Land of 10 has embarked on a series of Next Generation stories as Iowa writers Scott Dochterman and Bobby La Gesse travel the country to meet this year’s incoming class of freshmen. Here’s a look at QB Peyton Mansell of Harker Heights, Texas.
HARKER HEIGHTS, Texas — Maybe look at tight end.
There was no other way for Mike Mansell to bring up the subject with his son. With his size, Peyton Mansell could become a dominant blocker. And being a playmaker was still an option at the position.
It’s what his sixth-grade football coaches wanted. It was a way to get on the field. It might be the best thing for him.
Mike kept talking. Finally, Peyton responded.
“I want to be a quarterback,” he said, not defiantly, more so stating a fact.
He grew up a signal caller. The kid used to holding the football wasn’t going to give it up, not long-term at least. Sure, he’d put his hand on the ground, but he did so begrudgingly.
“I knew I was pretty good at this,” Peyton said.
His faith and belief drove him while navigating a path more congested than a Dallas freeway during rush hour. He was going to be a quarterback. He knew it in junior high.
Peyton just needed to show everyone else he could do it.
• • •
Peyton is stubborn. He does what he wants, and what he wants to do is win.
His family learned that early on. He was the only player in Little League who obsessed over the score.
“Kids would lose a game in baseball when they were growing up and they would be joking around and he would be livid,” Mike said. “He could never take it.”
That comes from his mom, Kim, who played basketball at West Point. She is the same way. So is his 13-year-old sister McKenzie. There are no family Monopoly games. Family members might not talk to each other the next day.
The stubbornness is one side of the family gene. Pairing it with a dogged determination makes for a heck of a combination.
“He gets something in his head and that’s what he is going to do,” Mike said.
Peyton moved around a lot growing up in a military family. His dad is an Army dentist, and both parents were in military intelligence. Sports was a constant. He first played quarterback in elementary school, starring on an Army base team when the family lived in Germany for three years.
Peyton latched on to the position early. He liked being in control and making big plays. In time, he’d grow to appreciate that playing quarterback is as much a mental challenge as physical one.
“Not anybody can do it,” Peyton said. “It’s amazing. It’s probably one of the hardest positions in all of sports.”
He attended a San Diego State camp before his senior year of high school. It was the perfect recruiting trip. The family fell in love with the program, scenery and the city. SDSU had to make his final list, his parents thought.
“I’m not going there,” Peyton blurted out on the trip. “I’m going big-time still.”
He always knew he was a quarterback, a Power 5 conference quarterback.
• • •
When the Mansells returned from Germany, they settled near Fort Hood in Texas, where they had lived before heading overseas. The first day back, Peyton, about to enter sixth grade, played pickup football with kids in the neighborhood.
The young, tough international standout expected America to be just like Germany; he expected to dominate his new friends.
But when the game started, a strange thing happened. One young boy was faster. He kept making plays. He got the better of Peyton.
“Instantly I knew, wow, I’m not going to be able to run around on these kids,” he said.
Sixth grade wasn’t the best experience for Peyton. His days as the unquestioned star were over. So, too, was his time at quarterback. Tight end was his new position.
“That first year was a real shock,” Peyton said. “I wasn’t at a place where I should have been.”
He played safety in seventh grade before taking over the quarterback job midway through the season.
It wasn’t a time for celebration as much as for reflection. His throwing motion wasn’t perfect. He was never going to whip a football 80 yards.
“I wasn’t a freak,” Peyton said.
He needed to work at his craft. There was no other choice for the teenager who was adamant about playing quarterback.
Drive and motivation weren’t issues. Former NFL quarterback Jeff Blake noticed that right away, along with Peyton’s raw potential and football IQ, when he became his quarterback coach when Peyton was in the eighth grade.
“He wants it,” Blake said. “He is hungry.”
You name it, they worked on it. Timing, touch passes, deep passes, blitz pickups and identifying coverages were part of their routine. Shortening Peyton’s release was at the top of the list.
“You do that to control it so you can be more accurate,” said Blake, a 13-year NFL veteran known for his days as a Cincinnati starter.
The process took time.
Peyton decided to enroll at nearby Belton High School over his hometown Harker Heights High School. He liked the academics and athletic opportunities, and saw himself as the Belton quarterback.
There was one problem: He didn’t win the freshman QB job. John Taggert, a lifelong Belton native, beat him out. Peyton reacted to losing the starting spot as well as he did losing a youth baseball game.
