So, let me get this straight: Eli Manning, the Super Bowl champion, was a walk-on at Penn State.
Eli Manning has some important family history that took place at the Rose Bowl, but he had never set foot in the historic venue until recently, when shooting an episode of “Eli’s Places” that’s focused on the epic national championship showdown between USC and Texas.
“It’s different being from the South and growing up in New Orleans,” Manning said. “The Rose Bowl wasn’t as big or known for me growing up as for a lot of people. The whole history of everything behind it was really interesting.”
The episode, which debuts at 9 p.m. Tuesday on ESPN+, features quarterbacks Matt Leinart of USC and Vince Young of Texas, who forged a friendship after that 2006 Rose Bowl. Young clinched a 41-38 victory with a fourth-down touchdown run in the waning moments.
It was the last game that legendary announcer Keith Jackson ever called and happened on the same field where Peyton Manning made his college football debut, taking the field as a Tennessee freshman in 1994 against UCLA. He was pressed into action after the starting quarterback was injured, and Jackson was calling the game, noting, “Here comes Peyton Manning making his entry for the University of Tennessee. Get used to it.”
Eli was an eighth-grader at the time, had his own football games to play on Saturdays, and didn’t make the trip with the family. Like his older brother, he would become the No. 1 overall draft pick and a two-time Super Bowl winner.
Omaha Productions — named for Peyton Manning’s famous audible — has a host of “Places” shows aimed at telling the inside stories of a given sport, often in lighthearted and amusing ways. Whereas “Peyton’s Places” is focused on the NFL, “Eli’s Places” is zeroed in on college football.
Leinart and Young join Manning at the Rose Bowl in the latest episode and explore the history of the Pasadena tradition. They picnic at midfield, race souped-up chariots — think Ben Hur on a Segway — up and down the sidelines, and dig in on opposite sides of a tug-o-war.
But the “Eli’s Places” episode that has attracted the most attention lately takes place at Penn State, where the 41-year-old New York Giants retiree wears a disguise and tries to join the football team as a walk-on quarterback.
The footage of Manning as “Chad Powers,” who with his flowing locks and wispy moustache is part-Fabio, part-Uncle Rico, has gotten more than 10 million YouTube views.
“I didn’t want them to think this was a joke or be onto something,” he said. “These guys are competing, trying to earn a spot and make an impression. I wanted them to take it seriously and I was taking it seriously. I wanted to go and throw well and thought, ‘Hey, if I go throw well and these guys are open and make some plays, it might help them make a team as a receiver.’ ”
Especially curious — and suspicious — was offensive analyst Danny O’Brien, who was working with the quarterbacks. Powers referred to him as “Danny Boy” and sounded far more knowledgeable than a typical walk-on. Manning wore a wristband to remind him of some funny lines but didn’t wind up looking at it. He was winging it.
“He thought it was odd to have a player call him by his first name and use a nickname before I’d ever met him,” Manning said. “We’re doing routes versus air, and we had a little 15-yard comeback to the right. I go, `Hey, Danny Boy, I’m going to read this like Seam Sluggo and go three no-hitch, pump the slant, look at the seam, get it out to my comeback. How you like that?’ He’s like, `All right, Chad. Let’s go.’ What in the world is going on?’
“Then I started coaching up the receivers. I’m like, `Hey, you’ve got to get 15 yards on this. Don’t go 13, I’d rather you go 17. Don’t be short on me. Let’s get this.’ Lot of confusion going on.’ ”
After the tryout, Franklin called him in front of the group, and to laughter and applause, Manning removed his wig and peeled off his rubber mask.
“I was pretty hot under there,” he said. “I didn’t know it was going to be a full workout. I can throw, I can’t run. I was like, when are we getting to the throwing part?”