Superballs, helmet cars and ugly sweaters: Peyton Manning brings out NFL's goofy side

·5 min read

The helicopter hovered high above an X in the parking lot of Arrowhead Stadium before releasing its payload of 10,000 Superballs. The hard-rubber orbs hit the ground and rose in unison, like a swarm of locusts, before ping-ponging off in every direction on their second bounce.

With 10 NFL Films cameras capturing the stunt from every conceivable angle, Peyton Manning and Patrick Mahomes — standing together about 100 yards from the impact zone — instinctively dropped into position as if taking dueling shotgun snaps and attempted to field the Superball tsunami headed their way.

“It was even crazier than I thought,” said Mahomes, the Kansas City Chiefs quarterback with the hands of a major league shortstop. “It was a cool experience, and I got to do it with a Hall of Famer like Peyton Manning. Those balls surprised me. I thought they might hurt a little bit, but it worked out well.”

Welcome to Season 3 of “Peyton’s Places,” the ESPN+ show that began as a one-off way to honor the NFL’s 100th season but has morphed into a way for Manning to tell the obscure, curious and sometimes downright goofy stories about the game he loves.

This episode, the season finale shot last week, explores the origins of the term “Super Bowl,” coined by legendary Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt, who essentially followed the bouncing ball. Figuring “AFL-NFL World Championship Game” was too much of a mouthful, he suggested a spin on the Superball, a popular toy at the time.

Dropping the barrel full of Superballs was the idea of show runner Neil Zender, who first approached the toy manufacturer about making one giant ball to drop.

“They came to me and said, `Hey, we heard about this stunt where somebody dropped an eight-foot-diameter ball from a hotel onto a car. We want to do one that’s 10 feet in diameter,’ ” said Wham-O president Todd Richards, whose company is based in Carson. “I said that was going to weigh about 10,000 pounds.”

That idea was scrubbed in favor of 10,000 Superballs, some red and others black, bearing the logo of Super Bowl IV, which the Chiefs won, 23-7, against the Minnesota Vikings.

"Peyton’s Places" is a perfect canvas for the irreverent Manning, who avoided the traditional path from field to broadcast booth and instead has focused on telling sports stories in a different way.

“People don’t want to see another sit-down interview,” he said. “It’s been done before. Frankly, it gets boring. So we thought we needed to do it differently to make it unique and make it fun.”

That includes racing former teammate Jeff Saturday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in carts shaped like NFL helmets, heaving a football off a balcony of a Manhattan skyscraper to Cris Carter below, and along with his younger brother, Eli, and Jerome Bettis, dressing up like Ghostbusters to hunt the spirit of a Notre Dame legend.

"Peyton’s Places" is part football, part fever dream. And like those Superballs, the idea has careened in all sorts of unexpected directions.

Under the umbrella of Manning’s “Omaha Productions” — a reference to the quarterback’s most famous audible — the franchise has expanded to include "Eli’s Places" (college football), "Abby’s Places" (Abby Wambach on soccer), "Rowdy’s Places" (Ronda Rousey on competitive fighting), "Big Papi’s Places" (David Ortiz on baseball), "Vince’s Places" (Vince Carter on basketball), "Sue's Places (Sue Bird on college basketball) "P.K.'s Places" (P.K. Subban on hockey) and "McEnroe’s Places" (John McEnroe on tennis).

Singer Luke Bryan is doing one on country music, and talks are underway with LL Cool J about telling the story of hip-hop.

“The key ingredient of all of it is the host has to be somebody that has walked the walk,” Manning said. “There’s certain things that an ex-player is going to say to somebody that has been in the same arena, just because they can speak the same language. That’s what’s made it unique.”

The NFL Films crew moves at hyper-speed, like a NASCAR pit crew, with the operating principle of, “We wait on the talent, the talent never waits on us.”

Peyton Manning visits Patrick Mahomes at Arrowhead Stadium for an episode of "Peyton's Places."
Peyton Manning visits Patrick Mahomes at Arrowhead Stadium for an episode of "Peyton's Places." (Sam Farmer / Los Angeles Times)

Manning prides himself in arriving fully prepared, with his lines down cold, so he quickly can nail each scene, sometimes in one take. It’s a highly choreographed operation, a no-nonsense collection of 53 people zipping around in golf carts and as serious in their tasks as the show is silly.

“Peyton is precise,” director Matt Dissinger said. “He respects the fact that we have our you-know-what together, because he has his together. And he’ll voice his gratitude for that.”

The three hours at Arrowhead included the ball drop in the parking lot, Manning and Mahomes playing catch by bouncing a Superball over a statue of the late Hunt, ricocheting one off the walls of a tunnel to the field, and recreating a Christmas morning scene — the show will air over the holidays — in the unbelievable owner’s suite. It’s a beautifully appointed apartment overlooking the 50-yard line, complete with a living room, fireplace, and sweeping staircase leading to upstairs bedrooms.

Clark Hunt talks to Peyton Manning, both in ugly Christmas sweaters, during a filming inside the in-stadium apartment.
Clark Hunt talks to Peyton Manning while filming a Christmas scene inside the Chiefs owner's in-stadium apartment. (Sam Farmer / Los Angeles Times)

On a day when the heat outside was climbing to sweltering, the players wriggled into ugly Christmas sweaters for the scene, with Manning "repping" his Denver Broncos and Mahomes the Chiefs. Clark Hunt, who now owns the Chiefs, likewise donned a team sweater to elaborate on his dad’s role in naming the Super Bowl.

“Peyton’s somebody that you feel really comfortable around when you’re working with him,” Hunt said. “That’s great, particularly for us novices who aren’t used to doing scripted work like that.”

Hunt loves seeing the rival quarterback and five-time NFL most valuable player in front of the camera. Beats seeing him behind a center.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.