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INDIANAPOLIS — The football, delivered with startling swiftness by Peyton Williams, soars over a thicket of outstretched limbs and lands 40 yards away in the hands of Peyton Trexler. There is a cheer as the flashes of a dozen smartphones capture the historic moment.

Williams is a lean freshman quarterback at McCutcheon High School in Lafayette, Indiana. Trexler, a precocious sophomore receiver, caught 18 touchdowns at Southwood High School in Wabash, Indiana. They were part of an unprecedented gathering this past Sunday at the Sports Zone Indy.

Call them the Peyton generation.

During his 13 active seasons here with the Indianapolis Colts, Manning produced 399 touchdown passes. According to statistics, there are probably even more boys named after him. In 1998, when the Colts made Manning the No. 1 overall draft choice, the most popular names for boys in Indiana were Jacob, Austin and Michael. Peyton wasn’t even a top-100 name, a good distance behind even Kaleb, Jalen and Gabriel.

But as the Colts improved, so too, did your chances of being named Peyton. In the team’s sweet spot from 2004 to 2010, Peyton ranked consistently in the 60s, 70s and 80s, peaking — not surprisingly — with Indianapolis’ victory in Super Bowl XLI at the end of the 2006 season. Girls named Payton also became more prevalent. The year Manning left for the Broncos? Peyton had fallen back into obscurity.

With the lure of national airtime via an ESPN NFL Countdown audience — not to mention 16 free pizzas — we corralled no fewer than 23 football-playing Peytons, nearly all of them named after the man himself, this week. That’s not even half the football-playing Peyton haul. There are 57 Peytons on Indiana high school football rosters this season.

They came in a dazzling array of shapes and sizes and hues. One of them, Peyton Stoddard, was a 10-year-old with a shocking pink Mohawk. Another, Peyton Sturgill, was a 1,000-yard rusher as a senior for Peru High School. All bound by No. 18.

An enduring gift

James Pruett loved Peyton Manning. One day his wife, Tracie, pregnant with her third child, called him at work.

“I said, ‘I’ve got the perfect name.’

“He said, ‘What’s that?’

“And I said, ‘Peyton.’

“He goes, ‘Peyton it is.'”

Wham, bam. Case closed.

Fast-forward to Colts training camp. One day James and the boys took in practice, then wandered over to the autograph session. Peyton asked his father to put him up on his shoulders so he could see better. Manning walked by, but wasn’t signing.

“Hey, Peyton,” James yelled. “My son’s named Peyton. He’s a quarterback and he’s No. 18.”

Manning stopped, circled back, signed Peyton’s hat, rubbed his head and wished him luck. As she tells the story, Tracie is getting teary. James died a year ago to this very day.

“My husband was such a huge Colts fan, [the name] was something I wanted to do for him,” she said. “Now I look back and I didn’t know in the future such a tragedy was going to happen. But now I have that legacy of my son having his favorite football player’s name.”

Today, Peyton Pruett is a freshman quarterback at Center Grove High School. During his interview, that hat was sitting on his head.

The No. 2 option

Alarmingly, Peyton Sturgill, the running back from Peru High School, could have been named Ryan — after Ryan Leaf.

“That’s right,” said his father, Bill. “My wife was pregnant, and it came down to Peyton Manning or Ryan Leaf — whoever the Colts were going to take with the No. 1 pick. That was how we named our boy.”

Three days after the Colts selected Manning — and the San Diego Chargers opted for Leaf with the second overall choice — Peyton Sturgill entered the world.

The Sturgills know they dodged a big-time bullet. “Yes,” Bill acknowledged, “he came out to be an NFL bust.”

Said Peyton, “Looking back on it, most of my life I didn’t think about it. But recently, it’s like, how crazy would it have been if my name was Ryan, and how different would the state of Indiana be if Peyton wasn’t drafted by the Colts?

“I mean, when they named me Peyton they were taking a risk on whether this guy’s going to be a superstar. Or people are going to ask me, ‘Who are you named after? Who is that?'”

Self-fulfilling prophecy

A name is forever; on average, males born in the United States can expect to live to the age of 76. In more than a handful of cases, these parents proved remarkably prescient. Their sons, named for Peyton Manning, grew up to be quarterbacks — and some of them wear No. 18.

