Manning brothers lift Isidore Newman

OK, debate time. The topic: which high school produces the best NFL players in the ESPN era?

Surely, schools like Mater Dei, DeMatha Catholic, Apopka, Pearland, Long Beach Polytechnic and De La Salle are skittering across brainpans everywhere. Resist, though, the temptation to look at sheer volume.

Think instead of pure quality, and Isidore Newman bubbles to the top of this list.

The private, nondenominational prep school in the uptown section of New Orleans has sent up a modest three NFL players, but two are Peyton Manning and brother Eli. That makes Newman the only high school to produce two back-to-back Super Bowl MVPs.

Plus, using an ESPN.com ratings system which gives a point for each draft pick who won a major NFL award, Newman edges four other schools 24-21 largely because of the 11 combined Pro Bowls the Mannings have made and the fact that Peyton has won the Associated Press NFL MVP award an unprecedented four times.

Not convinced? Try this: The Mannings and older brother Cooper -- one whale of a wide receiver before a spinal condition ended his football career after he moved on from Newman -- are credited with making a sea-change impact on high school football in the Big Easy and their home state to the point where entering the NFL season last fall, Louisiana led the nation in NFL players produced per capita.

According to USA Football, with 80 Louisianans on NFL rosters at the beginning of last season (trailing California's 205, Texas' 179, Florida's 176, Ohio's 90 and tied with Georgia), one of every 55,862 of Louisiana natives was in the league, well ahead of states that produce a greater volume of players.

And 26 of those players were from the seven-parish greater New Orleans area, where the exploits of Cooper and Peyton in particular stimulated interest and participation in high school football beginning in the 1990s.

"They really advanced the game, not just at Newman but in New Orleans," said Newman coach Nelson Stewart, a former teammate of Peyton Manning. "They were that special. Peyton's first year as a starter, in '91, we went to the state semifinals [for just the second time in school history]. We were always a traditional veer program.

"When Peyton came in, they started doing more five-step and seven-step drops. The game became more interesting. Soon, there were over 70 kids out for the team, and it used to be in the 40s."

Peyton Manning's high school coach, Tony Reginelli, retired after Peyton's senior season of 1993 but still follows the Greenies religiously and attends most games.

He never coached Eli, but did coach the first NFL player to come out of Newman, former wide receiver Omar Douglas. He caught three passes in 18 games for the Giants from 1994-96, but did not return after tearing his ACL in training camp in '97.

Reginelli also mentored Peyton, who still holds the school record for passing yards (7,528) after being a three-year starter from '91-93.

"They brought it up to a different level," said Reginelli, who was at Newman for 44 years, compiling a record of 206-63 as head coach from 1968-93. "It made it a more exciting game. More kids began getting exposure. Your 14-6 games went out the window. Once with Peyton, we were playing in the Superdome and we got behind Episcopal of Baton Rouge.

"Years ago, if you were down 14-0, you were out of it. Hell, I wasn't even worried. It turned into a whole different game in high school. Peyton was one of a kind. His mother [Olivia] was a Miss Ole Miss, and his father [former Saints quarterback Archie Manning] was an All-American. You couldn't miss."

Cooper Manning still holds school receiving records set as he wore No. 18 while catching passes thrown by Peyton. Once Cooper graduated, Peyton wore that number for two years, and Eli later wore it, as well. His final season under center for the Greenies was '98.

"It's the only number that we've ever retired," said Stewart, who was a junior defensive lineman (and also played some on offense) when Peyton was a senior. "It's the first thing you see hanging in the gym."

That gym has seen some high times.

Although the Greenies have never won a state title in football (Eli led the team to the quarterfinals twice, Peyton to the semis once), they've achieved considerable success in several sports.

Cooper Manning was on a state championship basketball team with Randy Livingston, who went on to star at LSU before playing for several NBA squads.

The school was founded in 1903 by philanthropist Isidore Newman, who had started a department store, and offers instruction from kindergarten through high school. Tuition and expenses range up to more than $17,000 per year for upper school students, and notable alumni include former CNN CEO and Time magazine editor Walter Isaacson, author Michael Lewis and Cowboy Mouth lead guitarist Jonathan Pretus.

Cooper, Peyton and Eli Manning put the place on the map.

"With Peyton, on fourth-and-1 we'd sometimes go to a short slant pass to his brother, Cooper," Reginelli said. "It's great football, and you've got to give the Mannings great credit. Peyton put it to another level. My God, he wants to win. You better be ready if you're getting ready to play him."

Eli's coach, Frank Gendusa, moved on to a school in Texas. The Giants' quarterback is third in school history with 7,421 passing yards.

The Manning legend will never move on from Newman. They occasionally work out in the school weight room.

"We've got our record charts, and there's basically what amounts to the shrine to them in the media rooms," Stewart said. "They were great student-athletes; they did things the right way. The last time Peyton lifted, the weight room was surrounded by lower school kids. It's home to them.

"They've done things [financially] on their own privately. They give back. They have no buildings named after them, but that's not the way they are."

Matt Winkeljohn left the Atlanta Journal-Constitution after spending 21 years there. He can be reached at mattwinkeljohn@yahoo.com.