By Tom James, CNHI News Service
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Peyton Manning has always been a hero to long-suffering football fans in Louisiana.
After all, he has deep roots in the area. His father, Archie, played quarterback for the New Orleans Saints and has stayed on to be one of the team’s radio voices. He remains as much of an icon in New Orleans now as he was during his playing days.
The younger Manning, meanwhile, was one of the nation’s top high school recruits, guiding Isidore Newman School to a 34-5 record in three years as a starter and being named as the national High School Player of the Year.
But that was then. Now it’s Peyton Manning against New Orleans’ beloved Saints. The city’s favorite son is standing smack dab between a Super Bowl championship and a heartbreaking finish to an outstanding season.
Even many in the national media and many entertainment celebrities are pulling for New Orleans to knock off the big, bad Colts. After what the city and region went through in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Saints have become a feel-good story.
“We certainly understand that we may not be the team that everybody is cheering for in this game. We are OK with that,” Manning said Wednesday. “It is going to be two great teams playing against each other. I think the Super Bowl, as far as non-New Orleans Saints, non-Colts fans, somebody is going to pick a team to follow, and they probably will pick the Saints, and that is fine.”
“Obviously, we talk about all the stories this week. When it comes down to the game, though, it gets down to the Xs and Os. I think the more you can block out on the outside, the better you are going to be on just focusing on how to move the ball against (defensive end Will) Smith, (safety Darren) Sharper, (middle linebacker Jonathan) Vilma. How to stop (quarterback Drew) Brees and their offense. That is what it comes down to all along. Once the game starts that is what it is really about.”
That’s all true. Still, it can be somewhat disconcerting to realize that just about everybody in your hometown will be rooting against you on Sunday evening. Or is it?
“I certainly understand people in New Orleans are Saints fans. They have outstanding fans, always have. I certainly appreciate the people of New Orleans supporting me and (younger brother) Eli throughout our careers,” Manning said.
“That is our hometown. It is very important to us. Eli and I continue to support New Orleans (and the city’s rebuilding projects) through charitable endeavors. I understand (for) this game New Orleans people are Saints fans and I am fine with that.”
In that regard, the Colts’ signal-caller is appreciative — as a New Orleans native — for what the Saints, especially Brees, has brought to the city in the last couple of years.
“What Drew and really the entire Saints team have meant to that community has been extremely impressive. Being a fellow New Orleanian, I certainly appreciate it. Eli appreciates that. Eli and I both give back, charity-wise to New Orleans. The players that live there, guys that aren’t from there, Drew’s from Texas, other players from all over the United States, that they now play for the Saints have adopted that city as their hometown,” Manning said.
“Those guys do a lot of things for that city, a lot of community activities. (Saints head coach) Sean Payton is great that way. You certainly appreciate that, people kind of adopting a city as their hometown, putting their monies and efforts behind it. Drew has spearheaded that. (He) has been the leader of that team on the field and off the field, and I certainly appreciate that. And certainly the city of New Orleans appreciates it.”