- Seth Wickersham, ESPN The Magazine senior writer
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Two brothers pass each other in a doorway, the younger one entering, the older one exiting. Each carries a laptop containing secrets not available to the other. They are in Durham, N.C., breaking down film with their old college coach. Each of the brother's sessions is kept confidential. In fact, one of the biggest misconceptions about Peyton and Eli Manning is that they watch film together, talk shop. They don't. And now that each has won what both want in excess—Super Bowls—they protect their secrets more fiercely than ever.
David Cutcliffe, Peyton's coach at Tennessee and Eli's at Ole Miss, serves as their therapist this March afternoon, as he does every winter when the boys visit. He reviews film with them individually for three hours, sometimes four. Nobody—not even their dad, Archie—knows how to dissect the past two Super Bowl MVPs better than Cutcliffe, an amazing line on the résumé of the football coach at Duke. In previous years, these lessons had been marked by Peyton's aggressiveness and Eli's passivity. Peyton would point, instruct, debate; Eli would be so quiet Cutcliffe had to speak for him. But in this, the first film session since the Giants won Super Bowl XLII, Cutcliffe notices a shift. With his laptop projected onto a screen, Eli is more vocal and confident than ever while examining footage from last season. One glance and he notices linemen a quarter step late in pass protection, receivers a half step too early in their routes. Cutcliffe sees that Eli's attention to detail rivals—no, equals—his brother's. After watching his two pupils work, a somewhat shocked and very proud Cutcliffe thinks to himself, There's no difference between them.
At first, the similarities seem shallow. "What do Peyton and Eli have in common?" older brother Cooper Manning asks with a slight chuckle. "Well, they're both 6'4", 230-pounders. Both could never play any position besides quarterback. They love their teammates. They're jocks. That's about it."
With all due respect to Cooper, after consecutive Super Bowl wins, Peyton and Eli Manning are more alike than ever. Two men long defined by contrasting traits—Peyton too overbearing, Eli too laid-back—have reached the same lofty status: respected in their sport, beloved outside it. To get there, each had to learn what comes naturally to the other. Peyton long had the football credibility but needed to overcome the public's impression that he was stiff and unlikable. Eli, universally amiable, had to convince skeptics that he was serious about football.
Both brothers were once genuinely pained by these perceived shortcomings. But to alter the perception, neither changed who they were. They simply shared more of themselves.
Peyton is being Peyton. He's droning on about football before a few dozen reporters in the dank concrete bowels of John L. Guidry Stadium in Thibodaux, La. It's the second day of the 13th annual Manning Passing Academy, held every July, and Peyton wants to be clear that this is not a run-of-the-mill summer camp but a football camp, where the game's nuances are taught above all. It's classic Peyton: intimidatingly obsessed. Moments later, though, when asked about his acting and commercial career, he easily pivots to his jokester alter ego. "The most enjoyable commercials are the ones with my dad and Eli," Peyton says. "We did one for ESPN a couple years ago. Everybody wants to give me a hard time for kicking Eli in the backside and picking on little Eli."
People giggle. Peyton pauses, shifts his shoulders, sensing an opening. "Look, Eli is 225 pounds. He's solid rock. Before I kicked him, he was giving me wet willies. I told the director, 'Don't we have that on film yet?' He said, 'It's more authentic if he gets it in there every single time.' Eli just loved it. I got an ear infection doing that commercial."
Everyone is cracking up. Peyton owns the audience like a huddle. This is why he—and Eli, after beating the Patriots—earns between $75,000 and $125,000 an appearance and seven figures per TV commercial. In his nasal drawl, his cadence loose and his right hand circling like he's signaling a man in motion, Peyton recalls the Saturday Night Live United Way spoof, where he drilled kids with a football. "These kids were child actors," he says, "so a lot of the parents were surrounding us on the outside. I heard one of the parents yelling at the
director: 'No, I want him to hit my kid in the face.' "
The room is in stitches. Peyton smiles and exits, knowing he's done it again: become human, magnetic even. Just a few years ago, few thought he could pull that off. Apart from winning a Super Bowl, the hardest thing Peyton has grappled with is his micromanaging persona, which has at times undermined his brilliance as a quarterback. Peyton may never publicly admit it, but many close to him are convinced that his know-it-all image is why he lost the Heisman to Michigan's Charles Woodson in 1997 and why the Titans' Steve McNair, with grossly inferior statistics, tied the Colts Pro Bowler for MVP in 2003. "I think some people thought he was dry and always working," Cutcliffe says. "He wasn't perceived well, which was too bad, because everyone who knows him loves him."
