One is a little bit country. The other, a little bit rock 'n' roll. Peyton Manning loves crooning along with C&W star Kenny Chesney. You might find Ryan Leaf backstage at a Matchbox 20 concert begging for the mike. Manning studies for his masters. Ryan dropped out. Son of Archie, Peyton exudes football royalty. Down in the Big Easy, Manning the Younger is crown prince. Leaf? His dad sells insurance. To some in Montana, Ryan's the prince of darkness.
Heroes and villains. Black hats and white hats. Good and evil. That's the American way. Pick a side. This year's NFL Draft provides another tantalizing choice to divide us. You've got the No. 1 pick: Who's it going to be? Peyton Manning, everybody's All-American with perfect genes? Or Ryan Leaf, Favre-like gunslinger, bully enough to flick away 300-pound linemen?
To answer that question, I crisscrossed the nation. Pullman to Knoxville. Eleven bags of peanuts later, I've reached my conclusion. The envelope please ...
Nice try. Keep reading.
Ryan Leaf looks like Chuck Wepner. Or at least his stomach does.
Clad in black trunks, dripping white towel and a gold No. 16 medallion, Leaf strides into the Pullman, Wash., Holiday Inn Express lobby. A 6'5" sprinkler, he rains all over the carpet. No one minds. Here in Pullman, possibly the inspiration for the Neil Young album Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere, Leaf could wear Underoos into the lobby and everyone would fawn. Take a team to its first Rose Bowl in 66 years and that happens.
"Hey, man, mind if we do the interview in the Jacuzzi?"
Nope. Good way to size up the merchandise. As Leaf settles into the bubbles, his belly metamorphoses into a polka accordion. Like the Cascades, it has slopes and crevices. Maybe Ryan went to McDonald's and said Supersize me. "I didn't work out for January and February," he says, giving a caught-in-the-cookie-jar grin. "I was going around on the banquet circuit, up to two in the morning schmoozing, eating bad. Guys like me can put on 10-15 pounds in a week. I was 261, now I'm down to 242. Now I've got a trainer."
No, he's not John Goodman. But don't forget, Wepner and his jelly belly went 15 rounds with Ali. Besides, Leaf is a big, fat breath of fresh air in this era of hyper-protected jocks. He's just a good old boy meaning no harm.
As a kid in Great Falls, Montana, Leaf would don his Steelers jersey, set the microwave timer and lead his own two-minute drill. Mouthpiece included. The drive always ended in a touchdown. "I'd dive over the couch, wreck lamps," he remembers. "I thought I was Terry Bradshaw. I'd sure like to meet him some day." Reality wasn't quite as kind. At Charles M. Russell High, Leaf's cockiness caused problems, particularly on the basketball court. If he wasn't making 360-degree dunks -- he has a 35-inch vertical -- Leaf was thundering down the court imitating a 747 after a basket. Once he gave a crowd the finger.
On the football field, Leaf led Russell to a state championship his junior year. But no all-state, no retired jersey. Part of it involved following a Montana legend. Before Leaf, Dave Dickenson, an honor student, led the school to two state championships. Dickenson then piloted Montana to a 1995 1-AA title. Leaf was Johnny Depp replacing Michael Landon. Bad blood lingers. When the Great Falls Tribune did a Heisman poll last year, some citizens wrote in trashing Leaf's attitude.
"They retired my jersey here at Washington State about two weeks ago," Leaf says, turning the whirlpool jets on full blast. "It brought me to tears, something I hadn't done since seventh grade. Then I was back home at Christmastime, and now they want to retire my jersey. It's like, 'You're kidding me.' I never want my jersey hanging up there." Leaf no longer goes to Great Falls. Instead, he drives his beat-up Isuzu Rodeo to his grandparents' cabin 50 miles outside of town. "When people ask where I'm from, I tell them Washington, because that's where I feel the most comforted by the people," Leaf says. He breaks into a goofy grin. "I tell people I'm grounded and humble because I'm from the state of Montana, and they made me that way."
Ironically, Leaf's coach, Mike Price, says the same cockiness that turned off Great Falls made Leaf a "messiah" in Pullman. Price first saw Leaf's swagger when he quarterbacked the scout team in 1994, going nose-to-nose with the nation's No. 1 defense. The next year, the legend was born against archrival Washington in Seattle. "We send the quarterbacks out a little early so they don't get psyched out by the crowd," Price recalls. "All 75,000 start booing. Ryan, a freshman, marches out to the 50-yard line and starts waving his arms, 'C'mon, let's go, I'm here. Hey, Cougars, I'm leading you guys to the promised land. Screw you, guys. Boo me, I love it.' " Leaf lost the game, but threw for 291 yards.
