INDIANAPOLIS – The competitive juices flowed. Freely, forcefully and whenever Peyton Manning laced ‘em up.
They allowed him to help carry his Indianapolis Colts, down 35-14 with 4 minutes to play on the road to the reigning Super Bowl champions in 2003, to a you-had-to-see-it-to-believe 38-35 overtime win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
And to a signature 38-34 victory over the hated New England Patriots in the 2006 AFC Championship game after trailing 21-3 in the second quarter. Next stop: Super Bowl XLI.
When the Colts traveled to San Diego in 2007, they were without Marvin Harrison, Dallas Clark and Anthony Gonzalez. The Chargers’ Darren Sproles returned a punt and kickoff for touchdowns – in the first quarter – yet Manning and Reggie Wayne kept fighting, clawing, finding a way. Manning suffered a career-high six interceptions in a 23-21 loss, but the Colts would have won had Adam Vinatieri not misfired on a 29-yard field goal with less than 2 minutes remaining.
And those competitive juices bubbled to the surface in 2005 when the St. Louis Rams visited the RCA Dome on a Monday night. A failed first-and-goal situation – two incomplete passes and a sack – inspired center Jeff Saturday to question the play calling. He thought sprinkling in a run from the 4-yard line would have been a good idea.
Manning, seated a few yards away from where Saturday and the offensive line were doing a slow burn, had heard enough.
“I just snapped,’’ he said with a smile.
Hey, quit calling the (expletive) plays, alright? . . . When we call pass plays, block!
It took 330-pound left tackle Tarik Glenn to intervene and usher Manning away from Saturday, and quite frankly, to safety.
Those were quintessential Manning moments when the fire burned white hot.
They were years in the making, and a defining trait that was so instrumental in the Manning evolution from precocious quarterback at New Orleans’ Isidore Newman School to All-American at Tennessee to the 1st overall pick and eventual Super Bowl Champion with the Colts (and yes, later with the Denver Broncos) to Canton, Ohio.
Manning joins the Pro Football Hall of Fame Sunday evening as a member of the Class of 2021, but the foundation – that competitive drive – was in place long, long ago.
Competitive at an early age
Archie remembers. As Peyton’s dad, he often had a front row seat as his middle son – flanked by Cooper, the eldest by two years, and Eli – wrestled with that internal need to be the absolute best at whatever he attempted.
There was the time 5-year old Peyton played coach-pitch baseball.
“The coach was a nice guy, but they were a bad team,’’ Archie said. “They didn’t hit too much and they sure couldn’t get anybody out.’’
The typical result: a 16-4 or 17-3 loss.
“After the game the coach would congratulate the boys and tell them they had tied,’’ Archie said, laughing. “We’d be in the car going home and Peyton would say, ‘Gosh, we’re bad. We’re so bad. And the coach tells us we tied. What does he think, we’re stupid?
“He got it. He was 5 but he knew what was going on.’’
When a 9-year old Peyton turned to basketball, he played on a team coached by a friend of Archie’s. As halftime approached, the opposing team had the ball and was more than willing to run out the clock.
“A kid on the other team gets the ball and is kind of laying on the floor,’’ Archie said, who was in the stands with Cooper.
Peyton’s coach wanted the last shot so he started yelling at Peyton, “Foul him! Foul him!’’
“Oh my gosh,’’ Archie said, “Peyton hauled off and kicks the kid right in the ribs. This kid’s mother does about a 4.3 out of the stands. I’m looking at Cooper and thinking, ‘What would Olivia do?’
“I just covered my eyes.’’
Don’t go away, there’s more.
“Then he got to be 12,’’ Archie said, another memory clearly begging to be shared.
Peyton was on a team coached by another of Archie’s acquaintance, this time a well-known New Orleans lawyer.
“His son’s on the team,’’ Archie said. “He doesn’t know what shape a basketball is. His son couldn’t play dead.’’
One day, Peyton’s team squared off against one that included his best friend, Baldwin Montgomery. Montgomery’s team whipped up on Peyton’s, and Peyton’s coach gathered his players for a post-game talk.
“I’m always at the door, about 30 yards away, but I’m watching and knew what was going on,’’ Archie said. “George was giving them his post-game talk and says, ‘Guys, the reason we lost tonight is we weren’t mentally prepared to play.’’’
Peyton raised his hand.
“I didn’t know what George said, but I knew it wasn’t good with Peyton’s hand going up,’’ Archie said. “He said, ‘Coach, the reason we lost tonight is because you don’t know what you’re doing.’’’
That might have been the case, but Archie still drove Peyton to the coach’s house later that evening to apologize.
“Peyton knocks on the door and apologized with big tears,’’ Archie said.
Early age, Part II
Montgomery and John Randle were always around. Randle was 3 years older than Peyton, so he Cooper were more tag-team partners whenever something was going on at the Manning residence.
Frequently, Randle and Cooper would be playing hoops or tossing a football in the backyard. Peyton?
“We’d be goofing off and he’s be watching his dad’s film,’’ Randle said. “At an early age it was this fascination with studying. He was probably already focused on watching Archie’s feet and how he played the position.’’
When they could pry Peyton away from film study, they’d all pour into a bedroom that had a mini-basketball hoop attached to a closet door.