In reality, Peyton has always worked hard to ensure that his public persona doesn't turn off those closest to him. He introduces himself to every rookie each training camp. "I'm Peyton," he'll say, not assuming they already know who he his. To teammates he's friendly at first, then mischievous. So is Eli. If a Colts or Giants rookie gets doused by ice water while on the toilet, or finds his clothes frozen in his locker, he knows who's responsible. One of Peyton's and Eli's favorite pranks is stealing cell phones and changing the interface language to Spanish or French. "The worst part," says Jared Lorenzen, Eli's former backup and Peyton's current one, "is that you have to know Spanish to figure out how to change it back."
Few got to know that side of Peyton, which is why he began sculpting his commercial image with IMG's Alan Zucker in 2004. He wanted the masses to see him as more than just an intense QB. "Some people have this impression of me: Boy, he's always so serious on the field. Football. Football. Football," Manning told USA Today in 2006. "I'd like people to understand that I do have some personality."
The safe thing to do, the easy thing, would have been to follow Tiger and every other image-conscious superstar who watched Michael Jordan make millions by perfecting the art of being vanilla. But Peyton, in a genius move, perfected the art of being Peyton. Instead of a manufactured shtick, he chose an authentic one. Yelling "Cut that meat!" and wearing a silly mustache and engaging with Eli in Oreo lick-offs isn't Peyton prepackaged; it's Peyton liberated. When he acts goofy under camera lights, it's because he is goofy. "I just try to remind these directors that we're not doing an Oliver Stone production," he says. "I'm a meathead football player. I'm going to say 'y'all' and 'yonder.' " No surprise, then, that he's never taken an acting class.
By casting himself authentically, Peyton has become the most marketable player in the NFL. According to Marketing Evaluations Inc., the outfit that measures Q scores, Peyton Manning was the 87th-most-popular athlete in the U.S. in 2003, just before he began his initial commercial push. After winning Super Bowl XLI, in 2007, he ranked seventh. His appeal among females ages 18-34 now outranks Tiger's and Jordan's and even football's premier metrosexual, Tom Brady. From seven national endorsements and several local deals, Peyton earns an estimated $13 million annually, by far the highest among football players (Brady is second, earning $10 million off the field last year).
Figures, considering the Mannings never half-ass anything. In fact, one could argue that Peyton has become so ubiquitous he's borderline overexposed. It's impossible to watch an NFL game and not see him pushing MasterCard, Sprint or DirecTV. Just in time, though, Eli's success means Peyton will now share the spotlight, allowing him to recast himself from goofball know-it-all to goofball brother. "You're going to see more ads featuring the two of them," says Robert Tuchman of Premiere Corporate Events, who has worked with both brothers.
You might think Peyton's high profile off the field would engender resentment among teammates, but it hasn't. The Colts laugh when they see their quarterback on SNL yelling at kids for botching pass patterns. That's just Peyton being Peyton. Last year, for instance, Manning famously showered three-time Pro Bowler Jeff Saturday with a storm of F-bombs because the center was talking too much in the huddle. Whether or not teammates enjoy such tactics, they appreciate the transparency. He may be hypercompetitive, but he's not phony. His commercial image, Saturday says, "is how he really is." When it comes down to it, he's a Manning, and Mannings don't like to change.
Except, of course, when it comes to coffee.
People from New Orleans are particular about coffee. Which means Eli Manning is particular about his coffee. He grinds his own beans, using a machine he bought and set up in the Giants quarterbacks' meeting room. Eli, like Peyton, is a gourmet, and recently even a wine connoisseur (he's building a cellar in his new home in Oxford, Miss., to store vintage labels). But every day during the season starts with black coffee in the Giants' windowless film room at 7:15 a.m. Plenty early, even on Tom Coughlin time, for the 7:30 quarterbacks meeting.
