If the Manning brothers weren't so good at football, it's possible the Colorado Rockies wouldn't be heading to the World Series.
First baseman Todd Helton and rookie pinch-hitter extraordinaire Seth Smith have a common bond besides playing key roles in the Rockies' remarkable run: both used to back up members of the Manning family as college quarterbacks.
Helton actually beat out a baby-faced Peyton Manning at Tennessee for the No. 2 job in 1994 and took over when starter Jerry Colquitt suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener. Helton, however, started just three games before hurting a knee himself, and Manning, a freshman, took over and became the Vols' career passing leader.
They've remained close friends as Helton established himself as one of the majors' best hitters and a top-fielding first baseman in Colorado and Manning became a two-time MVP and a Super Bowl champion with the Indianapolis Colts.
Manning has made periodic visits to Coors Field, where he's taken cuts during batting practice and thrown out a ceremonial first pitch. He couldn't make it out this summer, however.
"He has a tighter schedule and less time after winning the Super Bowl," Helton said. "We talk during the course of the season. Nothing about being involved in a pennant race. We talk like friends talk."
So do Smith and Eli Manning, whom he backed up at Ole Miss.
Although Smith never saw a snap in three seasons, it was enough of a commonality to break the ice with Helton, with whom he talks SEC football and the tutelage they both received from David Cutcliffe, who was Helton's position coach at Tennessee and Smith's head coach at Mississippi.
The best advice Smith ever got from Coach Cut came after his college days were over.
"He told me, 'Yeah, next time they talk about you guys backing up the Mannings, tell them if the Mannings played baseball, they would back up you guys,"' Smith said with a smile.
Cutcliffe, who also helped tutor Rockies hitting coach Alan Cockrell, a two-time All-American quarterback at Tennessee in 1982-83, has been showing up to work in Rockies gear
"I don't know who's going to claim getting them to the World Series, Seth, Alan or Todd, but I think all three had a lot to do with it," Cutcliffe said.
The Mannings are rooting for the Rockies, winners of 21 of 22, and their former backups.
"Real happy for Todd," Peyton Manning said. "Talked to him, probably texted him a few more times. I know he's got a lot on his plate right now. ... I've watched most of the games. I've stayed up late watching them play and know how happy he is to finally be in the World Series. I'm pulling hard for the Rockies."
So is Eli. He apparently still likes to razz the rookie who has come up with key pinch hits against Philadelphia and Arizona in the playoffs after earning a spot on the playoff roster by going 5-for-8 in his September call-up.
Smith's two-run bloop double that ignited a six-run rally in the Rockies' NL pennant clincher Monday night inspired the New York Giants quarterback to text his buddy.
"I asked him if that was technically a Texas Leaguer. I didn't even know. It came off the handlebar a little bit, I thought," said Manning, reverting to his college days when he used to pick on the frazzled freshman.
"I don't know if he was technically my backup," Manning said. "He was another quarterback on the list. ... They say he was a backup quarterback, but he had zero attempts and three receptions. I don't know how that is a backup quarterback. That's a mysterious label on him."
Manning said it was obvious from the start that Smith, who got into one game against Arkansas State in 2003, was a baseball player.
"That was his true passion. He was a good athlete. If he could have learned the plays, I think he could have been a decent quarterback," Manning cracked.
Actually, "football is my first love," Smith said.
It's just that he's better at baseball, just like Helton.
The only one who razzes Helton about his days under center is Helton himself.
"He makes light of what kind of quarterback he was," Cockrell said. "And I know he's lying because I know he was a good one."
Helton, who also backed up Heath Shuler before holding the clipboard for Manning, put up some decent numbers at Tennessee, completing 55 percent of his passes for 484 yards and two touchdowns and rushing for 87 yards in his three seasons while biding his time until the Rockies made him the eighth pick of the 1995 draft.
"You could not have asked for a better backup quarterback," said Shuler, who played for the Washington Redskins before becoming a Congressman. "Baseball, basketball, whatever the sport, he was the best at it all the time. He could pick up any sport, and Todd was going to compete at a very high level, very early on. I can't say enough good things about his work ethic."
Shuler recalled one time when Helton, who also had hours-long baseball practices during the fall, dozed off during a team meeting and was jolted awake when Cutcliffe called on him.
"He said, 'Todd, what you do at the line of scrimmage here?' Of course, Todd wakes up, absolutely didn't know what was going on and he named some play and Coach says, 'Let's put that down because I think, Todd, you're exactly right,"' Shuler recounted.
"We don't know if he was able to catch on so good or if it was luck. But knowing Todd, it's probably because he was so good at what he did."
Like Smith, Helton's future was in baseball. He set 19 school records in his three years at Knoxville, batting .370 with 38 homers and 238 RBIs in his college career, while also going 19-5 with a 2.24 ERA and 23 saves, walking 49 and striking out 172 as a left-handed pitcher.
Tennessee football coach Phillip Fulmer also was a two-sport star for the Vols, an offensive lineman in the fall and a catcher in the spring. He beams with pride watching Helton reach the World Series after a decade of disappointment that threatened to make him the Rockies' own Ernie Banks.
"I don't know if anybody deserves it any more," Fulmer said. "There's not anybody who's done any more for a team to get to this point than Todd Helton has for the Rockies, for years. And now he gets a chance to go to the World Series. I am thrilled for him."
Fulmer said he's enjoying the Rockies' ride as much as he did the Colts' run to the Super Bowl last year.
"It's unique that we had a quarterback that played in the Super Bowl and now we've got a quarterback that's playing in the World Series," he said. "There's not many people that have had that kind of opportunity to coach that kind of athlete."
So, what is it with all these quarterbacks in the Rockies' clubhouse?
"They're usually the best athletes on the field," Fulmer said. "Baseball takes a lot of athletic ability to play at that level."
And nerves that don't get rattled, suggested Cockrell.
"With the amount of intensity that everybody's eyes are going to be on this game, I think that maybe you're used to that as a quarterback," Cockrell said. "I think maybe it's a calming influence in that regard."
The Rockies have another former quarterback making huge contributions to their playoff push: NLCS MVP Matt Holliday, a highly recruited passer at Stillwater High School who chose to sign with the Rockies rather than play at Oklahoma State.
"You should have seen him," Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said. "He was a great high school quarterback."
And probably one who wouldn't have backed up anybody, Calhoun suggested.
Unless maybe his name was Manning.
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