- David Fleming, ESPN Senior Writer
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There's a cauldron of jambalaya, a table of Manning merchandise and a wicked seven-piece zydeco band accompanied by a kid in a blue Colts jersey playing the tin washboard. It's mid-July, and the heat could melt the Lombardi Trophy.
Yet more than 1,200 kids from all over the country have traveled to Louisiana swampland, paying as much as $495 for three days of QB 101 with football's most celebrated family.
Archie Manning is here. So is his oldest son, Cooper. All that's missing are the guests of honor, Peyton and Eli.
With the start of their training camps just a few weeks from now, they've sneaked away to work out inside NSU's quaint stadium. But once word leaks out, the stands begin to fill with campers, who watch in awed silence as Peyton and Eli run through a series of passing drills and sprints that turn their gray T-shirts dark with sweat.
The students didn't know it, but they'd just had their first Manning Passing Academy lesson. Over the next 72 hours, they'd get plenty more.
9:12 p.m., Thursday, July 12
Nicholls State's Stopher Gym
Dressed in a navy golf shirt and suede loafers, a tan and rested Peyton Manning steps onto a makeshift riser. A gymnasium packed with more than 1,000 spellbound teenage quarterbacks falls silent. After awkwardly plowing through his welcome-to-camp speech, Peyton steps off the stage, walks to the middle of the gym and begins to lecture about the Cover 2 defense.
With every step away from the stage, Peyton becomes more enthused. Holding a mike in one hand, he barks instructions. Cooper is ordered down on one knee to play center. Baby bro Eli is told to man the linebacker slot. Peyton moves a counselor to tight end. He rushes defensive backs into place. He claps his hands, and someone chucks him a ball. As the lesson takes off, one thing is clear: Forget the Super Bowl and Saturday Night Live -- you will never see Peyton Manning enjoying himself more than at this very moment.
When linebacker Eli tries to mess with him by moving laterally after the snap, Peyton grins, explaining into the mike that this is a sign for man-to-man. If Eli had dropped deep, it would have been zone. Eli then shows blitz. Peyton explains that he now has to signal to his running back, with a secret code, that Eli is the back's responsibility.
Sometimes the code is a day of the week. Sometimes it's R-rated. Sometimes it's both. "This time I'm gonna whisper," Peyton says, "because coaches from the Ravens and Rams are here." Peyton then hand-signals his tight end that he is the hot route and must break off his pattern. If not, the ball is going to the wide receiver. "But first I'll look off the safety," Peyton says. "Look off. Look off. Always look off. You don't need to watch the receiver. You know exactly where he'll be, right? Sixteen yards deep and two yards inside the numbers."
Peyton's stream-of-QB-consciousness speech goes on for 20 minutes. Then he takes questions. When a camper asks him how much longer he's going to play, he says, "I always thought I'd play 16 years. So I guess I'm in the last half of my career, right?" After saying he absolutely, positively has time for only one more question, he takes six.
"All right, listen, y'all," he finally says. "We can't make you into great quarterbacks in three days. But we can teach you the fundamentals and the techniques of the position. Eli and I weren't great athletes in high school, but we studied and worked hard and got better. That's what this camp is all about."
Campers flood out of the gym and make their way across the dark campus. Inspired, and with time to kill before the 10:45 p.m. bed check, they begin to gather under every available streetlight. Before long, shadows of footballs flicker and flutter and fill the night sky.
7:40 a.m., Friday, July 13
NSU residents quad
With 20 minutes to spare before the day's first staff meeting, Archie pokes his head into the four-bed, two-bath dorm occupied by Cooper, Peyton and Eli. He pleads, "Come on, guys, seriously, you need to get up!"
The MPA was born 11 years ago, after Archie visited a Florida State camp and saw what a bonding experience it was for the Bowden boys. The Mannings started at Tulane with 180 campers. Now they have nearly that many counselors. This isn't your typical wave-from-the-limo celebrity camp, either. Autographs are a no-no. Eli and Peyton work every minute of the camp -- staff meetings, two practices each day, 7-on-7 passing competitions after dinner, evening lectures -- and cherish every second. Except the wake-up calls. Snoozing in the room this morning are two NFL QBs with combined contracts totaling well north of $100 million. Cooper, 33, works for Howard Weil, an energy investment firm in New Orleans. "Yet," Cooper says, "Dad still treats us all like we're 12."
And like any set of reunited brothers, that's how they act. If any of them is caught napping in their dorm room, he'll get a good old-fashioned mauling from his siblings. There's mental torture, too. Peyton still hasn't lived down the time Cooper talked him into donning a paper bag at one of their dad's Saints games.
Flipping through TV channels after he first arrived on campus, Cooper came across a retrospective of Peyton's career. But he waited until the part about Peyton's 3-13 rookie season before he called him into the room. Peyton tried to cover his eyes, then he began to berate the rookie on the screen making all those dumb throws. "Stop. No. Hold it.
Look at the safety! The safety! No!" yelled Peyton as Eli and Cooper nearly choked with laughter. "I really thought I would see a difference in Peyton after the Super Bowl," says Cooper. "I thought he'd ease back and release some of that intensity. Nope. He's still one tough customer, and about the most difficult person in the world to impress. The Super Bowl didn't do crap."
9:52 a.m., Friday, July 13
NSU practice fields
Camp workouts are held on a lush, 10-acre expanse situated between the stadium and a hospital. Different drills, covering every passing situation imaginable, are run in every direction on 10 fields. Three-step drops. Five. Seven. Rollouts. Pressure up the middle. Play-action. Timing patterns. Screens. Deep seams. Sidelines. Deep balls. Check-downs. Curls. Blitz pickups.
