A Vol AT War

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Peyton Manning eats the saltine crackers one at a time, trying to scarf down six in 60 seconds.

Failing, he starts over right away, this time stacking the squares and then crunching, munching and swallowing the dry crumbs successfully within a minute--all to win a bet.

Tennessee linebacker Greg Johnson wasn't surprised at his roommate's persistence.

"He was determined to do it," Johnson said. "Even something that was a joke, he was out to prove he can do it. He can eat six saltine crackers, and he did. He works out techniques he can do on everything."

For Manning, that means a hip wiggle to improve his golf game, hours lifting weights to strengthen his 6-foot-5, 215-pound frame or watching rolls of film to find a weak point in an opponent's defense.

The work is paying off.

This season, the junior is better known as a Heisman Trophy hopeful on a strong Volunteer team than as the son of former New Orleans Saints star Archie Manning.

Manning knows that if not for a second-half collapse against Florida last year, Tennessee could have played Nebraska for the 1995 title. This year, which could be his last in Knoxville, he'd like nothing better than to end up in his hometown at the Sugar Bowl, playing for the championship.

"I don't want to leave as the guy who had great numbers but his team never did anything," Manning said. "Our main goal is to be in New Orleans."

Personal achievements are an afterthought.

"The main thing is just to be the best player I can be, and obviously if we were to go 13-0 this year, hopefully some of my personal goals would be achieved," said Manning, who threw for 2,954 yards and 22 TDs last season.

Tennessee fans are frequently at Manning's right elbow seeking autographs, surrounding him at the end of classes and even showing up at the front door of the off-campus apartment he shares with three other students.

"I went to meet him after class last week, and his teacher was getting an autograph from him," Johnson said. "And other students, people bring stuff to class. . . . But he doesn't care. He'll do it."

Manning takes it all in stride.

"Whoever plays the quarterback position here is going to get a lot of attention, but I'm prepared," he said.

After all, he is a son of an NFL quarterback. Manning took other lessons from his father's career as well.

Archie Manning's Saints never made the playoffs. After growing up watching his father get battered by opposing defenses, Peyton Manning cares more about being part of a good team than being the standout on a mediocre one.

"I'm sure everybody who plays football wants to have that particularly good season. You've got to surround yourself with good people. That's one reason I came to Tennessee, to be around great players. And I feel great about the opportunity this year."

After two seasons, Manning already has staked his place in Tennessee history.

He finished sixth in last year's Heisman balloting after completing 64.2% of his passes. He threw only four interceptions in 380 attempts, about one every 95 passes, as the Volunteers finished 11-1.

"He's very driven, very organized," his father said. "He's pretty much always kind of gone full speed whenever he had a project and tried to do well with it."

Manning never said he wanted to play college football, as older brother Cooper did. He just threw the ball around with friends and occasionally asked his father to throw with him. After beginning organized football in the seventh grade, he quickly showed his determination to win.

"He was the quarterback, and he was a take-charge guy out there and very into that," Archie Manning said. "To me it's a cute age to be playing football, and it's hard to execute, but he was very energetic and getting the plays from the coach and calling the plays and getting the plays run."

Manning played baseball and football through high school and was rated one of the nation's top three quarterback prospects.

He was good enough that Tennessee and Mississippi, his father's alma mater, wanted him badly. When he chose Tennessee, the folks at Ole Miss were not happy.

"I think Peyton's success at Tennessee, or just watching his development there and maybe some other factors, made some people admit that he did the right thing," his father said.

Manning, a speech communications major, plays golf in whatever spare time he has, but Johnson won't be seen on a course with him. Too competitive, he said.

Johnson and the rest of the Volunteers prefer to deal with Manning when he's serious on the field. This way, they all have a chance at winning.

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