"Meet Mrs. Manning"

By Judy Burnett
Photos by Harold Lee Miller


She exudes charm like a true Southern belle, and despite having lived in Indy for five years, she still has the drawl of the Old South.

Ashley Manning is the epitome of a modern working woman. The bright, attractive, fun-loving 31-year-old is full of energy. Her days are filled with projects and interests far beyond her famous husband's job as the quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts.

The notably private young woman was born and raised in Memphis, Tenn., one of four children. She has an older sister, Allison, and a younger brother and sister, Will and Leigh. Her father, Bill, is an investment banker and commercial real estate developer.

Her mother, Marsha, was a stay-at-home mom. Volunteerism and giving were ingrained in her at an early age.

"Both my parents made it a point to involve us," Manning says. "They taught by example." She remembers visiting one particular disadvantaged family as a child. "My dad took us," she says. "I think he had given them a car. We would play together and we were so much like those children, but then I would come home to my house where I had everything I needed. My life was so different. It really made an impact on me."

Manning participated in a program called Service Over Self during junior high school. Students would go out for a full week every summer and work alongside needy homeowners in the heart of Memphis to repair and renovate their homes. Ever the overachiever, she did it for four weeks.

Allison Luter, Manning's older sister, says she was always very competitive. "If I would say at the dinner table that I made a 95 on my math test, Ashley would say she made a 98 on her history test," Allison laughs.

Manning was active in Youth for Christ and also was involved with the Boys and Girls Club, where she tutored every Saturday during high school. In high school, she was honored by being inducted into the Acensus Society, an honor society for outstanding charity involvement.

Luter says she and Manning, who are just 14 months apart, were like twins when they were children. "We were so close in age that we even dressed alike," she says.

Despite that closeness, they fought like most sisters until Allison went away to college. That's when they became particularly close. "We talk several times a day now," Allison says. "She is my best friend."

According to Luter, Manning is a wonderful aunt to her three daughters, all under 5 years old. "She loves to spoil them," Luter says. "All the exciting and fun things my kids have came from Ashley and Peyton."

Real estate mogul in the making
Manning graduated from the University of Virginia in 1997 after majoring in finance and marketing. A fledgling real estate developer, she has built three spec homes in Tennessee. Her real estate development company has its sights on Indianapolis as well, where she is involved in marketing a downtown residential development property. She sees herself doing more spec homes in the future. "I really love seeing it go from nothing to this house. I love business. I've always been a business girl. When I was a little girl, I played banker," she laughs. "I was imitating my dad."

As a child, she won a trip for raising the most money for a charity bowling event. Manning gave the trip to another child. "I was really into selling," she says. "I always won the Girl Scout cookie award for selling the most."

Meeting Mr. Manning
She was introduced to Peyton by her parents' next-door neighbor the summer before Peyton's freshman year in college.

The neighbor had played football at the University of Tennessee and hosted Peyton on a recruiting trip. The neighbor thought Ashley and Peyton would be perfect for each other. Ashley remembers her first impression of Peyton was that he seemed very genuine. The neighbor proved to be a good matchmaker. The couple married in Memphis on St. Patrick's Day in 2001.

Manning realizes she is important to Peyton's career. "The way I really help Peyton is that I don't demand a lot of his time," she says. "He's willing to give it, but I'm not the type of person that is nagging on him. I think that helps him. He's able to do what he needs to do and I'm very independent. I do a lot of my own things."

She has heard that people think she is aloof. "I like to stay out of the spotlight," she says. "People may think I am aloof, but I'm not, and I am not shy by any means, but I always let Peyton shine."

Her sister agrees. "In the last year, she has become more recognized, but she definitely does not seek the limelight," Luter says.

Paying back
The Mannings established the PeyBack Foundation shortly after Peyton was drafted by the Colts. The foundation's mission is to promote the future success of disadvantaged youth by assisting programs that provide leadership and growth opportunities for children at risk.

"Helping children was a passion of mine," Manning says. "I worked with Peyton to get it started. We want to pay back everything we've been given."

They recognize they are role models for children.

"As an athlete, Peyton can be a role model," Manning says. "That's the biggest thing he can do. Our goal is to give them some of the opportunities we had growing up.

"For example, in December, we took Peyton's Pals to volunteer for Special Olympics," she says. "We're teaching them to help others. Hopefully, they will keep it up."

Peyton's Pals are children from Child Advocates, an Indianapolis not-for-profit organization that represents and protects the best interests of abused and neglected children involved in legal proceedings by providing each child with court-appointed guardians in Marion County.

In June, Manning and several PeyBack Foundation volunteers took 17 children on a four-day Walt Disney cruise.

