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Athlon Archive: Peyton Manning Takes the Reins at Tennessee


With Peyton Manning missing his first game in decades with a neck injury, we wanted to take a look back at the beginning of his career. This article originally appeared in Athlon's 1995 college football annual.

High Expectations
Archie's boy became a big Manning quickly at Tennessee

by David Climer, The Tennessean

Peyton Manning, resplendent in an orange jersey but still unmistakably green around the edges, jogged toward the huddle on that September evening, mindful of his father's advice.

"Even though you're a freshman," dear old dad told him a couple of days earlier, "take charge of the huddle."

Manning leaned in to complete the 11-man oval, his spotless uniform contrasting against the blood and sweat and smell of the others. It wasn't yet halftime, but Tennessee was already beaten and it showed. Florida was quick-kicking the Vols all over the Neyland Stadium field, and emotions were strained.

Attempting to rally the troops, Manning offered encouraging words to his older, wiser teammates. But the impromptu pep talk didn't get far.

"Shut the bleep up and call the bleeping play," said offensive tackle Jason Layman, three years Manning's senior and infinitely wiser in the ways of the college football world.

Welcome to the Southeastern Conference.

OK, a little journalistic license may have been taken with Layman's comment, but it underscores what Manning discovered in that galvanizing moment. Perhaps it was a coming-of-age for an 18-year-old. In September, it was becoming abundantly clear that the new kid in town would soon become the big man on a campus that adores its football team.

It was a daunting situation. Freshman quarterbacks, even those with such exemplary pedigrees, are not supposed to make the quantum leap from high school skirmishes to major college warfare without suffering inevitable breakdowns in confidence and performance.

"Nobody understands what a huge jump it is," says Heath Shuler, Tennessee's starting quarterback the previous two seasons and now a rising star with the Washington Redskins. "I hear people talk about what a difference it is going from the college game to the NFL, but I really believe it's a bigger jump from high school to college. For a freshman to come into a program like the one at Tennessee and handle everything that goes with being a quarterback in the SEC is unbelievable."

Peyton Manning appreciates the kind words, Heath, but he's been dealing with great expectations as far back as he can remember. He is, after all, Archie Manning's son.

"I'm sure it's been tough on him in some ways because people expect so much of him," says Archie Manning, ever the proud father and source of advice on deportment in the huddle. "But we've always taught him that all he could do was go out there and give it his best shot. He's very ambitious. He's always worked hard and he was a delight to raise. You know, it doesn't matter to me if he's a good football player or not. That's just the way it is with a father and his kids."

Wholesome? Corny? Maybe. But in an era of generation gaps and failures to communicate, it is wonderfully refreshing to stand between the Manning quarterbacks - one past, one present - and soak up all these family values. It's almost as if you've been transported to the set of one of those old TV shows where sons actually listen to the advice of their fathers. It's as if Rocky Top has given way to Walton Mountain.

"I feel really fortunate to have grown up in the environment that I have and to have the opportunities that I've experienced," Peyton says. "One thing I've learned, no matter what happens, is to keep a good, level head. My father's like that."

Maybe that's why Peyton has eased into his role as if it were a comfortable pair of jeans. His first-year credentials are impeccable (Freshman All-America and SEC Freshman of the Year) and his off-field performance is just as flawless. Manning is a media favorite because of his willingness to conduct interviews and offer honest views, and his teammates have embraced him because of a blue-collar work ethic that shows in everything from his increased strength in the weight room ("I gained almost 20 pounds of muscle since I got to campus, and I've got a stronger arm now," he says) to his clutch performance in games.

Manning is a serious young man, but he can still laugh at himself. He smiles while telling the story of a case of mistaken identity that transpired last winter, when, during a visit to a Knoxville hospital, a nurse walked up and began talking as if she knew him. The more she talked, the clearer it became to Manning that the nurse thought he was somebody else.

"She was telling me all these things like, 'I saw your mother earlier today and she was about to go visit so-and-so,' and I could tell she had me confused with somebody," Manning recalls. "I waited until she stopped, and then I said 'Ma'am, I don't believe I'm who you think I am. I'm Peyton Manning.'"

The nurse gasped and scurried away.

This is the exception rather than the rule. Tall and athletic, with just the slightest wobble in his walk and a distinctive boyish face, Manning is the most recognizable figure in Knoxville.

Manning navigates the concrete and grass of the Tennessee campus with a pleasant smile. It's the same way he acted at Isidore Newman, a small, private school in New Orleans, and he didn't think it necessary to alter his lifestyle when he arrived on a campus of more than 25,000 students.

He has grown accustomed to the attention. He's a bit embarrassed by it from time to time, but he recognizes that it comes with the turf.

"Around here," Manning says, "Tennessee football is big, whether you're the starting quarterback or a walk-on who has never played before. People are interested in you. They're always looking at you, speaking to you, asking for autographs or just wanting to shake your hand. I get invited to speak to groups, and if people think what I have to say is that important and that interesting, shoot, I'm going to do it. When I was growing up, I had my heroes too."

It is here you that you begin to gain some real insight into Peyton Manning and the world he comes from. If ever a child was born to be a star quarterback, it is he.

