When Peyton Manning got his first taste of organized sports, he couldn't win. As a five-year-old in a coach-pitch baseball league in New Orleans, Manning played for a team that routinely was on the wrong end of lopsided scores, which frustrated the already competitive young slugger. What really chafed the middle child of a famous NFL quarterback, however, was the illusory insinuation that he couldn't lose. "They would get hammered by something like 17–1, and then the coach would gather the players after the game and tell them it was a tie," Peyton's father, Archie, recalls. "Then we'd be in the car driving home, and Peyton would say, 'We didn't tie; we got killed!' It wasn't so much the losing that drove him nuts; it was the coach saying it didn't happen. Peyton was one of those kids who always knew the score."
Twenty-four years later, as Manning prepares for another high-stakes matchup with the only other NFL quarterback in his class, he is painfully aware of his record in games against Tom Brady: 0–6, including playoff defeats the past two seasons. Yet Manning has had so many great seasons that the debate about which of the two is the better quarterback rages on. When Brady's New England Patriots host Manning's Indianapolis Colts next Monday night in the most anticipated matchup of the 2005 regular season, it'll be hard to take two steps into a sports bar without hearing someone proclaim one or the other's superiority.
Typically, each is measured by what he supposedly lacks in comparison with the other: Brady, 28, owns three Super Bowl rings but can't match Manning's record-setting numbers and arm; Manning has the stats but can't win the big one. The truth is, they are very much alike in the most important intangibles—toughness, consistent excellence and passion for the game.
"He's similar to me in that he's never really satisfied," Brady says. "It's like, Who cares what you did last week? As a competitor you always want to be the best, but I realize that to be thought of up there with a guy like him is a pretty huge compliment. I'm always interested to see how he's doing, and in a strange way I kind of root for him too."
Each is a good, sincere man who is secure enough to feel a genuine appreciation for a fellow legend in the making. They've bonded over beers and congratulatory e-mails; they've compared notes on handling the trappings of celebrity; they love each other's work.
Over the summer Brady watched tapes of all of Manning's games from the 2004 season, admiring his NFL-record 49 touchdown passes. Brady also marveled at Manning's commanding performance in the Colts' 2005 season opener, a 24–7 victory over the Baltimore Ravens. Manning has been obsessed with studying professional quarterbacks since he was a kid idolizing Archie, who played 14 NFL seasons, mostly for the New Orleans Saints, after a legendary career at Ole Miss. And he is so respectful of the position that he will stand up for the league's most maligned signal-callers. "Peyton says playing quarterback in the NFL is the toughest job in sports," Archie says. "When a guy like Drew Bledsoe has a couple of rough years and people say, 'He's done,' it really bothers him.
"But he also understands that if you ever forget why you're good—if you think it's just you—you're in trouble. This isn't tennis or golf; playing quarterback is a very dependent position."
That's true, but fans ultimately turn to quarterbacks and drive the arguments over who's better—Montana or Marino? Marino or Elway? Elway or Young? Young or Aikman? Aikman or Favre? This era's top dogs similarly divide the public as they conquer. Manning is the prickly perfectionist whose outrageous productivity, aided by a stellar supporting cast, makes him the darling of the fantasy-football obsessed. Brady is most emblematic of guts and poise under pressure, yet the way he blends into an offense that is otherwise without stars resonates with our commitment to the communal spirit.
Among the many qualities Manning and Brady share is a desire to get out from under their images. Manning, who wants you to know he's more than an automaton, partied with Kid Rock in Nashville after a December 2003 victory over the Tennessee Titans. Brady, who wants you to know he's not a hero without faults, admitted (sort of) to a GQ writer last summer that he surfs the Internet for porn.
"Some of that is wanting to let people know they're human," says Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis, who's friendly with both players. "Peyton is like, Hey, I'm not uptight like you think. Brady's saying, I'm not this poster boy. I'm normal."
In fact, each quarterback has unabashedly spoofed himself—Manning in popular MasterCard commercials in which he turns the tables on adulatory fans, and Brady in a surprisingly deft hosting stint on Saturday Night Live last April. In the show's last skit Brady gets grief from Manning (played by Seth Myers) and Donovan McNabb's mother, Wilma (played by Kenan Thompson), with the Manning character citing his superior statistics as proof that he should have gotten the hosting gig.
This year, as Brady's father, Tom Sr., points out, "The funny thing is, it's a role reversal. Tommy's got all the yards [2,020 after seven games, third in the NFL], and Peyton has his team at the top of the league."
When I met Manning, in 1999, midway through his breakout second season, he was like that guy in the recent TV ad who, in his first job out of college, answers his cellphone in the elevator and hears his derelict buddies howling, "Schmitty!" Though Manning was still turning his underwear inside out to avoid doing laundry, he had already begun to mature professionally. "I've put a lot of thought into being a leader," he said then, citing, among other things, his insistence on having his locker placed amid those of his offensive linemen.
After emerging from fourth-string obscurity to earn his first of two Super Bowl MVP trophies in February 2002, Brady struck me as a man almost tormented by his exponentially growing fame: It was a blast, to be sure, but every trip on Donald Trump's jet and every beefcake photo spread separated him from the team framework that was at the heart of the Patriots' success. "There's a lot of workmanship in Tommy's approach to being a leader," says his older sister Nancy, a Boston pharmaceutical rep who once moonlighted as Tom's personal assistant. "He consciously makes sure not to put himself above the team. The locker room really is where he's most comfortable—it's probably the one place in the world where he does feel like he's one of the guys, and he finds peace in that."
Brady also put his money where his heart is: Last spring, a year after Manning had signed a seven-year, $98 million deal with Indianapolis (including a $34.5 million signing bonus), Brady agreed to a comparatively discounted six-year, $60 million extension (including a $14.5 million bonus) with New England. "What he wants more than anything is to win about eight Super Bowls," Tom Sr. says of his son, "and you can't be winning eight Super Bowls if you're taking 70 percent of the money."
Pay stubs, passer ratings, parades in February—they're all fair game when dissecting the most dynamic duel the NFL has to offer. Choosing one quarterback above the other isn't necessarily the point, so uniquely situated is each player for his particular skills. "I'll give you Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan," says Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker Mike Peterson, who played with Manning in Indy. "Take which one you want." Adds Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, "They're two of the very best quarterbacks ever."
"Everybody will probably always compare Tommy to Peyton," Nancy Brady says. "That's the nature of sports; it's where great debates are made." Last month, while attending a Boston Celtics–New Jersey Nets exhibition game at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., Nancy looked across the aisle and noticed a pair of middle-aged women sitting together. One wore a Brady jersey, the other a Manning replica. "I thought it was adorable," she says.
Come Monday there won't be warm and fuzzy feelings coming from the Gillette Stadium sidelines. Bonded by circumstance and mutual appreciation as they might be, Manning and Brady know that in the games that matter, there can be no ties.