KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Peyton Manning can handle the pressure of being called the best college football player in the country. He can handle the responsibilities that come with playing quarterback for the nation's fourth-ranked team. And he can handle the burden of being the son of a Southern sports hero.
What gives him trouble are people naming their babies after him.
"That's strange for me," Manning said the other day. "I kind of called my dad on that one. He said, 'I don't know; they only named dogs and cats after me.' "
Manning has had nearly three dozen newborns named after him in the past 14 months, including six with three different spellings at the University of Tennessee Medical Center since January. He's even catching up with his famed father, former NFL quarterback Archie Manning, in the animal-naming category, as well.
On July 27, a baby giraffe was born at the Knoxville Zoo.
You guessed it.
But it figures, considering that Manning's roommates have called him "Long Neck" ever since he arrived as a gawky freshman from New Orleans three years ago. And it figures, considering the success he has achieved since stepping into Tennessee's starting lineup after four games.
With a 20-2 record that included leading the Volunteers to an 11-1 season and a No. 3 ranking a year ago -- a season in which the 6-foot-5, 215-pound sophomore threw 22 touchdowns passes and had four interceptions while completing 64.2 percent of 380 passes -- Manning is building a legend fast approaching the one his father constructed more than 25 years ago at Mississippi.
Things could get even crazier, if that's possible, should the Volunteers find a way to beat second-ranked Florida tomorrow before what is expected to be an NCAA-record crowd of more than 107,000 at Neyland Stadium. Heisman voters throughout the country and expectant parents at the local maternity wards await the outcome.
"My dad always told me that quarterback is a very humbling position," said Manning. 'He would say, 'Don't get a big head after great games and don't get too low after bad ones.' This is a team game; it's not a bunch of individuals. He's given me a lot of advice, but the one I think about the most is, 'Just have a presence and try to be tough.' "
The younger Manning is well-schooled in his father's legacy, but most of it is self-taught. As a high school quarterback, Manning would sit in his bedroom and listen to radio tapes of his father's greatest games at Ole Miss.
But he also knows about those ugly Sunday afternoons in the not-so-Superdome when the infamous 'Aints and their beloved but beleaguered quarterback would get pummeled into submission.
"He never took his sorrows home," said Peyton Manning, who was 8 when his father retired after finishing his career with the Minnesota Vikings. "He played on a lot of tough teams that weren't very good, but he never lost his cool. When he'd come home, he'd challenge me and Cooper into who could give him the best massage."
It was a combination of that fame and misfortune that made the father an almost mythical figure. As a result, it looked as if it would be difficult for any of his three sons to follow him in football. It helped that the oldest, Cooper, was a wide receiver. Though he didn't allow his boys to play youth football, the elder Manning didn't discourage Peyton when he announced in seventh grade that he wanted to play quarterback. (The youngest, Eli, is starting at quarterback as a freshman in high school.)
"I always wanted to be a college quarterback. I didn't think about the pros," said Peyton, who is expected to be the No. 1 quarterback and perhaps the top player selected in the 1997 NFL draft should he decide to leave school after this season. "People have that assumption that Dad pushed me, but our policy was that we had to come to him. I kind of took advantage that he was a pro quarterback."
Said Archie Manning: "I don't think we were any different than any parents except that I was a pro football player. I'm uncomfortable with people presuming that I molded Peyton."
In truth, Cooper Manning might have influenced his younger brother's career path and personality as much, if not more, than their father. Their backyard "basketbrawl" games -- "We never made it to 21 because at 18-18 there'd be some kind of fight," recalled Peyton, who is two years younger -- belied their upbringing in New Orleans' genteel Garden District. If Peyton's role model was his father, his big brother was his idol.
They played one year of high school football together, with the sophomore quarterback and the senior receiver leading the team at Isidore Newman, a small private school that started out as a Jewish orphanage, to the state final. Cooper went off to Ole Miss, and Peyton figured to be in Oxford a couple of years later. It didn't happen.
"If I had been playing at Ole Miss, he'd have been there, too," said Cooper, who's now back in New Orleans after graduating last summer. "We had so much fun playing together that one year at Newman."
Said Peyton: "It would have eliminated the recruiting process."
Cooper's career was cut short by a congenital condition called spinal stenosis, in which a narrowed spinal cavity can sometimes result in paralysis. It was discovered right before the start of his sophomore year. "I think it opened the door for Peyton to look at some other schools," said Archie Manning.
And it gave others a chance to recruit him. Many figured that Peyton would wind up at Florida with Steve Spurrier or at Florida State with Bobby Bowden or maybe at Ole Miss just to be with his brother, who underwent corrective spinal surgery in June 1993. When Peyton opted for Tennessee, the folks who deified the father vilified the family. They sent nasty letters, unsigned. They made crank phone calls.
But the end of his brother's football career provided Peyton Manning with a new perspective. He said that he now plays the game for his brother as well as for himself and understands how swiftly everything can be taken away.
"It made me see the big picture," said Peyton, who still gets choked up when talking about his brother's plight. "There are really more important things than football."
Don't tell that to the Tennessee football fans. Such a suggestion might make them blow their "Rocky Top."
They're the ones who'll pile into Neyland Stadium tomorrow afternoon with dreams of ending a three-year drought against the Gators; the ones who are fantasizing that their Vols can win their first national championship since 1951 while their star player wins the school's first Heisman.
And the ones who name their children, not to mention their giraffes, after a certain Tennessee quarterback.
Father: Former Mississippi All-American and New Orleans Saints quarterback Archie Manning.
Highlights: Led Volunteers to 7-1 record as a starter in 1994 and was named Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Year. . . . Completed 12 of 19 passes for 189 yards in 45-23 victory over Virginia Tech in the Gator Bowl. . . . Selected to All-SEC first team, was second-team quarterback on the Associated Press All-American team and finished sixth in the voting for the Heisman Trophy. . . . Set school single-season passing records for attempts (380), completions (244), completion percentage (64.2) and yards (2,954) in 1995. . . . Threw for career-high 384 yards against Arkansas, completing 35 of 46 passes. . . . Finished 1995 season third in school history in touchdown passes (33) and yards (4,095).
Yr. .... Att. ..... Com. ..... Pct. ..... Int. ..... Yds. ..... TD
1994 ... 144 ...... 89 ....... 61.8 ..... 6 ........ 1141 ..... 11
1995 ... 380 ...... 244 ...... 64.2 ..... 4 ........ 2,954 .... 22
1996 ... 52 ....... 34 ....... 65.3 ..... 2 ........ 586 ...... 3
Tot. ... 576 ...... 367 ...... 63.7 ..... 12 ....... 4,681 .... 36
Pub Date: 9/20/96