August 3, 2008
ONE NIGHT every summer, in an old basketball gym on the bayou, Peyton Manning conducts a class on quarterbacking. He stands in the middle of the court, 900 high school boys in the bleachers, as still as 900 boys can be. They have come to the Manning Passing Academy at Nicholls State to learn the family secrets, and no one shares them with as much enthusiasm as Peyton. "Everybody here know the Cover 2?" he bellows into a handheld microphone. And before anybody can answer, Peyton is crouching behind an imaginary center, peering across an imaginary line of scrimmage, barking meaningless calls and flashing meaningless signals to volunteer receivers who are no more than 14 years old. It is July in Thibodaux, La., but to Peyton it might as well be January in Indianapolis.
Peyton arranges camp counselors in various defensive formations—Cover 2 man, Cover 3, Cover 4—then explains how he recognizes each alignment before the snap and decides which protection and play will best counter it. As the formations get more complicated, Peyton's voice becomes more hurried, his drawl gaining decibels. "Now we've got a four-wideout set," he says. "It looks like Cover 2, maybe Cover 4. The safeties are up a little closer, the linebackers are up a little closer. What's going to happen? That's right, they're going to blitz. We've got our linemen and our running back. How many guys can we get blocked? Five, right?"
A former camper, looking a bit skeptical, catches Peyton's eye. "Six guys," the former camper says, so quietly that only Peyton can hear. Peyton pauses and does the arithmetic in his head—five linemen plus a running back—before breaking into a wide grin. "Check that," Peyton says. "We can get six guys blocked. Thank you, thank you very much." The boys in the bleachers giggle, partly at Peyton's self-deprecating sense of humor, and partly because the former camper who corrected him is his brother Eli, the New York Giants quarterback.
The exchange, brief and innocent, underscores what the NFL discovered about Eli last winter. He may never outperform Peyton, but on the right night Eli can at least keep up with him. Former NFL quarterback turned camp coach Sean Salisbury was struck by the new dynamic in the Manning family. "Eli is no longer Peyton's little brother," Salisbury says. "Peyton is not walking in front of him anymore. When you look at them now, they are walking side by side."
IT HAS been six months since Eli became Super Bowl MVP, and a year and six months since Peyton was Super Bowl MVP, but the notion that two brothers could win such an award in consecutive seasons continues to boggle the mind. There are days when Archie and Olivia Manning turn to each other in their New Orleans home and pose the same question that countless mothers and fathers have asked them: "Can you believe this?"
Raising two NFL quarterbacks, with one becoming Super Bowl MVP, was remarkable enough. But this off-season the Mannings entered a new realm of celebrity, usually reserved for the families of presidents and pop singers. They realized that something fundamental had changed when Eli married college girlfriend Abby McGrew at a resort in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, in April and paparazzi showed up. The Mannings were more bemused than bothered. Cooper Manning, the oldest of the three brothers and a partner at the energy research firm Howard Weil in New Orleans, may have unintentionally thrown off the shutterbugs when he wore a hotel staff uniform and a Panama Jack hat to the rehearsal dinner.
THEY WERE recognized in Mexico, but when in June the Manning men took a weeklong golf vacation to Scotland, where they played one round at the Renaissance Club with a group of former pro rugby players, no one noticed them. "There was a gallery of about 75 people, and they were ecstatic over the rugby players," Cooper says. "They didn't know who Peyton and Eli were." Cooper made a 20-foot putt on the final hole to beat the ruggers, lest the Mannings lose at something.
So what's next for this family? A Manning versus Manning Super Bowl? A Manning versus Manning Pro Bowl? A joint Hall of Fame ceremony, with Cooper giving both introductions? What once sounded preposterous now seems possible.
"Sometimes it's scary," Archie says. "I tell Olivia all the time, 'Life is too good.' You think about the parents of troops in Iraq and it makes you feel guilty. My sons just won back-to-back Super Bowls, and there are all these parents who lay their head on their pillow at night [while] their sons are in Iraq. I think about those people a lot."
The defining plays of the 2008 Super Bowl were the passes that Eli threw to David Tyree and then to Plaxico Burress on the game-winning drive in the Giants' 17--14 upset of the New England Patriots. But perhaps the most poignant images were the ones of Peyton watching the game from a luxury box at University of Phoenix Stadium, bobbing his head as if he were the one avoiding the Patriots' rush and pumping his fist as if he were the one torching the Patriots' secondary. Just as Peyton's omnipresent television commercials broadcast his lighter side, those cutaways showed his sentimental side, resonating with anyone who has a brother. Viewers who rarely ever see Peyton and Eli in the same place were treated to a revealing portrait of sports' most famous siblings.
