.
A name doesn't ensure anything. Peyton Dukes cares more about arts than sports. Peyton Prowse's favorite player is Manning's younger brother, Giants quarterback Eli. Elaina Peyton Engel took her 5.0 GPA at Hereford (Md.) High to Alabama. "C'mon, Dad," she said. "Even Peyton Manning didn't go where his father wanted." But commitment is a thread—whether orange or crimson—that links the Peytons. "To have the name of someone who has accomplished so much," says Peyton Robinette, a biology major with a black belt in taekwondo who is attending Tennessee on the prestigious Volunteer Scholarship, "means I can be special."
For two decades Peyton Manning has methodically elevated the standards of everybody from NFL quarterbacks to video-room interns to offspring named in his honor—one film session, one spiral notebook, one dummy audible at a time. The mother of an eighth-grade classmate once told Manning's mom, Olivia, "Peyton really has to study for his A's. My child just goes in and takes the test." The remark, while rude, was revealing. Manning always did the work, and as a result he never disappointed the families who put so much faith in him. He is still the striver who scored a modest 1030 on his SAT yet graduated with the highest GPA that year in Tennessee's College of Communication and Information.
At the combine in Indianapolis leading up to the 1998 draft, strength coaches from the 49ers, Raiders and Bills took Manning's measurements. When they finished, he asked how his body fat compared with other players', and reminded them to note that one of his knees was swollen. The trainers stifled laughs. "He's the first pick in the draft," one muttered under his breath. "Why does he give a s---?" Then Washington State quarterback Ryan Leaf, Manning's competition for the top spot, stepped on the scale. He triumphantly flexed both biceps even though he was 30 pounds overweight. "That was the difference," says Jon Torine, who was then a Buffalo strength coach before joining the Colts. "When Peyton Manning dies, this is what they ought to write on his gravestone: it all mattered to me."
Peyton Williams is a Tennessee fan, down to his orange sneakers. He has been to two NFL games, both Colts at Titans. He plays as Manning's teams on Madden. But he is not as zealous as his dad. He doesn't study his namesake every Sunday. He wears number 49 instead of 18. And yet he is a Peyton, which means he is inextricably linked. In a week, he will undergo surgery, followed by months of painstaking physical therapy, followed by inevitable anxiety and doubt. Sitting at the head of his grandfather's dining room table, he eyes the bulky brace on his left knee and wipes the brown bangs from his forehead. Like most teenage boys, he doesn't speak much, but the words carry weight. "When you think that Peyton Manning wasn't able to throw a 10-yard pass, you realize that he really could have quit," Williams says. "It's on you to do the therapy. It's on you to do the work. You decide how you turn out."