“My parents were big season-ticket holders, tailgated all the time,” said Peyton Young, a freshman quarterback at Western Boone High School. “Peyton was their favorite player. Why not name their son after him?”

Especially after he was born on the 18th.

Years later, Peyton was sitting in his third-period class when he received an envelope from the school office. It said it was from the Denver Broncos, but Peyton wondered if the upperclassmen were playing a joke on him. When he opened it, there was an autographed Manning photograph, arranged by a mutual acquaintance.

The inscription: “To Peyton Young. Great name. Best of luck this football season and beyond.”

In the cards

“My mom was pregnant with me at the time, and [my parents] went shopping,” explained Peyton Allen, now a wide receiver at Avon High School. “My dad went over to get a pack of football cards. When they opened up the pack, the first card in there was the Peyton Manning rookie card. They were torn between naming me Ted [Jr.], or naming me Peyton.

“I wouldn’t want to be named Ted.”

Actually, Kelly Allen was already in labor when they bought the cards at the Meijer store. And Peyton Manning was already in the process of becoming her favorite football player. It was her husband, naturally, who was set on Ted. They took the card as a sign.

“It was just like, well, there it is,” Ted said. “That’s our kid’s name.”

Peyton, born in 1999, shrugged.

“It’s kind of a silly story,” he said. “That’s just sort of a weird way to name your kid.”

Well, that worked out

Peyton Watson, a running back at Eastbrook High School, actually preceded Manning’s arrival in Indianapolis. He was born in 1997.

“There was a lot of talk about Peyton Manning before he even came up,” Watson said. “He’s always been a great player, like when he went to the University of Tennessee. My parents had always been fans.”

Does that mean his folks were ahead of the curve?

“Yeah,” he said, raising his eyebrows, “for the first time they might have been.”

And then he laughed.

The Manning middle

The story, at least initially, is familiar: Mom liked the name, dad was a fan of the Colts and their dashing quarterback.

Thus, Peyton Williams was born in 2000. He was the guy who threw the touchdown pass in our 8-on-8, all-Peyton scrimmage last Sunday.

Back in fifth grade, Williams did a biography of his hero and namesake.

“And I was just looking him up, reading books about him.

“And his middle name is Williams.”

Peyton Williams Manning. Kind of scary, actually.

“Yeah,” Williams said. “It’s weird.”

Williams, however, wears No. 1.

“I mean, I didn’t really like 18,” he said, grimacing a bit. “It just didn’t fit me well. I like single-digit numbers. I think they look best.”

It’s endless

  • Peyton Stoddard, he of the pink Mohawk, is an engaging little fullback and linebacker in Decatur, Indiana. His friends sometimes call him Peyton Manning. He has, on those awkward occasions, actually signed autographs by that name.
  • Peyton Jones, 9, played quarterback for the junior Broncos, of all teams, in the Washington Township League. He has not been asked to sign autographs. But his friend, Jackson Hamilton, calls him Peyton the Manning.
  • Peyton Ensor is a freshman wide receiver at Southwood High School. His mother wanted to name him Cameron, but his grandmother kept calling him Peyton. “They argued about it for a while,” Ensor said. “I guess my mom gave in.”
  • Peyton Meyer, a quarterback at Batesville High School who wears No. 18, used to sign his papers from kindergarten to third grade as “Peyton Manning.”
  • Peyton Hobson, a slot receiver for the Centerville High School Bulldogs, is named after two Hall of Fame-caliber players. “A couple of days before I was born, Walter Payton died,” Hobson said. “But my mom liked Peyton Manning. She took the spelling from Peyton Manning.”
  • Peyton Vanwinkle, a wide receiver for Centerville High School, was named after Manning because it was his father’s turn. “We were at the hospital,” said his mother, Kelly. “I said to my husband, ‘I named our daughter, and so now you get to name our son.’ And he wanted to name him Peyton, after Peyton Manning.” Of course he did. “I hesitated a little bit,” Kelly admitted. “I wasn’t real sure about naming our son after a professional athlete. Is this person going to be a good person? Are they going to represent the name well? Peyton Manning has definitely done that.”

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