"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