LOS ANGELES – 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, 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, 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 this week. “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.’ ”
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.
“When we drafted him in 1998, even then you didn’t know he’d be able to do what he’s done,” Mora added. “When he gets done, he’s going to be the best ever. He might already be the best ever.”