On a stroll between fields, every step reveals a new teaching tip. Don't gather. No hitching. Look off the safety. Find the middle linebacker. Watch your body level. Be tall with the ball. Elbow up. Back hip down. Stagger your cadence. Balance your feet. Square your body. Don't see it, feel it.
Every 15 minutes or so, an air horn blasts, the campers rotate to a new instructor, and the madness begins all over again. This must be what it's like inside Peyton Manning's brain as the play clock ticks down below 10.
In the near corner of one of the fields, Ravens offensive coordinator Rick Neuheisel is teaching a long-ball course. Campers stretch out 35 yards apart and begin to fill the sky with what looks like migrating fowl. Neuheisel stops the drill and brings everyone together. He asks if they wonder why so many QBs have body shapes that can best be described as doughy but can still throw bullets and bombs. It's because the power doesn't come from the arm, he tells them. He rattles off a few quick tips: Dip your back shoulder. Replace your front foot with your back one, and as you step forward, pop up and launch the ball as if you were throwing a javelin. Feel that? The power comes from your back hip and leg, not your arm. The lesson lasts less than three minutes, but when the campers start to throw again, the improvement is mind-boggling.
Peyton wanders behind the group like a professor eyeing his class during an exam. There's no mistaking that the Super Bowl win has added a royal air to his presence. He reminds the kids not to ignore their follow-throughs. Balanced hips, square to the target, he tells them. Manning demonstrates with a bomb. His momentum brings his back foot forward until his right toes tap on the turf and his throwing hand snaps down, as it would after a jump shot. "You should be able to close your eyes and know if you threw a good pass just by the feel," Peyton says. Meanwhile, campers behind his back exchange how-awesome-is-this looks. "I still do that, even during games. I close my eyes and do what I call taking a picture of myself to check my form after throws."
The air horn blows. But before allowing the campers to rush off, Neuheisel huddles them up for one last bit of advice. "Remember, fellas," he says, "chicks dig the long ball."
2:23 p.m., Friday, July 13
NSU practice fields
During the first water break of the afternoon session, Cooper rides onto the field wearing a large straw hat and thick sunglasses. His golf cart skids to a stop on the steamy grass a few feet from Eli and a camper built like portly Giants backup quarterback Jared Lorenzen. "Didn't anyone tell you?" Cooper deadpans. "Linemen camp was last week." The kid cracks up, then so does everyone else.
During breaks, Eli's watercooler is the place to be. Cooper says Eli is the sly one, "silent but deadly."
At the MPA, Eli blends in like a camper, enjoying the annual trip back to high school more than any other Manning. Someone yells, "Who's faster?" to Eli, who responds, "Oh man, it's not even close." He then mimics Peyton's biomechanically challenged gait, a cross between the dance moves of Elaine Benes and those of Mark Madsen. "How far can you throw it?" comes the next query. Eli picks up a ball and says, "Start running." Everyone else senses the Charlie Brown moment, but the kid with the white tank top and buzz cut gets about 65 yards downfield before he realizes what's up.
"Come on back, you know I can't throw it that far!" Eli hollers. "You fell for the same thing last year."
While the kid is on his way back to the group, Eli hits him in the numbers with a pass, and the kid beams. Then it's back to work. "The kids get you excited and make you feel lucky to be playing again," Eli says. "It's cool seeing how the position's evolved too. Five years ago, if you tried to talk coverages or reads, there would be blank faces staring back at you. Now, heck, the 10th-graders follow everything you say."
If only the Giants would do the same.
2:12 p.m., Saturday, July 14
NSU's Guidry Stadium
The entire camp is crammed under the cement bleachers, waiting out a lightning storm. Some kids use their footballs as pillows and catch some quick z's. Others pass the time talking junk about the 7-on-7 passing competition. Another group of kids squeezed into a stadium tunnel take turns imitating Peyton's signature move, the play-action pass. Without realizing it, these campers have unlocked the underlying philosophy of both the MPA's and Peyton's success: Everything physical about the position has a larger, and more important, mental component. All the work on the fundamentals and technique puts the passer in the best possible position to read and deceive the defense.
As thunder rattles the bleachers overhead, the kids realize that mimicking Peyton isn't easy; he has no tells. On his drops, he lowers his 6-foot-5' frame to about 5-10 to freeze the middle linebacker and free safety. He hides the ball on his hip to confuse the back-side defensive end. And he always trails his eyes downfield to mess with the corners. Rather than attack, defenses must wait, for an eternity, as the play reveals itself. By then, it's almost always too late. "We've said it all week, over and over, and I think they're getting it," says Peyton. "The mental makes up for a lot of the physical. You give the same look every time, because when the linebacker leans the wrong way, my tight end gets a seam and now has a step on everyone down the middle of the field."
At the MPA, being a great quarterback isn't about throwing the ball a country mile; it's about making the defender take one false step.
1:33 p.m., Sunday, July 15
New Orleans airport
Camp ended 90 minutes ago. Inside Concourse A, a gangly kid wearing a Manning Passing Academy T-shirt waits for his US Airways flight to Charlotte. You'd think that after 72 hours of instruction and practice, the last thing he'd want to see is another football. But when his dad leaves to get a cup of coffee, the kid pulls a ball out of his black nylon bag and begins to practice his throwing motion. Elbow down. Feet square. Eyes on the safety. After each throw, he pauses for a moment with his eyes closed. This goes on for 10 minutes. Every time he shuts his eyes and stands perfectly still, his fellow passengers giggle a bit more.
He doesn't care, of course. This is the way Peyton taught him to do it.
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