By Billy Watkins
Growing up, Archie Manning’s dad had a saying he repeatedly shared with his son: “Take care of your business.”
“For a long time, I really wasn’t sure what that meant,” Archie said by phone Monday morning. “But I finally realized he simply meant ‘Behave yourself and make good decisions.’
“I think all of us raise our kids sorta like we were raised, so I was always telling our boys, ‘Take care of your business.’ And I think Peyton has done that. Not just playing ball but life in general.”
Archie was reflecting on his and Olivia’s middle son, Peyton, being selected as part of the 2021 class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. It was publicly announced Saturday night, though Peyton and the family found out about three weeks ago.
Of course, it was a given Peyton was going in. He and Tom Brady are the only quarterbacks to win Super Bowls with two franchises. Peyton won in the 2006-07 season with the Indianapolis Colts and in 2015-16 with the Denver Broncos.
Because of the COVID pandemic, the selection process was changed.
“The way they’ve done it before … it’s kinda tough,” Archie said. “They put the 15 finalists up in a hotel. Dave Baker (president and CEO of the Hall of Fame) will come around and knock on the door of those who have made it,. The others pack up and go home.
“This year, (Baker) flew around the country and delivered the news. Ashley (Peyton’s wife) arranged for nine of his former coaches to be there, either in person or by video.”
That included his coach at Newman High in New Orleans, 87-year-old Tony Reginelli, who sent a video.
“It was such a fun way to do it because those coaches meant so much to him,” Archie said.
In a phone call later that day, Peyton asked his dad to present him at the induction ceremony this summer.
“Meant a lot,” Archie said. “I’d told Olivia he might want Tony Dungy or (Colts owner) Jim Irsay to do it.”
No, Peyton chose his favorite player of all time. Maybe that’s why Archie seemed to get a little choked up when I asked him about it.
Every writer, recruiter, scout, coach, fan and opponent can probably remember when they knew Peyton would be great.
My realization came when he was 15 years old and a sophomore at Newman.
I had traveled there to write a story about the eldest Manning son, Cooper, an outstanding receiver. I had arranged to watch Newman High practice, then follow Cooper and Peyton home.
I arrived a half-hour before the start of practice. Peyton was already on the field with a few of his teammates. I walked out and stood behind him.
“Hey, Mr. Watkins,” Peyton said in the middle of a five-step drop. “My dad said you’re doing a story on Cooper.”
“Mom’s making spaghetti for us tonight,” he said in the middle of the next dropback.
He was already 6-foot-2, maybe taller. His dropbacks were crisp and precise. And while saying those two things to me, he unleashed out-route passes that swooshed after they left his hand. Both throws hit the receivers in the chest.
In those few seconds, it was clear that I wasn’t watching an ordinary human. God had given him the ability to throw a football reserved for a chosen few, and Peyton was already working overtime to maximize it.
Peyton and Cooper gave teams fits that season. Of Peyton’s 140 completions, 75 went to his brother.
Perhaps, their most meaningful connection occurred when Cooper was diagnosed with spinal stenosis, the narrowing of the spaces in one’s spine, early in his freshman season at Ole Miss. His football days were over.
Peyton had worn No. 14 at Newman — Archie’s number at Drew High. When Cooper could no longer play, Peyton switched to No. 18 — not because that was Archie’s number at Ole Miss, but rather to honor the number Cooper wore in the final game he ever played.
And let’s get this out of the way right now: Peyton was a huge Ole Miss fan growing up. After I had interviewed Cooper that night at the Mannings’ home, we were all sitting in the living room. Archie nodded at me. “Peyton, why don’t you give Mr. Watkins the starting lineup from my senior year” Archie said.
Peyton never hesitated, running through the names, heights, weights and hometowns, just like Rebel radio announcer Stan Torgerson.
Most everybody assumed Peyton would commit to Ole Miss out of high school. And he might have, but two things happened: The dream of playing with Cooper again was snatched away. And Ole Miss was about to get leveled by the NCAA for recruiting violations.
Peyton chose Tennessee, instead. Who in their right mind could blame him?
I won’t run through all of Peyton’s astounding career numbers but a few must be mentioned.
He was the NFL’s Most Valuable Player five times.
He ranks in the top three all-time in touchdown passes (539) and passing yards (71,940).
He has the most fourth-quarter comebacks (43). In 2005, he was named the Walter Payton Man of the Year for his off-the-field contributions.
I asked Archie what impresses him most about Peyton’s career.
“I’ve heard him say, ‘There may have been better quarterbacks than me, but none out prepared me,’ ” Archie recalled. “Before the Super Bowl with the Colts in Miami, they had two weeks to prepare, Peyton brought in the long-range forecast and told Dungy they should practice some with wet footballs. Dungy said, ‘Peyton, I live in Florida. It’s not going to rain.’ Of course, it rained the whole game, and they did practice with wet footballs.
“And those seven seasons in a row when they won at least 12 games in Indy jump out at me.”
Archie mentioned that Peyton and Marvin Harrison have the most completions of any quarterback-receiver tandem, and that Peyton and center Jeff Saturday have the most snaps.
One thing that isn’t talked about enough in my opinion is his competitiveness.
When the Colts were trying to decide who to take with the first pick in the 1998 draft — Peyton or Ryan Leaf — Peyton told the Colts straight up: “You don’t pick me and I’ll beat you for the next 20 years.”
Peyton or Leaf? That it was ever a question is just plain stupid.
That competitive drive also fueled him to come back from a neck injury that sidelined him all of the 2011 season.
He underwent spinal fusion surgery, but some of those closest to him wondered if he would ever play again.
Younger brother Eli told me in an interview about playing catch with Peyton in January 2012 as he tried to make his way back.
“No pop. No zip. The ball barely carried 15 yards,” Eli said. “It was like he had no follow through. It didn’t seem to be coming out of his hand right. And he kept looking over at me and asking, ‘Does it look normal?’ I didn’t know what to say. Honestly, I was scared for him”
“Yeah, I threw with him, too,” Archie said. “It wasn’t pretty.”
But Peyton did make it back and added to his already-stellar legacy.
“He may have lost his fastball,” Archie said, “but he made the most of it.”
And this is for dang sure: There isn’t a “what if I had” for Peyton to ever have to wrestle.
He left it all on the field.