He says his brashness is a media concoction. "I'm actually pretty reserved," Leaf argues, his waterlogged skin puckering. "I just like to have fun out there. I'm not the type of guy who goes to members of my team or the other team and says, 'Hey, I'm awesome,' because I can improve in so many ways."
Maybe. But he did yell, "Who's the only quarterback to beat USC?" after the Cougars won in the L.A. Coliseum for the first time in 40 years. He also whizzed a football, à la Albert Belle, within inches of a Spokane sportswriter's head after the journalist criticized a teammate. "I gave him a little buzz," says Leaf nonchalantly. "If I wanted to hit him, I would have hit him."
All these episodes were overlooked because Leaf backed up his braggadocio. Staying in Pullman last summer, Leaf worked on his long ball endlessly. Opposing coaches were amazed by the improvement. Suddenly, Leaf had the ability to float a ball downfield 60 yards with touch. Come January, the Cougars were 10-1 and one second away from possibly dousing Michigan's national title hopes.
Moving to the pros, Leaf's frankness follows. He found his first paid autograph session a little gross. Ask him about film watching, and he answers curtly: "I watch film as much as Peyton does, I just don't tell everyone about it." At the February Combine, a misunderstanding caused Leaf to miss a meeting with Colts head coach Jim Mora. When he was supposed to be talking with Mora, Leaf was getting an MRI. The incident was reported as Leaf blowing off the Colts. "I really felt put off by Coach Mora," says Leaf. "Instead of him talking to me, he leaked it to the media and made me look like an irresponsible brat."
The subject turns to Draft Day. With all the heat on him and Manning, Leaf relishes the difference between their backgrounds. "I come from Great Falls, Montana," he says with a smile. "My father isn't an NFL quarterback. He sells insurance. Why am I supposed to be able to do this thing?"
The following morning, at a windy Martin Stadium, Leaf throws a scripted 64 balls before a dozen drooling scouts. In shorts and T-shirt, gut discreetly hidden, Leaf drops in bombs at 55 yards with tender loving touch. Chargers quarterbacks coach June Jones smiles like a kid peeking at his Christmas gift. After the workout, a brave reporter asks about the Colts not being there. Leaf's answer is concise.
So what's Ryan's hope? Brett Favre or Billy Joe Hobert?
One curmudgeon offensive coordinator thinks Leaf is trouble. "His attitude is a problem," says our coach. "His teammates aren't going to put up with it. The press isn't going to put up with it. He can either develop into a Favre-type or fall on his face. No way I'm putting a franchise in his hands."
Steelers coordinator Ray Sherman sees unrefined greatness.
"Leaf has a great upside," Sherman says. "I'm impressed most by his composure in the pocket. Someone will hit him in the mouth and he still focuses downfield. You can't teach that."
One NFL scout dismisses concerns about Leaf's swaggering image. He does it succinctly. "You know what kind of quarterback wins the most games? The one with the biggest cojones. Leaf's got a giant pair. He'll do fine."
So, Ryan Leaf can throw the ball and he has balls. What more could you want?
It's March 29 at O'Charley's Restaurant near the University of Tennessee campus. Volunteer faithful swig Budweiser as their Lady Vols romp to a third-straight hoops championship. Afterward, a singer dedicates "No Woman, No Cry" to Louisiana Tech. Inevitably, "Rocky Top" is hollered. Life is sweet. Almost. A sloshed, orange-capped female student slurs: "This is cool, but they still screwed Peyton."
Down South, where men still dress up and try to win the Civil War, grudges die hard. However, Peyton Manning doesn't look back. "The track record of quarterbacks who have won the Heisman isn't so good anyway," Manning says with a freckly smile, his face tan from a week of golf in Vegas. Sitting in the film room of the Vols football complex, he looks trim. "It's all behind me now."
The polite answer. What else? At the age of 22, the possibility of Peyton Manning saying anything controversial is as remote as Al Gore saying anything funny. From perfect grammar to the perfect pass, Peyton Manning is Archie's boy. All the way down to the knock-kneed walk. There's no dodging it. Not that Peyton ever would. It's as if the two quarterbacks have merged into a Southern perpetuity, a gridiron version of the Kennedys. One has gone, but the son has picked up the ball, and he's throwing deep.