"This was the second year we've done it," she says. "A lot of them had never been on a plane let alone on a cruise. I would think it was probably their first time out of Indiana.

"Just to see the joy on their faces, you can't imagine it. They had probably 10 smoothies a day each because it was all you can eat."

The Mannings have been involved with Child Advocates since Peyton arrived in Indianapolis. Cindy Booth is the executive director of Child Advocates and works directly with the couple. "Whatever the activity with the kids, Ashley gets right in the middle of it," Booth says. "The children see her as a friend. She bowls with them, swims in the ocean with them - whatever they are doing, Ashley does it, too.

"When we were on the cruise, Ashley got all the kids up singing karaoke and dancing. I appreciate her genuine commitment to our kids and to our organization."

Manning explains her willingness to roll up her sleeves and jump in the trenches. "We can give them financial support, but I also think we can give the kids confidence and help teach them to make the right decisions in their lives," Manning says. "A lot of these kids don't have a consistent adult in their lives. Definitely Peyton is a role model, and it is neat for me to be a role model for the girls in the group."

At a Child Advocates event shortly before the cruise, Manning met a young man named James, who will be a senior at Indiana University this year. James is a former Child Advocates kid who, despite having all the odds against him, has persevered and succeeded. Manning recognized he would be a good role model for the kids as well and spontaneously asked him to come along on the cruise.

Manning has become very close to the kids. She goes to their ballgames and other activities. "We like to get them involved in sports because it is such a good influence," she says. "They learn to socialize with other kids in a healthy manner."

Booth says the kids know the level of Manning's commitment. "They understand she doesn't have to be there," Booth says. "Ashley is very intuitive and asks very intelligent questions about the kids. She wants to understand what has happened in their lives."

Elizabeth Ellis, executive director of the Mannings' PeyBack Foundation, says the kids are very comfortable with Manning. "She has been very consistent," she says. "They don't look at her as a celebrity because she has come to every event. She just sits down and talks to them about braiding hair or something. They love her."

Not long ago, Manning stood before the guests at a breakfast for Child Advocates and asked them to write a check. "That was something new," Manning says. "I'd never done that before. I have been asked many times to do that, but I won't do it for just anything. That's how strongly I feel about it."

Booth says Ashley is one of the kindest people she has ever met. "She is truly a very good person with a big heart."

Breast cancer advocacy
Last fall, the Colts asked Manning to help their efforts to raise money for breast cancer. "(Green Bay Packers quarterback) Brett Favre's wife, Deanna, had come down with breast cancer and that made an impact on me," Manning says. "I thought with Peyton and the Colts, we can do something to make a difference."

Her battle against breast cancer quickly became intensely personal.

She ordered pink Colts ball caps to sell to raise money for breast cancer research. "My dad bought a large amount of hats and I mailed them to my mom," Manning recalls. "The day she got them she called me and said, 'I got your hats and it's perfect timing, because I just found out today that I have breast cancer.'"

Manning's mother had a double mastectomy in November and is doing well. "I went and stayed with her during that and it was awful," she says. "That made a big impact."

Manning's goal is to use Peyton's platform to raise awareness and money for breast cancer research. Several Indianapolis businesses have pledged to help her raise money through events. "If you can find it early, you'll be OK," Mannings suggests. "That's really my goal, to help improve people's ability to find it early."

Girls just wanna have fun
On the Peyton's Pals cruise, Manning got all the girls in the group up on a stage to dance and sing "Girls Just Wanna' Have Fun." It could be her anthem.

"If someone asked me, 'Who do you want to hang out with?' it would be Ashley," Luter says. "She makes anything fun. She can make running errands fun."

When she has time for fun, Manning tries to be outside. She likes to bike ride and participate in water sports such as skiing, jet skiing, boating - anything on a lake.

"There is this new thing called a Kite Tube," she says. "It looks like an inner tube and they pull you behind a boat and you fly up in the air. I saw some people I did not even know doing it last weekend and asked them if I could go. They let me."

Doing good
"When you die and the Lord asks you 'What did you do with what I gave you?' if you have nothing to say it would be horrible," Manning says. "You've got to do something." Her faith is as strong as her sense of responsibility. Manning reads her Bible every night before bed.

"She is very giving and wants to help people," Luter says. "She has such a strong faith. I am proud of her."

Ashley suggests finding your passion and then giving and volunteering to causes that are important to you. "If you can find your passion, you'll do more good," she says. "People do need to find a way to serve others."

Ashley isn't done doing good work. She has another project in mind. "Someday I want to start something for kids that is like The Apprentice to teach them about business," she says. "But I want it to be for disadvantaged kids to give them a chance."

Luter sums up her sister in one sentence: "She is doing something good with what she has been given."