At the beginning of last season, Eli drank Italian Roast. He needed to be alert, considering the pressure he faced. Entering his fourth year, he was in danger of being labeled a bust. Giants coaches, even some players, were convinced that his struggles were more about personality than about fundamentals. Eli was too unexpressive, they thought, leaving doubt about how much he cared. Coughlin worried about Eli's sulky body language; Mannings, in general, don't suffer struggling well. During a low point in 2006, a couple days after Eli threw two interceptions in a November loss to the Titans, the coach told his quarterback that the team needed to see more emotion from him. Eli was uncomfortable with the request. Later, Coughlin dispatched backup quarterback Tim Hasselbeck, then a six-year vet, to reinforce his message. This is going to be awkward, Hasselbeck thought.
Normally, Hasselbeck would opt for humor. But this was serious. After 10 minutes of mulling his approach, Hasselbeck spoke to Eli. "Look, I'm not saying this is fair," he said. "But as a friend, as a teammate, the coaches want you to speak up more."
"Okay, good to know," Eli calmly said, before turning back to film study. It was classic Eli: He listened, but chose not to engage. Whether it hurt him or pissed him off, he didn't want anyone to know. Not that it mattered. "You can't change the way you are," Eli says. "If you're trying to say something just to be heard, people can tell you're being phony." Eli's entire life has consisted of not being phony. He didn't try to be Peyton at Isidore Newman School in New Orleans and didn't try to be Archie at Ole Miss. "Eli's had a lot of comparisons his entire life," Peyton says, "but he's handled them well by trying to be himself."
Most in the Manning family think Peyton is the more stubborn of the two, but Eli is his equal, just less demonstrative. He doesn't conform. To find success in New York, he had to take the job and tailor it to his personality. It may have been audacious of Peyton, after his rookie year, in 1998, to convince the Colts coaching staff to adopt an offensive scheme based solely on elaborate hand signals. But it took the same guts for Eli not to be the loudest mouth on a team of loudmouths. The more Coughlin wanted an emotive leader, the more Eli wanted to lead in his quiet way. "That's just how I'm most comfortable," he says.
After Tiki Barber retired, in 2006, Coughlin asked Eli to replace the veteran running back's pregame pep talks. Rather than compete with Barber's rhetoric, Eli did it his way. He didn't shout, but he did cuss. He didn't spew clichés, but he did occasionally turn a corny phrase, like before the Miami game in London. "Don't be content with what we have," Eli said. "Be content with what we could have."
Eli was rarely content last year. At Washington on Sept. 23, he threw a lousy pick before halftime. Upon entering the locker room, he slammed his helmet on a table, freezing the team. "It was the most intense I'd ever seen him," says tailback Derrick Ward. Eli then rallied the Giants to a comeback win. He got heated again, though, after throwing four interceptions in a 41-17 loss to Minnesota. "It was the most upset I've ever been," he says.
Following that game, he knew something had to change. So he junked the Italian Roast for a Starbucks Latin American blend. Soon the Giants won three playoff games in which
Eli threw four touchdowns and no picks, prompting outsiders to ask what was different. Nothing, except for his morning beverage. As always, he sat in the first row during meetings, furiously taking notes in indecipherable scribble. He spent his off-days at the facility discussing new plays with offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride. "Tuesday Night Specials," Eli calls them. He spent evenings after practice at his Hoboken, N.J., condo breaking down film on his laptop (for a recent birthday, Peyton bought Eli the same software coaches use to break down film). Wednesday nights were for third downs. Thursdays, blitzes. Fridays, red zone. Saturdays, he made sure every teammate knew the 40 audibles the Giants used every week. "With all due respect to Peyton," says Lorenzen, "I don't know how anyone can work harder than Eli."
On Super Bowl Sunday, Eli knew better than to change his routine. He ate his usual breakfast: scrambled eggs, fruit medley, English muffins and black coffee, of course. When Lorenzen sat down, Eli made his usual crack about the hefty lefty's weight. Lorenzen replied, "You nervous? You seem nervous. You should be. It's not like today's the biggest game of your life." They laughed.
