On Dec. 6, Tim Layden was in the Broncos' locker room working on a story about a Denver player for a future issue, when Peyton Manning passed through the room, spied the veteran SI senior writer and double-took. Says Layden, "He asked, 'Tim?' I was taken a little aback. I had not seen Peyton since I covered him in college in the mid-'90s. Then he starts reminiscing about all the stories I wrote about him then, in part for the fun and in part because he's been working on his Sportsman acceptance speech and he wants to reference his SI connections: John Ed Bradley, Mike Silver, Peter King, Lee Jenkins."
This is the best-known, most-sung genre of Manning anecdote: that of the hyperprepared, famously meticulous quarterback who leaves no detail to chance—who, say, sends texts of praise to receivers for the strides that they've made in running tighter tree routes. In his 7,000-word opus on SPORTS ILLUSTRATED's Sportsman of the Year, senior writer Lee Jenkins details the commitment that informs Manning's excellence, but he also excavates fresh ground. "So much has been said, and written, about his mind," Jenkins says. "I wanted, if possible, to explore his heart."
Jenkins begins his odyssey in Tennessee, where Manning played college football. There, Jenkins and SI reporter Emily Kaplan connected with a generation of teens whose parents had named them for the three-time All-America. Among the Manning Youth, Jenkins and Kaplan found valedictorians, musicians, a short-film director, a state wrestling champion who had become the first girl, and first deaf member, in her all-male wrestling club. A noticeable spike in newborns named Peyton, Jenkins writes, occurred in the late summer of 1996—10 months after Manning directed a Vols' win over Alabama.
"There are a lot of great athletes in American sports," Jenkins says, "but only a few truly connect to their public. I often wonder why that is, how they make the connection, how they sustain it. There's not usually a great answer. But I do know that Manning is one of the few who connects, and the best evidence are all those babies who were named Peyton when he was just a sophomore in college.
"Even though Manning comes from immense privilege—famous father, private high school, No. 1 recruit, No. 1 pick in the draft—he connected with working folks from East Tennessee, from Appalachia. I think that's largely because of his parents. The Mannings aren't all the same, but they have one quality in common: They never make you feel below them."
It is a sentiment shared by SI's small college of Manning scholars, who have produced the 22 feature stories that have appeared in these pages in the last two decades. The most recent four appear in this issue, which has richly detailed essays by Layden, King and Bradley (who wrote the inaugural Manning piece, in 1993, when Manning was a high school senior) following Jenkins's anchor piece. Those stories speak to the heart of a Sportsman and to the on-field excellence without which the Manning narrative would be incomplete.
"At first," says King (left, with Manning in 2007), "when I knew we were considering Manning, I thought: Good choice. Lifetime achievement award. But if you isolate this year, you're looking at a player two years removed from four neck procedures that would have prompted many 35-year-old legends to retire. He has his Super Bowl. He has his MVPs. Now he's on the verge of breaking the most important single-season quarterback records [touchdown passes and passing yards]. He threw seven touchdown passes against the defending Super Bowl champs. Who plays his best—wounded, with so many great young guns chasing him—at 37?"
It begins on page 50. Peyton Manning: SI's 60th Sportsman of the Year.
This year's recipient, the 60th in SI history, is putting up ridiculous numbers, historic numbers, at age 37, but he takes home the amphora for deeper reasons.
ERICK W. RASCO/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (STONE)
ERICK W. RASCO/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (AMPHORA)
JOHN IACONO FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (KING AND MANNING)