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The question still makes Peyton Manning wince, many years and countless times since it first was asked. The comparison to a legend who wore the familiar blue-and-white uniform, with the trademark horseshoe on the helmet, remains an uncomfortable topic for the Indianapolis Colts quarterback.

Yet considering Manning will be coming back to Baltimore again tonight to play the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium, and given what Manning has accomplished over his near decade in the NFL, the subject begs to be broached once more: Is Manning the modern day John Unitas?

"I'm sure the uniform has something to do with it. I'm proud to wear the same uniform that some of those old Colts did, just one number below Unitas," Manning, 31, said last week, standing by his stall at the team's facility on the outskirts of town.

There is a lot more to it than the uniform.

There is the way Manning breaks the huddle, the animated gestures when checking off at the line of scrimmage and the tough love that Manning, like Unitas, often administers to his teammates. Manning sees some similarities in the way his Colts play and the way Unitas' did.

"What we do offensively is probably closer to the offenses of yesterday, as far as the ability for me to call some of my own plays and change some plays and constant communication with your receiver," Manning said. "I spend a lot of time in the offseason working with receivers on timing. Unitas and [Raymond] Berry were kind of the innovators of that. I definitely believe in some of those principles."

Manning started watching old tapes of Unitas after hearing that the Colts quarterback was one of the favorite athletes of his father, Archie, along with Mickey Mantle. One play Unitas made in hooking up with Berry stands out. It came during the classic 1958 NFL championship game against the New York Giants.

"You hear the story about it was something that he and Berry worked on years before. He turned into a slant route, and it was a critical play," Manning said, referring to what turned out to be a 30-yard catch-and-run by Berry, the first of three straight passes to Berry in the 80-yard, game-winning overtime drive.

Berry, who was connected to Unitas the way Colts wide receiver Marvin Harrison is tied to Manning, believes there is something almost mystical in the fact that the two quarterbacks have played with the same franchise, albeit four decades and hundreds of miles apart.

"For both of them to be a part of the Colts' history is kind of unusual," Berry said last week from his home in Tennessee. "Another great parallel, John and Peyton both share a common event that happened in their careers. They got at the right place at the right time with the right people. That has everything to do with a quarterback being able to perform at what he's really capable of doing."

As Unitas came to a Colts team in 1956 that was ready to turn the corner from its bleary past, Manning came to a team in 1998 that rarely had been better than mediocre since moving from Baltimore 15 years before. But though the Colts finished 3-13 the season before Manning was drafted, and would do so again his rookie year, he knew it wasn't as bleak as it appeared.

"When [team president] Bill Polian was hired here, my dad told me enough about him that the Colts would be on solid ground," said Manning, who wears No. 18 to honor his father's All-America career at Mississippi. "I've truly been fortunate to have great support around me. I've always had unbelievable targets to throw to, I've always had an outstanding running back, great protection. I've never once not been aware of that."

It took Unitas three seasons to win an NFL championship, and he won a second the next year.

It took Manning until last season, his ninth, to win a Super Bowl - in his first appearance.

Those who knew Unitas and watched him play see similarities in Manning that extend beyond the football field.

Unitas apparently saw them, too.

There was the first time Manning met Unitas. It came after Manning's senior season, when the University of Tennessee star was being honored in Louisville, Ky., as the winner of the Golden Arm Award given in Unitas' honor to the nation's top college quarterback.

"We were walking down the hall, and John said, 'Peyton, I really like the way you play,' " Archie Manning said. "And I really like the way you don't shine your [butt]."

In his day, Unitas grew from a local celebrity to a national icon. He did commercials for Baltimore companies such as Mary Sue Easter Eggs, even singing its jingle, as well as for national companies such as Chevrolet and Royal Crown Cola. He made one famous spot for Maypo cereal with Mantle. He appeared in a Disney movie with Don Knotts and Bob Crane about a talking mule.

"John was the type, if the publicity was there it was there," said John Ziemann, who, as president of the Colts' (and later the Ravens') marching band, got close to Unitas before his death in 2002.

Unitas wasn't one to seek attention, and he sometimes avoided it.

"When they won the championship, Ed Sullivan wanted him on his show, but John came back to Baltimore with the team," Ziemann said.

Manning has become one of the country's most recognizable television pitchmen, second only to Tiger Woods among professional athletes. But most of Manning's commercials, especially those for MasterCard and Sprint, show the self-deprecating personality that Unitas would have appreciated.

"Sometimes, the commercial people want to be too serious; I'm not," Manning said. "I'm just a meathead jock football player. Let me say it at least the way I would say it, to have some kind of comedy to it. I like to laugh more than anybody. I guess I consider myself pretty normal."

Indiana Pacers star Jermaine O'Neal, who has met Manning many times, was surprised to find Manning very similar to what O'Neal had seen on television, mostly in the commercials.

"When you look at his commercials, that's his personality. He's a very funny, smart guy," O'Neal said after a game last week. "That was really most impressive to me."

Bill Potesta, a building contractor in Indianapolis, met Manning at a restaurant opening last spring and genuinely was impressed.

"He's got the same heart off the football field as you see on it," Potesta said, wearing his Colts hat and sitting in the stands at Conseco Field House last week while watching the Pacers play the Phoenix Suns. "Every place he's been, they've loved him. Knoxville, New Orleans, Indianapolis, it doesn't matter."

Manning's PeyBack Foundation has raised more than $2 million since it was established in 1999 to help disadvantaged children in Indiana, Tennessee and New Orleans, where he grew up and where his parents and older brother, Cooper, still live. Though he and his wife, Ashley, do not have any children, Manning agreed to have his name attached to an Indianapolis children's hospital.

"That was something they wanted to do. I've had a relationship with St. Vincent since my rookie year, and this was a direction they wanted to hit," Manning said. "I wasn't totally comfortable with it at first, and when they explained it could be a real positive for the children, I let it happen. It's one of the great honors in my life, something I'm really proud of."

Long before he began his assault on Unitas' team passing records - they are either first or second in most of the categories, with Manning moving ahead of Unitas this season for career touchdowns and yardage - Archie Manning was told that his son and his favorite football player had something more in common than their uniform.

"I think it was his second year in the league, and I went down to the Redskins' dressing room and Sonny Jurgensen was doing the radio, and he says, 'He reminds me of John,' " the elder Manning said. "That, coming from Sonny, was very special to me. I was reading an article this year when Peyton broke one of Johnny's records, and a couple of the former Colts saying that John would have been proud it was Peyton."

don.markus@baltsun.com

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