Peyton in Place

What a nice young man--nothing like that other guy from San Diego.

Quarterback Peyton Manning's first endorsement deal here was for St. Vincent Hospitals and Health Centers. He turned down weekly TV and radio show opportunities. It's always, "Yes, sir," and "No, sir."

When the Colts' publicist met with the team and advised players how to deal with the media, he looked down and noticed Manning was taking notes, although Manning could have given the speech.

A local TV guy asked him to scowl into the camera for a promotion. "Sorry, sir, but that's not me," he said.

Asked to wear a jazzy shirt that would spruce up the background the TV station was using for its promotion, he said, "Sorry, sir, but that's not me."

He took his offensive line out to dinner Wednesday night to Indianapolis' most famous restaurant, St. Elmo Steak House.

After graduating cum laude with a 3.6 grade-point average--the highest mark in speech communications at the University of Tennessee--he received a citation from the school's chancellor for "extraordinary campus leadership and service."

He won the Sullivan Award as the nation's top amateur athlete, which is based on character, leadership, athletic ability and the ideals of amateurism.

"No, that's not me," he said.

He passed on millions of dollars and a chance to mint millions more in endorsements playing in New York to remain in college a year longer, just to enjoy still being a kid. He's just a kid, all right, but mature enough to choose to wear No. 18 in the pros to honor his father, Archie, who wore it while playing football at Ole Miss.

"I felt kind of lucky growing up with my mentor and hero in my house," he said.

He recites NFL history as if he'd been there to witness it. And asked what he intended to do with his $11.6-million signing bonus, he said, "Put it in the bank."

The other guy in San Diego refers to him as a nerd, calling him "Perfect Peyton," and "Golden Boy," but as soon as he realizes he's being petty, he quickly points out that the two are really good friends.

Some friend. But Manning won't criticize.

"I feel like I'm pretty normal and make mistakes," he says. "Don't know what a Golden Boy is. . . . My girlfriend likes my personality, so I think that kind of takes care of that. I just try to do the right thing."

Push him, prod him and the guy's just too good to be true.

"I guess that's a category he could fall in," says teammate Tony Mandarich. "He's the total package."

But can he play football as well as, or even better than, the other guy, whose bravado and dazzling preseason play have already captured the attention of most football fans? Or will he be like his father, known best for taking a good punch as the NFL's all-time most gracious loser with the New Orleans Saints?

"You want me to say he's God's greatest gift, I can tell you that," said Marvin Harrison, Colts' wide receiver. "But we haven't played a regular season game yet. We don't know how the rookie quarterback is going to play in this league. Once he gets four quarters under his belt, we can talk.

"The egg's cracked, but it hasn't hatched."

Such anticipation. For the first time since 1989, the Colts will have a sellout crowd for their home opener when Manning makes his debut against Miami Sunday. It's Manning versus Dan Marino, who was the exception to the rookie rule, winning seven of nine starts in his first season 16 years ago.

Since 1970, 50 quarterbacks have been selected in the first round of the draft or supplemental draft, and only eight went on to have winning records in Year 1. John Elway was a loser his first season. So were Terry Bradshaw, Drew Bledsoe, Jim Plunkett. . . . Troy Aikman went 0-11

So what about Perfect Peyton? His first exhibition-game pass went 48 yards for a touchdown.

"Worst thing I could have done; it was like this game is too easy," he said.

In 45 starts in college he won 39, but now he will be leading a team that won three games last year, a franchise that has not won more than nine regular-season games since moving here in 1984. It's a team that has gone through 16 starting quarterbacks and eight coaches since trading Elway to Denver. And Manning will be asked to stand firm behind an offensive line that allowed a club-record 62 sacks last season.

The other guy's admittedly got it tougher: He's being coached by Kevin Gilbride.

The Colts have been trying to shield Manning, raising 20 x 30-feet banners of Marshall Faulk and Jason Belser on the outside walls of the RCA Dome to hype their team. But who are they kidding? If there's no Manning, there's no reason to spend Sundays under the dome.

So many expectations for both young men. The other guy from San Diego was the second pick in the first round, just like Archie Manning in 1971 followed New England's selection of Plunkett. Quarterbacks have gone 1-2 only one other time since the merger with the American Football League in 1970, when Drew Bledsoe and Rick Mirer topped the 1993 draft.

"Peyton's played in a lot of big games in college," said Marino, who didn't make his first NFL appearance until the third game of the season, his first start the sixth game. "He's a good kid. He's going to be fine and going to be a great player in this league. I believe that."

There it is: "He's a great kid." That's what they all say. So polite, so shy, so humble. Nothing like that other guy.