“I had a lot of malice in my heart toward that kid,” Peyton said.
He considered transferring to Harker Heights, but chose to stay at Belton. Peyton wasn’t one to back down, especially when it came to playing quarterback.
So he went to work — again.
“That summer, there wasn’t a day I didn’t have a football in my hand,” Peyton said. “I just outworked him.”
In a stroke of good luck, a new football coach, Bob Shipley, came to Belton for Peyton’s sophomore year. Peyton was always the new kid on the team, having to pick up a new system and compete against a quarterback well versed in the offense.
For the first time, the slate was wiped clean. Both quarterbacks entered camp on even footing.
Peyton displayed a better grasp of the playbook and a stronger arm to claim the starting job on the junior varsity team.
“From then on, no one could ever take my spot, but I never had a year where I was given it,” he said. “I had to beat someone out.”
It took time for Peyton and Taggert to become friends, with Taggert catching passes from Peyton last season.
The mechanical changes Blake made took hold Peyton’s junior year, turning him into a 3-star, 6-foot-3, 210-pound prospect. He won the varsity job, throwing for 1,708 yards and 20 touchdowns.
Peyton became a true dual-threat option as a senior. He passed for 2,526 yards and 33 touchdowns, and rushed for 1,134 yards and 15 touchdowns. He earned district MVP honors in 2016 and twice led Belton to the state playoffs.
“Coach Shipley said multiple times he willed the team to win,” Kim said. “He threw the team on his back.”
• • •
After his junior season, Peyton sat with one of his coaches looking over the Class of 2017 commitment pages of Power 5 programs. He kept seeing the same thing.
Team after team already had landed a quarterback. Most teams sign only one signal caller and his options were dwindling.
“It was frustrating,” Peyton said.
For Peyton, the recruiting process was a lot like trying to secure a starting spot. The attention wasn’t there. Camp counselors threw Peyton into the non-star group at an Elite 11 camp the spring of his junior year. He needed to play his way into the top cluster of players during the day. The family never saw a difference between the 5-star Texas high school recruits and Peyton.
“You figured something has to break,” Mike said.
One day, Shipley told Peyton that Iowa planned to stop by Belton’s next spring practice. He didn’t get his hopes up and the Hawkeyes never arrived. He figured they were out of the picture.
But then-Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis showed up the next day. He pulled Peyton aside after practice.
He said he liked the way Peyton threw the ball. He said Peyton looked better in person than on film.
Most importantly, he said Iowa wanted to offer a scholarship.
There was one catch. The Hawkeyes wouldn’t do it until they completed spring evaluations on all of their quarterback prospects. Davis told Peyton not to worry and that he’d be in touch.
“Of course I worried,” Peyton said.
The more Peyton looked at Iowa, the more he liked the program. Coaching stability was important. So was the long-term success under coach Kirk Ferentz.
He trusted Davis, but also wanted to ensure the scholarship materialized. His FBS and Ivy League offers were nice, but he spent years working toward playing in a Power 5 conference.
Peyton vowed to do whatever it took to convince Iowa he wanted to go there. He called Davis at least once a week and was the recruiting version of a pest. He didn’t ask about a scholarship, but not-so-subtly reminded Davis about it with his constant communication.
“I’m pretty sure coach Davis got annoyed with me,” Peyton said.
After about a month, when his anxiety started to get the best of him, the offer came while he was visiting his grandparents in Arizona in May 2016. He took a trip to Iowa in June, saw the campus and met coaches and players. He committed three days after leaving Iowa City.
“It got my juices flowing,” Peyton said. “I wanted to be better than what I was before that. It really added to my competitiveness.”
Iowa wanted him. That mattered to him — a lot. It’s why he stuck with the Hawkeyes during a wave of de-commitments from Texas players and after Davis retired. In fact, he became a recruiter to help fill out the class.
All Peyton desired was for someone to recognize him as a Power 5 quarterback.
“It forced him to never relax,” Kim said. “A lot of people think they have it as a freshman and he never stopped working. He just kept pressing and pressing. In a way it was a benefit to create who he is.”
He’s someone who’s not afraid of a challenge, and the next one awaits in Iowa City.
Related: The most trying winter of Coy Kirkpatrick’s career turned him into a leader.
Tristan Wirfs embraced his size, then realized his potential.
How Iowa signee Camron Harrell followed his mom to forge a path to a college scholarship.
For the complete Iowa NextGen series, click this link.