Indianapolis—The question still makes Peyton Manning wince, many years and countless times since it first was asked. The comparison to a legend who wore the familiar blue-and-white uniform, with the trademark horseshoe on the helmet, remains an uncomfortable topic for the Indianapolis Colts quarterback.
Yet considering Manning will be coming back to Baltimore again tonight to play the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium, and given what Manning has accomplished over his near decade in the NFL, the subject begs to be broached once more: Is Manning the modern day John Unitas?
There is a lot more to it than the uniform.
There is the way Manning breaks the huddle, the animated gestures when checking off at the line of scrimmage and the tough love that Manning, like Unitas, often administers to his teammates. Manning sees some similarities in the way his Colts play and the way Unitas' did.
"What we do offensively is probably closer to the offenses of yesterday, as far as the ability for me to call some of my own plays and change some plays and constant communication with your receiver," Manning said. "I spend a lot of time in the offseason working with receivers on timing. Unitas and [Raymond] Berry were kind of the innovators of that. I definitely believe in some of those principles."
Manning started watching old tapes of Unitas after hearing that the Colts quarterback was one of the favorite athletes of his father, Archie, along with Mickey Mantle. One play Unitas made in hooking up with Berry stands out. It came during the classic 1958 NFL championship game against the New York Giants.
"You hear the story about it was something that he and Berry worked on years before. He turned into a slant route, and it was a critical play," Manning said, referring to what turned out to be a 30-yard catch-and-run by Berry, the first of three straight passes to Berry in the 80-yard, game-winning overtime drive.
Berry, who was connected to Unitas the way Colts wide receiver Marvin Harrison is tied to Manning, believes there is something almost mystical in the fact that the two quarterbacks have played with the same franchise, albeit four decades and hundreds of miles apart.
"For both of them to be a part of the Colts' history is kind of unusual," Berry said last week from his home in Tennessee. "Another great parallel, John and Peyton both share a common event that happened in their careers. They got at the right place at the right time with the right people. That has everything to do with a quarterback being able to perform at what he's really capable of doing."
As Unitas came to a Colts team in 1956 that was ready to turn the corner from its bleary past, Manning came to a team in 1998 that rarely had been better than mediocre since moving from Baltimore 15 years before. But though the Colts finished 3-13 the season before Manning was drafted, and would do so again his rookie year, he knew it wasn't as bleak as it appeared.
"When [team president] Bill Polian was hired here, my dad told me enough about him that the Colts would be on solid ground," said Manning, who wears No. 18 to honor his father's All-America career at Mississippi. "I've truly been fortunate to have great support around me. I've always had unbelievable targets to throw to, I've always had an outstanding running back, great protection. I've never once not been aware of that."
It took Unitas three seasons to win an NFL championship, and he won a second the next year.
It took Manning until last season, his ninth, to win a Super Bowl - in his first appearance.
Those who knew Unitas and watched him play see similarities in Manning that extend beyond the football field.
Unitas apparently saw them, too.
There was the first time Manning met Unitas. It came after Manning's senior season, when the University of Tennessee star was being honored in Louisville, Ky., as the winner of the Golden Arm Award given in Unitas' honor to the nation's top college quarterback.
"We were walking down the hall, and John said, 'Peyton, I really like the way you play,' " Archie Manning said. "And I really like the way you don't shine your [butt]."
In his day, Unitas grew from a local celebrity to a national icon. He did commercials for Baltimore companies such as Mary Sue Easter Eggs, even singing its jingle, as well as for national companies such as Chevrolet and Royal Crown Cola. He made one famous spot for Maypo cereal with Mantle. He appeared in a Disney movie with Don Knotts and Bob Crane about a talking mule.