By Sam Farmer Los Angeles Times
The first time Peyton Manning hunkered into an NFL huddle, called an NFL play, scanned the field and fired a pass to an NFL receiver, it didn’t come as the No. 1 overall pick of the Indianapolis Colts.
It came with the New Orleans Saints.
And the future four-time NFL most valuable player was in high school, more than a decade before he would lead the Colts to Super Bowl XLIV against the Saints. He grew up in New Orleans, and his father, Archie, was a former star quarterback for the Saints who was always around the team because he was their radio analyst.
Jim Mora Sr., who coached the Saints at the time and later coached Manning with the Colts, remembers letting the precocious and rifle-armed teenager run a few plays on occasion during casual workouts in New Orleans.
“We did it when he was in high school and then when he was at Tennessee in the offseason,” Mora recalled in a phone interview. “We’d have these informal workouts, maybe just with the receivers, the quarterbacks and the backs… . I’d say, ‘Peyton, why don’t you go in there and run a play? Why don’t you throw a couple?’
“He was pretty impressive, even at that time. He was special.”
In many ways, Manning was also a typical kid. So Mora has some funny memories about a young Peyton hanging around the locker room and snooping around for keepsakes.
“He was like any other kid would be hanging around an NFL locker room,” Mora said. “All these great players there. If he could grab a little towel that Rickey Jackson had with 57 written on it, or a wristband from Bobby Hebert, he’d do it.
“He was a good-natured kid. It wasn’t like he was stealing helmets or something. But if he saw a towel, he might grab it.”
Then Mora added with a laugh: “I’d say, ‘Peyton, get the hell out of here.’”
Toi Cook, who played cornerback for the Saints from 1987 through 1993, remembers all three Manning boys — Cooper, Peyton and Eli — being polite, respectful and mature for their ages.
“A lot of kids would be running around, and parents would be like, ‘Hey, get over here,”’ Cook said. “I don’t recall Archie ever having to do that.”
Clearly, those times left an impression on Peyton, too.
“I was at a 49ers-Colts game a few years ago, and afterward people were screaming Peyton’s name,” Cook said. “He sees me and is like, ‘Hey, Toi, what are you doing here?’ And I’m thinking, only Peyton Manning. There’s nothing he doesn’t remember.”
For Mora, the Saints-Colts matchup stirs all sorts of memories. He coached the Saints from 1986 to 1996, and the Colts from 1998 through 2001 — Manning’s first four seasons with them.
“What sets him apart is his preparation,” Mora said. “That’s it in a word: preparation. He prepares himself mentally, physically and emotionally to be the best that he can be. Now, everybody wants to be the best. But Peyton does what it takes to be the best. There’s a difference.”
As for the difference between coaching in New Orleans and Indianapolis, Mora said that’s “like night and day.” Whereas Indianapolis is pretty much a typical NFL city, he said, New Orleans is unique.
“There’s no other place in the United States like New Orleans,” he said. “The people there are very emotional, they love to party, they love to have a good time. They’re outgoing, friendly, and they absolutely love their football team.
“They’re crazy about the Saints and they show it all the time. I remember when I was first there, people would come up to me on the street — old people, young people, old women, men, kids, and they would say, ‘Oh, coach, you’ve got to get us to the playoffs! You can do it!’
“And when you win, they go crazy. They bother you, they hug you, they love you, and they show it. It’s different.”
The Saints had never had a winning season before Mora. He coached them to two 12-win seasons, and his teams made the playoffs four times before he unexpectedly resigned midway through the 1996 season.
Mora said he has good memories of coaching in both cities, “so don’t even ask me who I’m rooting for.” But, he concedes, he will be pulling for one over the other.
When it comes to his admiration of Peyton Manning, he doesn’t hide that.
“When we drafted him in 1998, even then you didn’t know he’d be able to do what he’s done,” Mora said. “When he gets done, he’s going to be the best ever. He might already be the best ever.”