PEYTON WAS a 17-year-old senior at the Isidore Newman School in Uptown New Orleans when SI sent me to write about him in the fall of 1993.
Tall and raw-boned, he was the top-ranked high school prospect in the country, and no fewer than 60 college programs were recruiting him. We met for interviews over a week at his family's home on First Street in the city's Garden District, a neighborhood distinguished by massive structures built by Southern gentry in the 19th century. I was never sure whether the Mannings' house was Italianate or Greek Revival, but it was a beautiful place where a beautiful family lived, and I always felt a little wistful when another day ended and I had to return to my hotel.
Peyton called me "Mr. John Ed," which certainly is a mouthful. And although he'd grown up in New Orleans, you could hear his parents' native Mississippi in his accent. "Get you something to drink, Mr. John Ed?"
By the time I arrived he was already well into his last season as the Greenies' quarterback, and he still hadn't decided where he wanted to go to school. His dad, Archie, and mom, Olivia, had installed an extra phone to help manage the calls from recruiters, and it rang nonstop. The callers would identify themselves then politely ask for a minute of Peyton's time, when what they really wanted were the next four years of his life.
Peyton seemed unfazed by all the attention, and there was a seriousness about him that lifted only when he was goofing around after school with his 12-year-old brother, Eli. Even as a teenager, Peyton was gripped by ambition and driven to be better than what others were. His big brother, Cooper, then a sophomore at Ole Miss, told me Peyton could be difficult, the way he always had to win even those contests that didn't mean anything. They'd fought a lot as kids, Cooper said, usually as a result of one-on-one competitions. Then Archie served up his favorite Peyton story, which went like this:
One day when Peyton was a little kid, Archie invited All-Pro Saints linebacker Rickey Jackson over for dinner. Rickey and Peyton soon disappeared upstairs, where there was a mini-basketball hoop set up in the boys' room. Archie sat in the living room and listened to the thumping and the shouts as his son took on one of the NFL's fiercest players. Finally Rickey came trudging down the stairs drenched in sweat, shaking his head, grumbling under his breath because Peyton had beaten him.
The Mannings, wanting me to feel at home, cooked dinner for me a couple of nights. I remember Eli napping in front of the TV with his schoolbooks spread out around him while Peyton, not 10 feet away, talked X's and O's on the phone with a college coach. Toward the end of the week Archie and Olivia took me to Emeril's, the restaurant owned by chef Emeril Lagasse, who had not yet become a TV star. When Emeril heard that the Mannings were in his dining room, he had one of his staff escort us to the kitchen and he served us there at a small table, one dish after another until we were so full it was almost hard to breathe.
I finally got to see Peyton play—against Newman's rival, Country Day, a small private school from nearby Old Metairie. Peyton towered over all the other players, and he was mesmerizing from the moment I saw him on the field. Each of his passes seemed to possess its own genius. He threw a soft ball even when he threw hard, meaning his passes traveled the way receivers like them to: nose tilted slightly upward, making them easier to catch. The game was a blowout, but I felt lucky to see Peyton at this point in his football life. Seventeen, I kept reminding myself.
In my notebook I scribbled riffs about his confidence, his preternatural gifts and the expression of joy on his face as he faked out defenders on a blind bootleg. My favorite moment came when the Country Day coach yelled at the refs to stop watching Peyton and to start watching the game.
"I honestly don't know where I'm going," Peyton had told me that week. But I did, and in my estimation the college he chose probably wouldn't matter much. I could see with clarity the destiny that awaited him. While I didn't hear any complicated audibles before the snap or observe any odd gesticulating at the line, he still displayed a braininess that communicated a superior understanding of the game. The arm, the size, the footwork—all there in abundance. The courage, the leadership, the will; those as well. And with his family behind him there was no way he would fail the character tests that were sure to find him once he left home. Late in the game I looked at Archie and said, "I understand now why everybody wants him. He's going to be one of the best ever."
Archie didn't reply. Instead he gave a small laugh and turned back to the field.
After the game I told Peyton I wanted to take him and a date to lunch the next day. I mentioned several of the city's finer restaurants, where the check promised to be steep: Commander's Palace, Brennan's, Galatoire's. Did he have a favorite?
He didn't need long to think about it. "Domilise's," he said. It was a po'boy shop on Annunciation Street, not far from the river, in a working-class neighborhood. He added yet another surprise when he asked if he could bring a couple of his teammates, instead of the date.
I would talk to him on the phone over the years, but the last time I saw him was in 1999, when the magazine sent me to Indianapolis to write a story about Colts running back Edgerrin James. By now Manning was a brilliant young pro two years out from his All-America career at Tennessee, but I still could see in him the beautiful boy I'd known back in New Orleans. I was out at practice, and Peyton spotted me from a field away. He called out my name when the workout was done, then jogged over and greeted me like an old friend.
I asked him a few questions about James and he dutifully answered; then we got on the subject of home. He said his mom and dad had framed my story and hung it in his bedroom in the house on First Street. He'd read it so many times, he said, that he knew the end by heart. I thought he was just being nice, but then he said, "The pass goes straight up and comes straight down, and somehow it's the most amazing damn thing anybody ever saw."
It was the last line of my story. And even as I winced at the clumsiness of my prose, I marveled at Peyton. They don't come any better. They didn't before. They won't again.
To read John Ed Bradley's 1993 story on Manning download SI's tablet edition, available free to subscribers. Get the SI app and subscribe or activate your digital account at SI.com/magazine
Photograph by BILL FRAKES/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
A REAL CATCH Manning was the most sought-after high school prospect in the nation, not just for his arm but also for the confidence and character that came from being raised by Archie, an Ole Miss All-America.