Asked to name his heroes, Manning's face quickly twists into a grin. "I didn't have to go very far to talk to my favorite hero. He lived in the same house. Anytime I needed to talk to him about anything, he was there," Manning says.

He didn't mention his father, an All-America quarterback at the University of Mississippi and former New Orleans Saint, by name, but he didn't have to. Some things go without saying.

The rapport has been built through the years. Young Manning was a regular visitor to Saints practices during his father's career. He even made two Pro Bowl trips with his dad, meeting such quarterbacks as Roger Staubach and Dan Fouts, whom he mentions as personal heroes slightly behind his father.

But Peyton kept his distance. He was very much his father's son.

"I never asked for autographs," the younger Manning says. "I thought shaking somebody's hand and telling them my name and 'nice to meet you' was good enough. I guess I just saw my dad signing so many autographs that it left an impression on me. A lot of times he and I would be walking somewhere, and he'd stop to sign autographs for people and I kind of wanted to keep on going."

There is an irony to it. The kid who didn't collect autographs now finds himself with writer's cramp after every home football game.

"I understand autographs; it's a big thing now," Manning says. "I just accept it as part of the job at Tennessee. People get real excited, and I'm happy to sign for anybody that wants my autograph. After the Mississippi State game, even though we lost, I saw the way people reacted when I came out of the locker room and walked to the bus. I said 'Uh-oh. Something's about to get started here. This is no small deal.'"

Indeed, it was no small deal. It was in that game, a loss in Starkville, Miss., that Todd Helton suffered a knee injury, joining senior Jerry Colquitt on the sideline. Suddenly, Tennessee's two apprentices, Manning and fellow freshman Branndon Stewart, were the Vols' only healthy scholarship quarterbacks. The game had changed.

Exactly four weeks ago after his college debut, an uneventful three-play cameo appearance against UCLA in Pasadena, Calif., and two weeks after the huddle faux pas against Florida, Manning, due to make his first start, found himself the center of attention as the team walked from Gibbs (athletic residence) Hall to Neyland Stadium to meet Washington State.

 "When we made that walk from the dorm to the field with all those people around, it hits you how big it all is," Manning says. "I could tell how much it matters to everybody. You realize how fast things are changing. Before the first game against UCLA, I told my friends back home, 'Look for me on the sideline. I'll stand by the coach so I can get some camera time.' The next thing I know, Jerry gets hurt, and I say to myself, 'I'm in for a different type of year here.'

"My dad did the best he could to prepare me for the job. The quarterback job is the hardest one on the field. You can go from the top of the cloud to the lowest place on earth in a flash. He taught me to have a level head about it."

The rewards are evident. Manning completed 62 percent of his passes for 1,141 yards and 11 touchdowns. More importantly, he was 7-1 as Tennessee's starting quarterback, which he calls "the best stat to come out of the whole season."

There are a few regrets, not the least of which centers on the departure of Stewart, who packed up in January and transferred to Texas A&M. But, really, the town wasn't big enough for two young-gun quarterbacks.

"Branndon and I could've been real good friends," Peyton says, "but it was something that we both understood. As long as we were competing, there was no way for us to get real close. I thought I was the better quarterback and Branndon thought he was better. There was constant competition.

"From a football standpoint, it's worked out better for me. It means I'm Tennessee's quarterback. I'm going to be taking the snaps. But as far as the friendship part and losing a teammate from my recruiting class, I miss him. It's different without him around."

And then there is the unpleasant matter of last season's Tennessee-Alabama game. There was one pass play in that contest that Manning would like to have back.

The Crimson Tide led 17-13 when, on a last-minute, fourth-and-three play from the Alabama 7, Manning turned to his left and threw low and outside toward Nilo Silvan. On the other side of the field, running back James Stewart was all but ignored by the Crimson Tide defense.

Manning calls the misfire against Alabama "the low point of the season." He says if he had put the pass on target or turned to the other side and found Stewart "then we might have won that game and ended the 10-year drought of not beating them."

But in the aftermath of the Alabama disappointment, Vol players and fans discovered something about Manning. Rather than wallowing in self-pity, Manning stepped into a hostile environment and completed 18 of 23 passes for 189 yards and three touchdowns while leading the Vols to victory at South Carolina.

"You just have to keep learning and keep growing," Manning says.

It is with this attitude he took virtually everything in stride as a freshman. Even when Manning was booed by some Neyland Stadium fans during the lackluster victory over the University of Memphis, he kept on plugging, calling upon his background as the son of a quarterback to help him get through the tough times.

"That's just part of it," he said of the brief booing, which occurred at the height of the Great Freshman Quarterback Debate among Tennessee fans. "I was kind of surprised. I wasn't really aware that there was that much booing in college football. I'd been around the Saints a lot, and in pro football you kind of expect it. But I guess it comes with being a quarterback."

Watching Manning direct the offense at the end of last season and in spring practice, it's hard to believe he is entering his sophomore season and is still a neophyte among college quarterbacks. His cool, efficient style would seem to indicate an older, wiser, more experienced player.