After he announced his decision, this is what Peyton Manning
heard most from people: "Congratulations." That and, of course,
"Thank you" from love-struck Tennessee football fans, shocked
that Manning would return to quarterback their Volunteers for
another autumn, when it seemed so certain he would leave for the
NFL. Their ardor is understandable--but congratulations?
By electing to play a fourth season of college football instead
of accepting many millions of dollars as the probable first pick
in the NFL draft, Manning was perceived by many as seizing some
high moral ground and planting his personal flag in it. One
Knoxville television station even sent a crew to ask
schoolchildren what they had learned from Manning's virtuous
Following dinner last Thursday night, almost 36 hours after the
news conference that stopped Tennesseans in their tracks,
Manning drove his Oldsmobile Bravada through West Knoxville,
passing under a huge, orange billboard that read THANK YOU
PEYTON. The statewide canonization struck him as sweet but
misplaced. "What I did is selfish," said Manning. "I didn't do
it because it's right for any other college athlete who has to
make the same kind of decision. Michael Jordan, when I talked to
him, told me to do what I want to do. That was the key word
here: want. And believe me, the decision was close."
It was so close, in fact, that if an NFL coach or scout or
personnel man had given Manning a clear evaluation of whether
his skills were NFL-ready, Tennessee might be sizing up
sophomore Tamaurice (Tee) Martin or junior Jermaine Copeland as
starting quarterback right now. If Manning had only heard from
somebody like Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak,
who told SI before Manning's announcement, "I think he's
phenomenal. He makes every throw. His mechanics are second to
none. He runs the no-huddle flawlessly. I told [Broncos coach]
Mike Shanahan, 'If the Jets [who have the first pick in June's
draft] get this kid, they're going to turn it around in a hurry.'"
March 17, 1997
But the NFL strongly discourages teams from pursuing or even
commenting on an underclassman until the player has declared for
the draft. The league takes great pride in shielding
underclassmen--a ridiculous classification in Manning's case; he
has played 36 games and should graduate on May 16 with a 3.53 in
speech communications--from the knowledge that would help them
make an informed decision. Former NFL quarterback Archie
Manning, Peyton's father-friend-adviser and about as connected
as anyone when it comes to football, turned over a cartload of
rocks looking for information and didn't find enough to satisfy
Peyton. "I'll tell you," said Archie, "the league stands up on
that promise about juniors."
Peyton found a staggering list of people on the fringe to
consult. There was not only Jordan but also former NFL
luminaries Hank Stram, Fran Tarkenton, Roger Staubach ("Peyton,
it was an honor to win the Heisman," he said, "but it didn't
make me a better NFL player. Please do not go back just to win
that") and Phil Simms ("I watched your bowl game, and I know
you're ready," Simms said, making a 180-degree turn from last
fall, when he told Archie that Peyton should stay four years).
He quizzed current NFL quarterbacks Troy Aikman ("I've seen you
a lot on television," he said. "I think you're ready"); Drew
Bledsoe ("Peyton, pro football is the best job in the world,
because you're playing football and that's all you have to
concentrate on"); and Rick Mirer ("I wouldn't trade my last year
at Notre Dame for anything").
Just 11 days before his announcement, Manning was in
Charlottesville, Va., visiting his longtime girlfriend, Ashley
Thompson, a senior at Virginia. The Wake Forest basketball team
was in town to play the Cavaliers, so Manning visited with Demon
Deacons senior center Tim Duncan, who has twice bypassed the NBA
draft and might have been the overall No. 1 pick a year ago.
Manning: "I'm going through a tough decision. I could use a
Duncan: "What pick will you be?"
Manning: "From what I understand, first."
Duncan (eyebrows raised): "O.K., how close are you to your
Manning: "I graduate in May."
Duncan: "What are you asking me for? What's the advice?"
At the end of his quest Manning found that only Mirer supported
the idea of staying at Tennessee. Manning had assumed since
early fall that he was playing his last season of college
football, yet as he wrapped up his research he felt a creeping
uncertainty. The argument to go pro still seemed somehow
unconvincing and incomplete. "Aikman said I was ready, Simms
said I was ready, and I valued their opinions," said Manning.
"But I got no clear-cut evaluation from an NFL coach. In a lot
of ways, I wanted that. I don't care what Mel Kiper Jr. says.