Their rapport has changed, not necessarily because Eli won a Super Bowl but because he has grown up, from a young quarterback who leaned on Peyton to a veteran who simply respects Peyton. They are finally football equals, and thus it is easier to be friends. "Definitely we've gotten closer," Eli says. "It used to be very older brother--younger brother," Peyton says. "It's become, just, really good pals."
They were born five years apart, and, for kids, five years can feel like a generation. Even though there were well-chronicled, front-yard family football games (Peyton playing quarterback, Eli playing center), pickup basketball games (Eli once dunking over a stunned Peyton) and trivia contests (Peyton challenging Eli to name every school in the SEC), the age difference prohibited any serious camaraderie or rivalry. "I was never around him much," Eli says. "When he was in high school, I didn't go out with him or do anything with him after games. By the time I turned 13, he was going to Tennessee."
They were not much alike, anyway. Peyton was so engaging that Eli could not help but come off as aloof by comparison, the lax little brother. Only after Peyton got to Indianapolis, and Eli to Ole Miss, did they discover a common language. They could speak quarterback. "Eli's coach at Ole Miss was David Cutcliffe, who recruited me to Tennessee, so they ran the same offense we did," Peyton says. "Eli would call and ask, 'How would you read this?' That's really when we started speaking in the same terms."
After Eli reached the NFL, the questions were different, but the roles were not—Eli needed advice and Peyton happily obliged. On Mondays, when Peyton watches film of the Colts, he also grabs film of the Giants. When Eli struggled, Peyton asked some trusted coaches to check out footage of his brother and report back to him. He didn't burden Eli with their observations, but he did pass them along to his father. "People said that Eli's mechanics were bad, and he was throwing off his back foot," Archie says. "Peyton would call me and say, 'Dad, he's fine. He's just a young quarterback.'"
Once Eli became more comfortable in the NFL, Peyton remained just as protective. The Colts' public relations staff often places clips from New York tabloids in Peyton's locker so he can read the articles about Eli, each one more infuriating than the last. Oddly enough, Eli never reads a word of those articles. "I get very defensive when someone criticizes him," Peyton says. "The way Eli handles it is a good lesson for me."
Peyton, 32, and Eli, 27, still talk on the phone twice a week during the season—on Sunday they review the games they just played, and on Wednesday or Thursday they compare notes on the opponents they are preparing for. But there seems to be more storytelling during those calls than Q&A. "We'll talk about different plays from the game," Peyton says. "'It was second-and-five, they blitzed, I checked to the slant.'"
During one of their chalk talks last fall, Peyton and Eli lamented how many teams get conservative when they are trailing by three points in the fourth quarter, settling for field goals only to wind up losing in overtime. The brothers decided that it is better to be down by four points late in the fourth quarter than three, so no overcautious coach can get in the way. "Even when you're down three, you should go for the touchdown," Eli said then. "Go for the win." On the night of Feb. 3, the brothers flashed back to that very conversation. As Eli jogged back onto the field with 2:39 left in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, his team trailed by four points.
In the weeks leading up to the NFL title game, after the Colts had lost to the Chargers in the divisional round, Peyton was not even sure he would go. He had seen Eli play in person only one other time during the season, on Nov. 25 at Giants Stadium, when Eli threw four interceptions and had three of them returned for touchdowns in a 41--17 loss to the Vikings. Before Peyton arranged his flight to Phoenix, he asked Eli if it was O.K. On the day of the Super Bowl, Peyton arrived at the stadium an hour and a half early, in time to watch pregame workouts. He saw New York's two best receivers, Burress and Amani Toomer, drop passes. "I wanted to go down there and say, 'Come on, guys, let's get focused,'" Peyton says.
He could have sat in the NBC luxury box, along with his parents, but before the game he took one look at the setup and told Archie, "The TV cameras are going to be all over y'all." So Peyton and his wife, Ashley, bolted for the Gatorade box, and they settled into a secluded corner. During the second series of the game, Ashley received a text message from a friend saying, "They got you." She retreated to the back of the box, leaving Peyton alone in that corner to sweat and stew and then finally celebrate. "It was as satisfying for me to watch Eli win the Super Bowl as it was for me to win it the year before," Peyton says.
When the game was over, Peyton walked into the Giants' locker room, no less dazed than the day Eli first dunked on him. They greeted each other in their own language, deconstructing the final pass to Burress.
