IT IS A CRISP AUTUMN SATURDAY IN eastern Tennessee. The hills are ablaze with vibrant orange, as is Knoxville’s Neyland Stadium, home of the orange-clad University of Tennessee Volunteers. For Archie Manning, former all-everything quarterback for the University of Mississippi and former New Orleans Saints star, however, it is not a perfect day. “The worst thing about being a parent and a former player is that I have the same kind of butterflies I had when I was playing,” he says. “But when you play, as soon as you go out there and throw a pass or get hit, it’s over. You’re okay.” Manning pauses. “Here I never even get hit. I have to just sit here.”
The butterflies arise because Manning’s son Peyton, 19, a sophomore quarterback megastar for the Volunteers, will be taking the lumps today. But not many. By game’s end, Manning will have passed for four touchdowns en route to a 56-21 pasting of South Carolina. If anything, the game is typical. Now in his second season, the 6’5″ Manning is earning the kind of respect his father won during his Hall of Fame college career. Since taking over the Vols’ offense last season, Peyton has led them to a 16-2 record, compiling impressive stats along the way. Despite his youth, he’s a top prospect for the Heisman Trophy, to be announced this week. ESPN analyst Craig James calls him “one of the best college players in the country.”
The similarities between father and son are more than gene-deep. Growing up, Peyton idolized Archie, memorizing the play-by-play calls on his Ole Miss game films. Later, Peyton and brother Cooper, now 21, would haunt the Saints’ locker room after games, pilfering trainers’ supplies for games of tape ball. “I used to get everyone around and show them how I could drop back,” Peyton says. “When people asked me who my favorite player was, I didn’t hesitate. I said, ‘My dad is.’ ”
At New Orleans’ Isidore Newman School, Manning took over at quarterback as a sophomore. Cooper, then a senior, was his main receiver. “I would be a diplomat and throw to others,” Peyton says. “But when it was fourth and ten, I knew who I was going to.”
Peyton wore his father’s number 14—until Cooper, a wide receiver at Mississippi, was diagnosed with a risky spinal defect and gave up football in 1992. Cooper wrote Peyton that he wanted to keep playing vicariously through him, so Peyton switched to his brother’s 18 (he has since switched to 16). After a brilliant high school career, Peyton narrowed his college choices to the University of Florida, Tennessee and, of course, Ole Miss.
Archie and wife Olivia, both 46, once an Ole Miss Homecoming Queen, didn’t pressure Peyton to attend their alma mater. And he was less than enthusiastic since the prospect of playing with Cooper was gone. “I didn’t want to go where I would become an instant celebrity without ever taking a snap,” he says. So he signed with the Vols.
That decision upset many Ole Miss fans, who deluged the family with hate mail and even a few death threats. But Peyton wasn’t unhappy about his choice. He adjusted quickly to Tennessee and replaced injured varsity quarterbacks Jerry Colquitt and Todd Helton in the fourth game of his freshman season. On game day, Peyton knows that his father, who runs a marketing company and broadcasts Saints games on the radio, and his mother are in the stadium—unless one of them is off watching brother Eli, 14, play quarterback for Newman’s junior varsity. Peyton appreciates the support: “I’ve got my two biggest fans in the stands.”
Make that three. While maintaining a 3.5 GPA in business, Peyton makes time for girlfriend Ashley Thompson, 21, a University of Virginia junior he met through a friend in 1994. “He’s very romantic,” she says, “but he would kill me for saying that.” Thompson, who attends as many games as she can, is protective of her man. During a recent game, a fan provoked her by making fun of Peyton’s family ties. “I couldn’t take it anymore, so I confronted him,” she says. “He didn’t say another word the whole game.”
Hecklers might be more of a problem when the Vols play Ole Miss in Memphis next year. When that happens, Archie, who has yet to be seen wearing orange, plans to root quietly for his son. “I’ll just lay low,” he says, “and let the game come and go.”
BRYAN ALEXANDER in Knoxville