Closet Basketball, they called it.
“Coop and I would play against Eli and Peyton,’’ Randle said. “He was the most super competitive kid. He was 3 years behind us and if he lost, he was pissed. It was in his DNA.’’
Manning, Cooper and their friends played baseball, basketball, tennis, golf and football, although Manning wasn’t allowed to play the sport he would dominant until he was a 7th-grader at Newman.
“He’s so competitive,’’ Montgomery said. “He’s always been that way and always put so much pressure on himself. It started at an early age. Whether it was the recreational basketball team or whatever, he didn’t take losing well at all.
“Pickup basketball game or ping pong, you name it. He competed in everything he did. That defines him as much as anything. He just outworked everybody. It wasn’t singular to football. It was in all aspects of his life.’’
The Cooper effect
Ask Manning where he gets his competitive drive and he immediately points to his older brother.
“Probably having Cooper two years older than me,’’ he said. “We had a competitive relationship. We got along certainly, but we argued and fought like a lot of brothers do. He was two years older than me and I couldn’t really beat him in much. I could kind of get close in one-on-one basketball or whatever, but I was always trying to improve to where I could be competitive with him.
“He made me want to try, made me want to compete. The old saying is you get tougher by playing against tougher competition growing up. That’s kinda how it was with me.’’
One of the favorite games Cooper and Peyton shared was what they called The Kickoff Game.
“You kicked it off to each other and you either ran it back for a touchdown or you didn’t,’’ Peyton said. “I wasn’t able to tackle him for a long time.
“But as a young kid, it made me want to keep trying. I kept that with me for a long time.’’
Cooper vs. Peyton in one-on-one hoops was frequent and fierce. The loser had to take out the garbage.
“When it was 18-18 and the next point won,’’ Cooper said, “somebody was going to get a forearm to the head.’’
Cooper was a standout athlete in his own right. He was an All-State receiver at Newman – and Peyton’s favorite receiver when they were together – and a high-ranked prospect who committed to Ole Miss, the alma mater of Archie and, later, Eli. His playing career ended that first summer when he was diagnosed with spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spine.
Cooper has been there every step of the way, pushing, prodding, beaming with pride as the older brother.
“Everybody had a wonderful time and it’s fantastic how it’s all turned out,’’ he said. “I’m thrilled for Peyton and all of that hard work that’s paid off.
“That gold jacket’s going to look good on him.’’
Never taken for granted
Everyone anticipated Sunday evening happening. They envisioned Peyton Manning situated on a stage adjacent to Tom Benson Stadium in Canton, Ohio. They saw Archie presenting his middle son for enshrinement and helping him don that gold jacket.
Everyone except Peyton and those closest to him.
“I never assumed,’’ he said. “So many other people have been telling me this for the past five years, for the past 10 years almost. I just have too much respect for so many people and players who are either in or not.
“I never talked about it. I never signed anything. Those autograph guys would try to get you to sign one of those (Hall of Fame) helmets in anticipation. I was like, ‘No, I’m not doing that.’’’
No assumptions despite an NFL-record five MVPs, including four with the Colts, four trips to the Super Bowl (two in Indy, two in Denver) and two world championships (one in each city).
“You didn’t think about that,’’ said Archie. “At some point people started saying that, but we never did. It’s like what they’re saying about Patrick Mahomes and he didn’t have a 3-13 start.
“When they got going in the 2000s, during that time they had a pretty good run in Indy, people started speculating those things. But I never paid attention to it. That wasn’t what you were really thinking about.’’
Even as the conference (five) and division (12) titles and victories (200 in al, including 14 in the postseason) piled up. Even as Manning sliced ‘n diced defenses en route to 71,940 yards and 539 touchdowns in 18 seasons (he missed 2011 with his neck injury/surgeries), both of which rank 3rd in NFL history.
“You look back and you could probably pick a few things, but at the time you didn’t know whether you were good enough or whether everybody you read about was so much better than you,’’ Cooper said. “You heard these names and you’re thinking, ‘My, this guy’s amazing, he’s unheard of.’ Then you find out, ‘Hey, I can hang with this guy.’
“Honestly, you don’t think about (the Hall of Fame). But at some point there were some moments when you realized, ‘Man, not everybody can do this.’’’
Anticipation became reality in January when Hall of Fame president David Baker delivered the news.
Sunday, his bronze bust – yes, the prominent forehead is impossible to miss – joins those of Manning’s football heroes: Johnny Unitas, Walter Payton, Dan Marino, Jim Brown and countless others.
“Very honored,’’ he said. “I’ve been to the ceremony several times: Pat Bowlen and Champ Bailey two years ago, went for Marvin (Harrison) and Tony (Dungy) and went for Bill Polian.
“I understand what it means. I’ve seen first-hand what it means to these people that have been inducted. You see it in how they speak about it.’’
Press him on the topic and Manning will admit he did everything possible – competed as hard as possible – to earn his place in Canton.
“I felt like I left it all out there,’’ he said. “I prepared as hard as I possibly could and played as hard as I possibly could. You’d like to have this game back or that play back, but I never left the field saying, ‘I could have done more to get ready.’ That’s all you can really do.
“That gives you peace of mind after each game: ‘I did everything I could to get ready and then you go out and do your best.’’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.