Even Peyton Manning's high school teammates couldn't predict his current level of success

BY foxsports • February 4, 2016

Peyton Manning had to start somewhere.

You could say his career officially began when he was named starter of his high football school team his sophomore year at Isidore Newman School in New Orleans.

Alongside big brother Cooper, the Manning-led team made it to the Louisiana state semifinals.

Peyton Manning would end up leading the Greenies to a record of 34-5 during his three years at the helm of the offense. He threw 105 touchdowns and for more than 7,500 yards. He was named the Gatorade Circle of Champions National Player of the Year and the Touchdown Club National Offensive Player of the Year his senior season.

Sure, he was a high school star, but becoming one of the greatest quarterbacks?  His high school teammates couldn't have predicted what was to come for their old buddy Peyton.

"This is one of my favorite things to tell people: I had no idea," Michael Keck, a tight end, linebacker and punter a year ahead of Manning said. "He probably wasn't even the best natural athlete on our team. ... I would even say he wasn't even in the top-three athletes in his own family. I mean, Cooper was a way better athlete. Archie was probably more nimble. Eli is probably a more naturally gifted athlete than Peyton. And I've never seen Olivia compete, so Peyton might actually be the worst naturally gifted athlete in his own family."

Another teammate agreed.

"I don't think anybody could have projected that," wide receiver Justin Reyna said. "Certainly, it was pretty obvious back then in high school that he was a really good quarterback. ... That summer [before his junior season] we went to a [Bobby Bowden summer camp] for quarterbacks and receivers. ... There were quarterbacks and receivers from all over the country there including, if I remember right, the guy that was going to be a senior that had already kind of committed to go play for Florida State. It was pretty clear that Peyton was already better than this kid. So that's kind of when all our teammates knew it looked like [Peyton] was going to be a very good college quarterback. But in terms of being one of the better quarterbacks of all time? I think that would have been impossible."

While they couldn't predict he was going to be a future Hall of Famer, they did take note of his work ethic.

"He was unbelievable," defensive and offensive lineman Thad Teaford said. "His work ethic was second to none. His drive to succeed and win and take the team as far as possible was unmatched by anyone I've ever been around, basically. He was the ultimate teammate and the ultimate player."

"He's the perfect role model for my kids," Keck said. "I've got a 6-year-old boy, and when I look at all the professional athletes, you look at Peyton, his success is not due to his athletic ability. It's due to his work ethic and his desire to master his skills which basically shows up as a lot of practice and a lot of preparation. If he can go down as the greatest quarterback of all time and not even be the best athlete in his own family, I think that's a good indication of what's possible if you've got enough effort and desire."

Manning was elected captain his senior year, and took his leadership role seriously.

"I remember when I was elected captain [the year after Manning]," defensive lineman Nelson Stewart said. "He actually took my co-captain and me out to lunch at Domilise -- which is his favorite sandwich shop -- just to kind of tell us what it meant to be a be a captain and the importance of being a captain.

"That's at 17 years old. He's a senior in high school, the No. 1 recruit in the country and he wanted to take us to lunch to explain the importance of being a captain."

One of Manning's wideouts sees a lot of Peyton now in what he did years ago.

"Thinking back then, he exhibited the same qualities and attributes that you probably see today," wide receiver Nate Stibbs said. "He was incredibly loyal. He's a very generous teammate. He was just unique. He was fanatical about preparation. Fanatical about organization. He's a natural leader. Even to this day, he was one of the hardest working and most competitive ... person that I think I have ever been around in sport or in business. I think because of that he really just made everybody around him better. He made everybody else elevate their game."

While Manning's playing days at Newman may have ended when he graduated in 1994, he still comes back to the school once or twice a year, including this past offseason when he did some workouts.

Stewart is currently serving his 10th year as head coach at their alma mater, and he sees first-hand the impact Manning's legacy has on current students.

"I always say I'm forever grateful for [Peyton and Eli]," Stewart said. "All the work they've done, they didn't just build up their careers, their name, they really did build up our school. For our kids, it just makes them take so much pride in everything they're doing. They just really value our program, and I think that's been the biggest reason for our success."

Newman is throwing a pep rally in the Denver Bronco quarterback's honor Friday to celebrate his participation in the Super Bowl on Sunday, a tradition observed for both Peyton and Eli in years past. Everybody is to dress up in blue and orange and, because it's Mardi Gras season, everybody is going to get blue and orange beads. 

"We break out the band," Stewart said. "It's just a way again to honor him. We have a banner that all the student body signs that we try to get to him for Sunday. They pack the gym. It's so big. It's the only time our upper and lower middle school come together for a pep rally other than our homecoming pep rally. We've only done it for them. It's just a nice thing to get up in front of them to give him a little bit of support and just so everybody knows how special he is."

"When you walk into our stadium," he continued. "The first thing you see is a Manning jersey hanging over the Tuohy Gym and there's a reason for that. We want every time someone enters our field to know this is where they played. It's the only football number that's ever been retired, 18. It just transformed us."

And despite Manning's current schedule, he still makes time to keep in contact with his old friends.

"There is a group of us that every year goes to a game," Reyna said. "It's a good group of guys, and it's always a ton of fun to see them and to catch up with Peyton and his family after the game for dinner or just to hang out. I've had a chance to go to a couple of the playoff games, seen a couple of AFC championship games in Denver. It's a good way to keep in touch with some old high school friends and Peyton's been a large part of that."

Many of them are planning on being at Sunday's game, and if Super Bowl 50 is Manning's final game, it will also be the final chance his high school buddies get to see him play.

"At his age, every game could be his last," Stibbs said. ". . . I don't know any more than you do about what his decision is going to be, but the way I look at it, regardless of the outcome of the game, the past 18 years have been an incredible journey for Peyton . . . Certainly I'm excited about [Super Bowl 50], and like everybody else, if it is his final game, I really hope that he goes out with a win."