The story is familiar as "Dixie." Young Peytie watches Dad get beat senseless, but with honor, as a member of the Saints, Oilers and Vikings. Shucks, he even dons an Aints bag as a kid. All grown up, Peyton turns down Dad's alma mater, Ole Miss, and chooses Tennessee. Stardom follows. Three years later, Peyton turns down Bill Parcells for another year at UT. He's the great American hero, the symbol of all that is right and good. He loses the Heisman with ... honor.
Blah, blah, blah. The question is what, if anything, this gridiron legacy is going to do for him when Bruce Smith is jumping on his ass. The answer: plenty.
"Peyton has always been picking quarterbacks' brains," says Cooper Manning, his older brother. "Once, Dad went to one of those old quarterback challenges out in Hawaii when we were kids. Peyton met Len Dawson and just wouldn't let him escape. For two hours, he kept asking questions."
"Dad taught me you have to be a student of the game," Peyton says, gripping an NFL football. "I try to get one thing you can put in your mental notepad."
Manning has answered these questions a hundred times before. His automatic pilot responses pleasantly waft by like supermarket Muzak. Just like Leaf, he has been on the grin-and-greet circuit (Unlike Ryan, road workouts have kept him near his playing weight). It's not until the lights go off that he becomes animated. Always a film junkie -- Dad again -- Peyton has been screening NFL tapes, getting a head start. He watches like a detective reviewing the video of a bank holdup. Play. Rewind. Play. Rewind. Today's game: Cowboys-Panthers.
"Watch Aikman," he advises, pausing the tape. "Watch how he carries out the fake. He's not lazy. By doing something extra, if he holds one guy ... Look, see 57? He hesitates. One second, that fake was worth three to four yards."
Manning's practically out of his chair. "See the corner? Watch the safety behind him. See how he's cheating up here? It means he's covering for the corner who's blitzing. You figure out what one guy is doing by watching the other."
Manning runs the tape. His play-by-play voice speeds his N'awlins drawl from 33 to 45. "Okay. Here's a little blitz, everyone's coming, Troy's doing a good job picking it up, somebody's open." Sure enough. Aikman needles the ball to Michael Irvin. The All-Pro drops it.
Peyton Manning feels the pains of every quarterback.
"All that speed makes it feel like an NBA court compared to college," he says with wide-eyed wonder. It's that gee-golly image that has some scouts wondering if Peyton might just be too polite. Will he get in the face of a 33-year-old lineman who misses a block?
"Sure, I'll do that," he says, trying to look stern. "I just try to do it when the camera is not on me."
Pop has already quit his job as Saints radio commentator so he can follow Peyton around. According to Cooper, half-joking, Archie will have hotels and itineraries planned out a week after the draft. He's already prepared his son for the deluge of media and fans.
"Dad taught me it's part of the job," Peyton says, reaching into his pocket. "That's why you keep one of these with you at all times." He pulls out a black magic marker. He's ready to sign. "Dad says it's a part of the job, so you might as well smile and do it."
Isn't that sweet?
Perhaps because of his talent, perhaps because of his dad, few coaches will criticize Peyton. Back to our curmudgeon coordinator.
"You've got one guy groomed, almost bred to be a QB," he says. "The other is raw and immature. You got to take Manning. A lightbulb goes on when a quarterback finally grasps the offense. That lightbulb is going on a lot quicker for Peyton." The transition, as Archie found out, from college god to pro peon isn't always pleasant. But the son is ready for the hard times. "I'm going to have to work hard, study hard and try to earn a place. That's all I can do."
Cornier than a corn dog. Dad would be proud.
So, 10,000 miles later, it's time to make a choice. It's easy, right? Manning's better prepared, better mannered. Leaf can't even keep himself in shape. Exiled from his hometown. He runs off at the mouth. Not worth the $30 million risk. Right?
Sorry, Archie, I'm taking Ryan. Maybe it was watching Leaf against Arizona as he implored the coaching staff, "Call my number, I'm hot, I'm hot." Or Ryan running by Coach Price during his first Washington game after a completion into double coverage and chuckling, "Didn't think I'd get the ball in there." He possesses an "I don't give a crap" attitude that has proven essential to Super Bowl quarterbacks from Stabler to McMahon to Favre. Come 2018, Ryan Leaf, not Manning, will be strutting up to a podium in Canton.
Correct that. Bellying up.
This article appears in the April 20, 1998 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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