Maybe the NFL people were scared because they're not supposed to
give that stuff out. I don't know. But as my decision got
closer, I started imagining myself at some NFL training camp,
throwing from the five-step drop. I've heard in the pros that
with the five-step, it's 'Five steps, make a move around a
rusher, then throw and still not be late.' What if I got out
there and I just hadn't done it enough times and I was late? I'd
be thinking, Damn, I'm not ready. I should have stayed. Maybe I
did need one more year."
Then there is a long pause. Manning knows some people suspect
that he's afraid to take the challenge of the NFL, that he's
like some delicate child, swaddled in the cocoon of college
football, that he left more on the table than any underclassman,
ever, out of fear. That's a wild misperception. Manning is a
savage competitor, and if he once thought of college football as
the final rung on his ladder, that's surely no longer the case.
"I need to get into the NFL," said Manning. "I can't wait to get
there, and I want that challenge. But I want it with every bit
of ammunition I've got. When I came to Tennessee, I attacked the
job. Well, I promise you, come next January 2 or 3, I'm going to
attack the NFL. Drew Bledsoe told me that no matter when I came
out, I was going to struggle in my rookie year. I believe I'll
struggle less by staying here this year, playing with the
bullets flying. And I have every intention of being in exactly
the same draft position next year."
One other silly perception: Manning hasn't given due thought to
the possibility of a career-ending injury, which would cost him
those millions. Manning's older brother Cooper's football career
was ended with the discovery of a congenital spinal condition
when he was a freshman at Mississippi in '92. "With what
happened to Cooper," said Peyton, "I've counted every day of
football since my junior year in high school as lucky."
His decision to stay at Tennessee evolved into an uncomplicated
matter, if not a painless one. College football is what he
knows, and the NFL remained a great unknown. Peyton Manning does
not do unknowns. He would sooner play Florida helmetless than
venture forward unprepared. "I have the opportunity to do this,"
he said. "I'm entitled to play four years, so I'm going to."
His return makes Tennessee, with 15 starters back from last
season's 10-2 team, an SEC and national-championship contender
again. "Those are team goals, sure, but they're not why I came
back," Manning said. "I'm ready for anything." He can feel his
arm getting stronger every day, and through special drills, feel
his feet getting quicker too. He's edging closer to the 225
pounds (on a 6'51/2" frame) and the 4.7 in the 40 that seemed so
unrealistic when he was a frail freshman. Moreover, Tennessee
coach Phillip Fulmer met with the Mannings in January, seeking
small ways to make him more comfortable if he stayed. Subtle
changes could result, in everything from the Vols' offensive
philosophy to better management of Manning's public appearances,
which tended to break down into hero-worshiping autograph
But the bottom line was, he couldn't shake the caveat that not
just Jordan but also every other celebrity he spoke to offered:
You do what you want to do. Manning rolled that one around in
his brain and heart. "I want to be around [senior wideout]
Marcus Nash for a few more months," Manning said. "I want to
walk to class and hear people say, 'Good luck in the game.' I
want to see that little orange section in the stands at road
games. I really do. I want to tailgate with my parents after the
games and then go out to dinner. I don't know if you tailgate in
the NFL, but we've been doing it for three years here, and I
want to do it for one more."
Manning also vowed to tap the brakes, to bring the superstar
collegian, pro-in-waiting bandwagon nearer the speed limit. He
started taking classes in the summer before his freshman season
and loaded up academically with such gusto that he will be
finished in three years. "He's just piled all this school on,
such a rush job," said Cooper on Friday. "It's been all hurry up
and do this and do that." This winter, at 20 years old (he turns
21 on March 24), Peyton found himself throwing with an NFL-issue
football and honing his seven-step drop for the pros when it
seemed he had just left high school. Rush job, indeed.
In the fall he will take a light load of graduate courses. "I'm
not going to kill myself," Manning said. "I'm going to really be
able to concentrate on football and enjoy it."
Two days after his announcement, he showed up for a 6 a.m.
off-season running and weightlifting session. "Could have been
the first guy in the draft, and he's here at six," said strength
coach John Stucky.
"I was 50 pounds lighter after the decision," said Manning. Now
he can be in Nash's August wedding. Now he can take a jab at
Virginia Tech quarterback Jim Druckenmiller, whom Manning saw
quoted as ridiculing his indecision and who is now sure to be
enriched by Manning's absence from the draft. "Jim Druckenmiller
owes me a cold beverage," Manning said. Now he can play in
Gainesville again. And now he can truly be ready for the NFL in
a year. He walked from the football complex into the cool
morning air with two game tapes in his right hand. College game
tapes. Tap, tap.