"You know who impresses me more?" said Mandarich, who has the locker next to Manning's. "Being around [car owner and former race driver] A.J. Foyt. He's a legend. I've never gone home, and been like, 'Wow, this Peyton Manning guy!' "

Will he ever? Will Manning ever command such Elway-Montana-Marino amazement--the kind the other guy is already getting for his big arm and show of confidence--or does he become football's answer to Pete Sampras, a superstar left behind for failing to shine brightly enough?

"You're talking about Sampras who has won five Wimbledon titles and going for a fifth U.S. Open and Manning hasn't played a game yet," said Jim Mora, Colts' coach. "Let's not judge anybody at this point. Look at all the great quarterbacks who have played this game and the difference in their personalities--a Bradshaw and a Montana."

Some crime, huh? Being too nice, too much a good guy, always saying just the right thing. I know this 22-year-old woman living in California, Notre Dame graduate, single, looking to marry a millionaire and support her father.

"In today's world you see a lot of people saying they are not role models, that they don't want to accept that responsibility," said Manning. "I disagree. In my four years at Tennessee, I tried to be a person the people could look up to. I'm not doing it for any fake reasons. That's the person I want to be. My parents taught me to do the right thing and that's what I try to do. It's pretty simple advice."

This young woman I know will move to Indianapolis. Tomorrow.

But as good as he is, as vanilla as he comes across, isn't that a trait to be admired? Or does the other guy from San Diego appeal more to fans?

"As much attention as I've gotten, people look for you to screw up," Manning said. "They try to see if you're doing the wrong things. I try to be the right kind of person. I've always been under the microscope, being Archie Manning's son, but I mess up. I was late for classes in college."

Probably once, and there was probably a good reason. He just does the right thing without thought, signing autographs, answering every question and always with respect.

"I got to study and watch my dad," Manning said. "His team would get beat bad and he'd get sacked and come out of the locker room and do all the interviews and sign all the autographs," Manning said. "He just had unbelievable patience, and he just told me, 'When you're around fans, put a smile on your face.' That's part of the job, and that's how I treat it.

"Sure, sometimes you go out and want to be left alone, but it only takes two minutes. I go to the movies a lot and that's 2 1/2 hours they can't catch you. Everything's fair game except church and the doctor's office. I got elbowed during a prayer in church once--this guy had a jersey. And one time I was asked to sign my X-rays--here I'm worried about my knee and if I can play--but everything else is all right."

Too good to be true, but isn't that just what the world of sports needs? What's wrong with Peyton being perfect?

"I wouldn't use those words; he's not too good to be true," said Mora, while at a loss to explain why not. "He hasn't called me Jim yet, but I'm sure some day he will."

Hard to believe he will ever sin so seriously, but then deep in the Manning archives there is this sordid tale, this lone black mark, an incident in which he reportedly mooned another Tennessee athlete, a male, but also caught a female trainer by surprise. She later sued for sexual harassment before settling for $300,000. Shocking.

But the suspicion here, of course, is, had it gone to trial, it would have eventually come out that the other guy from San Diego was really behind the whole thing.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Rookies at Quarterback

YOUNGEST TO START

Youngest quarterbacks to start on opening day:

1. Patriots' Drew Bledsoe: 21 years, 6 months

2. Colts' Mike Pagel: 21 years, 11 months

3. Colts' Bert Jones: 22 years, 0 months

3. Steelers' Terry Bradshaw: 22 years, 0 months

5. Chargers' Ryan Leaf: 22 years, 3 months

6. Saints' Archie Manning: 22 years, 4 months

7. Colts' Peyton Manning: 22 years, 5 months

8. Buccaneers' Randy Hedberg: 22 years, 8 months

9. Colts' Jeff George: 22 years, 9 months

10. Cowboys' Troy Aikman: 22 years, 9 months

*

ROOKIE RECORDS

Won-lost records of rookie quarterbacks:

Dan Marino (Miami Dolphins): 7-2

Phil Simms (New York Giants): 6-5

Jim Everett (Los Angeles Rams): 3-2

Jim Plunkett (New England Patriots): 6-8

Jeff George (Indianapolis Colts): 5-7

Drew Bledsoe (New England Patriots): 5-7

John Elway (Denver Broncos): 4-6

Steve Bartkowski (Atlanta Falcons): 4-7

Rick Mirer (Seattle Seahawks): 6-10

Terry Bradshaw (Pittsburgh Steelers): 3-5

Archie Manning (New Orleans Saints): 3-5-2

Jim Kelly (Buffalo Bills): 4-12

Steve Young (Tampa Bay Buccaneers): 1-4

Bert Jones (Baltimore Colts): 1-4

Vinny Testaverde (Tampa Bay Buccaneers): 0-4

Troy Aikman (Dallas Cowboys): 0-11

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