Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning is fast approaching the summit of a promising Rocky Mountain high.
After posting NFL single-season records for passing yards (5,477) and touchdowns (55) and a mythical one for audibles, he is a prohibitive favorite to win an unprecedented fifth MVP award. And the Broncos are headed to Super Bowl XLVIII, where they will face the Seattle Seahawks next Sunday at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
But long before the 37-year-old established himself as a potential first-ballot Hall of Fame player, Manning possessed a tireless work ethic, an ability to think outside the box and a penchant for detail as a gangly teenager at Isidore Newman School.
Even as a 15-year-old sophomore in 1991, Manning provided glimpses of the same qualities that have served him well at the University of Tennessee and 15 NFL seasons with Indianapolis and Denver: a vast skill set, an ability to make everyone around him better and fierce competitiveness.
Though that ’91 prep season ended with a Manning interception against Haynesville in the Class 2A state semifinals, he appeared to score a resounding victory with the Newman upperclassmen who entered the campaign filled with trepidation.
“We knew he had some ability and he had the pedigree as the son of Archie Manning, but we still didn’t know how he would do starting for the first time as a sophomore,’’ recalled Lee Zurik, an investigative reporter/anchorman for WVUE-TV who started at right guard as a senior for Newman in ’91.
“He certainly wasn’t the Peyton that he is now — a guy who can audible like he can and read defenses to perfection. But we did see someone who had an incredible grasp of the game and an incredible work ethic. Even though he was a sophomore, he didn’t seem like a sophomore.’’
On the eve of the ’91 state playoffs, Manning presented each of his offensive linemen with a pair of Isotoner gloves at a team meeting.
“Remember the Marino commercial — ‘The gloves that take care of the hands that take care of you,’ ” Zurik said. “We had given up less sacks than the Miami Dolphins that year, and we kept harassing Peyton, joking with him: ‘Look, Dan Marino takes care of his guys. C’mon Peyton, you got to take care of us.’
“That year, we started four seniors and a junior on our offensive line — all guys older than him. Even as a sophomore, Peyton knew how to handle us. He had won us over and had earned our respect long before that occasion, but that showed he got it.’’
Although Manning never played for a state championship before his graduation in 1994, he left an indelible mark at Newman. Twenty seasons later, he still holds the school record for passing yards with 7,528.
Beyond the statistics and school records, stories of Manning’s work ethic, thirst for knowledge and game-week preparation are legendary.
Former Newman coach Tony Reginelli remembers in the spring of 1993 when Manning used his free period at the end of the school day to work out with Saints players at their facility. When the NFL frowned on a high school player working out at the Saints’ facility, then-quarterback Jim Everett and other players moved the workouts to Tulane so Manning could participate.
Because of Manning, Reginelli scrapped his veer offense in favor of a pro-style passing attack. As Manning progressed as a junior and senior, Reginelli and offensive coordinator Frank Gendusa accepted input from their quarterback and gave him more freedom as a play caller.
Reginelli, who had a 203-63 record in 44 seasons at Newman, retired after Manning’s senior season of 1993.
“People have made a big deal about ‘Omaha,’ ” Reginelli said, referring to the term Manning used 75 times in playoff victories against San Diego (44) and New England (31) to change plays and/or snap counts at the line of scrimmage. “We always used the other team’s helmet color to change plays from a run to a pass or vice versa.’’
Manning rarely called an audible during his sophomore season but routinely changed plays during his last two years.
“It’s unbelievable to think a kid at 15, 16 and 17 was running a pro-style passing attack and hitting a third read, which was a 25-yard post,’’ said Newman coach Nelson Stewart, a defensive tackle in high school and teammate of Manning’s. “He would line guys up in some exotic or unique formation and then — by his own verbiage — break them out of it into the real play just so he could see how the defenses aligned.
“Peyton did it all on his own. He was at that level. Imagine a kid at 17 doing that.’’
Stewart credits Manning with introducing 7-on-7 practices in the metro New Orleans area.
“Nobody was throwing the ball like we were back then,’’ Stewart said. “It was still the wing-T and the veer. Peyton did this on his own. He’d turn the lights on at Newman and bring his wide receivers to throw against any team that wanted to play. ...
“Peyton essentially ran those summer practices. Because of his ability to get the ball out quickly and change protections and the chemistry they developed, we were able to play at a much higher level. He brought the whole team up.’’
Baldwin Montgomery, a longtime friend and former Newman teammate, said Manning’s drive, discipline and commitment were ingrained at an early age and were evident from day one at Newman.
“What you see now in the pros didn’t just happen overnight,’’ said Montgomery, a former defensive back at Newman. “The fingerprints of who he is were very much evident even back then. A good chunk of the offense that we ran was stuff that he definitely had a hand in. ... All those infamous summer workouts at Newman, where it’s 95 degrees and nobody’s around to see anything, it’s all because of Peyton.’’
One of Manning’s biggest regrets in football is that he only played one season (1991) under center with his older brother, Cooper, a talented receiver whose career abruptly ended before his freshman season at Ole Miss because of a rare spinal condition.
“Peyton always paid attention to detail in everything he did, whether it was keeping his room clean or how his trophies were organized,’’ Cooper said. “Everything was tidy. If a teacher said he had to read 30 minutes a night, it wasn’t 28. If it was getting late, he wouldn’t cut it off. He always completed the whole task. That’s the way he’s always been.’’
As for whether Manning might retire if the Broncos win the Super Bowl, Cooper said: “That decision is so far off. He’s having so much fun right now. He’s coming off arguably the greatest statistical season of all time. He’s just going week to week and soaking it all in.
“Peyton just loves the game of football. He literally loves it — the meetings, the offseason training, the two-a-days, the blood, the sweat, the tears. All the stuff that wears on other people, he just loves it. It’s literally Christmas morning to him.”