Eli arrived at University of Phoenix Stadium a few hours before kickoff and threw the Giants' passing tree with Plaxico Burress, just like Peyton does with Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison. Then he showered. "He doesn't like to feel sweaty before putting on his uniform," says Lorenzen. As Eli approached the tunnel before kickoff, Lorenzen paused to see what he'd do. Typically, Eli cracks a joke. He claims it loosens up the team, but he's often just relieving his anxiety. Before a 2005 game at San Diego, after stiffing the Chargers in the previous draft, Eli said, "You think they're going to boo me?" This time, though, he didn't say a word. Didn't need to.
With Eli staring down the undefeated Patriots, Peyton watched from a luxury box, living each snap as if he were taking it. When Peyton gets antsy, he reaches out. So when the 18-point underdog Giants took a 3-0 first-quarter lead, he was glued to his cell, texting every few plays with Saturday.
"They're hangin' in there."
"They're doing what they're supposed to do."
"Nice throw by Eli."
As the game went on and cell phone reception grew spotty, their texting stopped. Saturday didn't know what Peyton thought after Eli began the fourth quarter with a 45-yard strike to tight end Kevin Boss, a play that wasn't even in the game plan. Or when Eli, trailing 14-10 with 1:15 remaining, spun free from Patriots defensive end Richard Seymour and completed that pass for the ages, a 32-yarder to David Tyree. Or when he read the Patriots' blitz and lofted a wedding-bouquet game-winner to Burress with 39 seconds left. Saturday didn't know that a few hours later the Sheraton's bar was off the hook, with a DJ and trays of cigars. Patrons at the Mannings' private party had to wear Livestrong bracelets to enter and exit. When Eli walked in, everyone whooped and cheered in a way usually reserved for Peyton. Figuring he'd lost Peyton for the evening, Saturday texted: "Congratulations. Fantastic game."
"Fantastic night, too," Peyton replied late the next morning.
Eli spent a few days this past July the same way Peyton had a year earlier: in LA at the ESPYs. Beforehand, he took three teammates—Boss, David Diehl and Rich Seubert—and their wives to dinner. Eli and Peyton have always been good storytellers, recalling favorite moments in their Louisiana accent, talking with their hands, pausing before punch lines for effect. Eli, sitting in the middle of the table, talked about how he hazed poor André Woodson, the rookie quarterback from Kentucky.
One day during minicamp, Eli noticed Woodson arrive at the weight room a few minutes late. Sensing a chance to mess with Woodson—messing with people is essential to both Manning brothers—Eli lit into him: "Why are you late? This isn't college anymore! You can't be late!"
Woodson was scared stiff, but Eli was just getting warmed up. He and Peyton are legendary pranksters—or, rather, legendary at conceiving pranks and enlisting equipment managers to execute them. (Eli's nickname is The Godfather.) So Eli told a towel boy to clean out Woodson's locker, replacing his clothes with a note. Woodson, upon returning from lifting weights, froze. The note read: "Come see me in my office. -T.C." Woodson, thinking it came from Coughlin, looked sick. Finally, the room exploded in laughter. He'd been Eli-ed.
The Manning brothers' success shouldn't be a surprise. Peyton and Eli first learned about quarterbacking by osmosis, as toddlers scurrying around the Saints' locker room, and later by their own will, knowing that playing that position with their last name meant the bar was almost unattainably high. But most important, they learned from their parents, Archie and Olivia, how to be themselves in a demanding world. That's why the Mannings have become America's most successful sports family. Until Venus or Serena has kids, don't even argue.
As their careers continue to ascend, Peyton and Eli will only converge more. Cutcliffe, for one, welcomes it. He loves the Mannings' annual pilgrimage his way. More than the film sessions, he loves their dinners. They ate at the University Club in Durham this year before attending the Duke-North Carolina basketball game. As they laughed and traded stories, even reaching back to Eli's preteen days, Cutcliffe removed his cell phone from his pocket and placed it on the table. Later that night, the coach looked at his phone and knew he'd been Manning-ed: The language had been switched to French. He couldn't read anything and had no idea how to switch it to English. Worse, Cutcliffe had no idea which brother was the culprit.
He was sure it was Eli.
But it could have been Peyton.
Can't quite tell anymore.
As a new season kicks off, NFL Players of all shapes might wonder: How can we win like the Mannings? The answer has little to do with football.