Peyton Manning is the kind of guy with whom you'd love to talk football.
He has been around the NFL since he was a toddler traipsing through locker rooms with his famous father, former New Orleans Saints quarterback Archie Manning. He loves discussing the history of the game. He knows more about strategy and tactics than any player on the planet, with the possible exception of New England's Tom Brady. And he is the most down-to-earth superstar athlete you're ever going to meet.
So a throng of reporters on Media Day at Super Bowl XLI was treated to an hour of Manning's philosophical rambling Tuesday on the pressure of being the most famous player in the league, the burden of following in his father's footsteps and his lofty place in NFL history.
Manning knows the spotlight will shine brighter on him than anyone else when his Indianapolis Colts meet the Chicago Bears on Sunday for the NFL title. He's ready for it.
"I've used this quote before that my dad gave me when I was a kid," Manning said. "It was from [Pittsburgh coach] Chuck Noll, who said, 'Pressure is something that you feel only when you don't know what you're doing.' I really abide by that when it comes to preparation. The reason you have confidence is because of how hard you've worked and how hard you've prepared."
Manning has been preparing for this moment his whole life, and he credits his father's unassuming, laid-back approach with helping him reach his potential. Archie Manning's NFL career, which lasted from 1971 to '84, went largely unfulfilled because he played on bad teams.
"So many people tell me what kind of player my dad was," Manning said. "I remember meeting Joe Namath about five years ago, and he told me Archie Manning was one of the greatest quarterbacks he ever saw play, and if he had a great supporting cast there's no telling how many Super Bowls he would have won. I've heard Roger Staubach say that if my dad was playing for the Cowboys they would have won more Super Bowls than the Cowboys won with him. . . . My dad, you know how humble he is. He just sort of aw-shucks it and changes the subject. He never complains. He never plays that card.
"He has never tried to relive his sports career through his kids," Manning said. "I think unfortunately there's a lot of parents who do that today. And those are usually the ones who are beating up umpires and yelling at coaches during the games. My parents came to all of our games when we were kids and they sat in the top row and didn't say a word. My dad probably knew more than any junior high coach I ever had but he never said anything to them. I think the way my parents raised us and handled us is why I still have such a passion for the game. I truly love the game. I think that makes a big difference. You've got to love it. I think you hear some parents push their kids too much and the game's not fun anymore."
Manning's love of the game fuels his preparation, which borders on fanatical. How else can you describe a guy who practices falling down?
"I go back to my first game in the NFL in preseason playing up in Seattle," he said. "I'm nervous as can be. I remember standing up in my hotel room about an hour before the bus left, and I was practicing getting hit. I was practicing falling onto the bed, realizing what it was going to be like getting hit by Sam Adams and Chad Brown and some of the Seahawks."
"So we get into the game and . . . my third play we've got third and 6. Our coordinator Tom Moore calls a three-step drop, just a basic vanilla play to help this rookie quarterback. I threw a 6-yard pass to Marvin Harrison, and he ran 50 yards for a touchdown on my first pass. When you throw your first pass to Marvin Harrison and he runs for a touchdown, you think maybe that's a good idea. I ought to keep doing that."
Nine years later, Manning has thrown 106 touchdown passes to Harrison, the most of any passing combination in NFL history. Manning is well aware of his place in the record books. This is a man who has what he calls a "Quarterback Wall" at his home, with framed pictures of himself posing with many great passers, from Sammy Baugh to Johnny Unitas to his current NFL contemporaries.
"It's hard to get into comparisons," he said, "because I'm such a fan of the history of the game and have such an appreciation for the players of yesteryear -- for Joe Montana and Jerry Rice, Jim Kelly and Andre Reed, Dan Marino and the Marks brothers -- Clayton and Duper -- Johnny Unitas and Raymond Berry. . . . It's nice to be just sort of in the mix. As far as where we compare, that's not for me to say. But when you hear your name in that rotation it sure is a special honor."
Manning jokes about how he has become famous for his pre-snap histrionics, signals that are necessitated by the fact he audibles so often at the line of scrimmage.
"I wish I didn't have to do all those," Manning said. "You think about how people remember quarterbacks. You think about John Elway. What do you think about? The throws back across the field and the great scrambles. And with Troy Aikman, you think about this classic drop back, and Dan Marino just the quickest release. I feel like people think about me, and it's picking my nose or scratching my ear or pointing to my eyes and all these goofy signals I have to do. It's part of what we have to do in the no-huddle offense. We need to have hand signals in order to communicate to Marvin and Reggie [Wayne]."
Of course, if he can win Sunday, he will be remembered first as a champion.
"John Elway is a guy I've admired a long time," Manning said. "He was the cornerstone of the Denver franchise and kept working hard and finally in his 14th year he had a chance to win a Super Bowl. He told me he just kept working and working. So that's all I've tried to do. Hopefully we can take advantage of this opportunity."