Peyton: "They kind of stayed in two-man up until then and then blitzed, right?"
Eli: "They finally blitzed."
Peyton: "There was no doubt you were going to Plax. They squatted, right?"
Eli: "They squatted. They thought he was going to run a slant or something. I had thought about signaling a slant to him."
Peyton: "They bring seven?"
Eli: "They brought seven. That's what we hoped for, really, to get the chance to throw it up."
Peyton: "Unbelievable, unbelievable."
As they parted, Peyton said, "I love you, man. I'm proud of you, man."
INTENTIONALLY OR not, Eli spent this off-season showing that he is nobody's baby brother. Besides visiting the White House, going to Disneyland and getting married, he was appointed to the President's Council on Fitness and Sports, gave a speech at the National Press Club and even starred in commercials that did not include any of his family members. One night he spoke at a black-tie benefit at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. "I'm thinking, Oh, my God, there are hundreds of people here wearing tuxedos, and he has no notes," Cooper says. "But he made a few funnies and even incorporated something that happened earlier in the evening. It totally blew me away."
Eli's brimming confidence is one reason to believe the Giants can repeat. Heading into every season, the Colts know roughly what they will get from Peyton: 330 completions, 4,000 yards, 26 touchdowns and 13 wins, plus a couple more in the playoffs. (Peyton had surgery on July 14 to remove an infected bursa sac from his left knee, but he is expected back by the opener.) Eli, despite being a Super Bowl MVP, is still something of a wild card, and he knows that. After watching tape of every pass he threw last season, Eli concluded, "There were a lot of bad ones. You can't just be content with four good games at the end of the year. I have a lot of room for improvement." The biggest difference between Peyton and Eli is still consistency. Eli could easily be a Pro Bowl selection this year, and he could just as easily be on the hot seat by Week 5. "Knowing New York, they'll be booing in the first half of the first preseason game," Cooper says.
The Mannings played to a much easier audience in Thibodaux. Archie established the passing academy, a four-day camp for quarterbacks, wide receivers, tight ends and running backs, in 1996 to make sure he and his sons would always spend at least a few days together every year. Eli started as a camper at 15, before joining Archie, Cooper and Peyton on the coaching staff. The four of them stay in the same student apartment. "When you go in there, you have to be careful," says Jeff Hawkins, the camp director. "They sometimes wrestle." At night, locals throw lavish parties for the Mannings and their staff, dishing out all the Cajun favorites—fried quail, roasted pig and alligator. Mounds of shrimp are served in a canoe.
Unlike at many other camps hosted by professional athletes, where the players show up only to pose for pictures and sign autographs, Peyton and Eli help set the curriculum and lead the drills here. Walking between fields, you can hear Peyton yelling "1-2-3-4-5!" as a quarterback takes a five-step drop, and Eli shouting "Can we get some receivers?" after a couple of routine passes hit the ground. At sunset, Peyton and Eli stand together on the 50-yard line of the main stadium, only a water tower and some Nicholls State buildings in the distance. "Coming here every year is what gets me ready for training camp," Peyton says. "It reminds me why I play football. It reminds me how lucky I am to still be playing."
One camper who earned praise from Peyton was Tyler Guy, a 6'6", 220-pound junior quarterback from Zephyrhills (Fla.) High. Tyler's brother, Jacob, a freshman, was also a QB at the camp. Tyler and Jacob won consecutive Super Bowls in their local Police Athletic League and were both named MVP. But their father, David, has no delusions. What the Mannings accomplished may never happen again. "We just want our boys to get into college," David says.
Likewise, Cooper would be thrilled if his four-year-old son became, say, a piano player. But with a name like Archibald Manning, he may find that recruiters have different ideas. Archibald, who goes by Arch, comes next in the line of Manning men, ensuring that he will be exposed to completely unreasonable expectations based solely on his DNA. Arch spent his first day at the passing academy climbing on his grandfather, his father and his two famous uncles, demonstrating above-average speed and an impressive motor. He was so busy scrambling, though, that it was hard to get a decent look at his arm.
"Oh," Cooper cracked, "he should be ready by the time Favre's done."
"Eli is no longer Peyton's little brother," Salisbury says. "Peyton is not walking in front of him anymore. Now they are WALKING SIDE BY SIDE."
"I tell Olivia all the time, 'LIFE IS TOO GOOD,'" says Archie. "You think about the parents of troops in Iraq and it makes you feel guilty."