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Manning brothers team up for Katrina relief

By Marsha Walton

Peyton Manning, left, and brother Eli handle supplies to aid in the hurricane relief effort.


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BATON ROUGE, Louisiana (CNN) -- The name Manning is legendary in the city of New Orleans for two generations of football greats. Now those hometown heroes are doing what they can to help their friends, family and thousands of their longtime fans recover from Hurricane Katrina.

"The whole town is like family, so it's very much a personal issue," said Peyton Manning, son of longtime New Orleans Saints quarterback Archie Manning.

Peyton, quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts, and younger brother Eli, who plays for the New York Giants, mobilized a plane full of relief supplies that were delivered to Baton Rouge on Saturday. Both brothers grew up in Louisiana.

Like countless other efforts across the nation, the collection and delivery of 30,000 pounds of water, Gatorade, infant formula, diapers and pillows took a lot of different players to become reality. (Watch a report on the Manning brothers' flight.)

The Manning-led effort began in Atlanta where the airplane was housed early Saturday, with about 20 employee-volunteers from AirTran Airways, flying a mostly empty aircraft to Indianapolis, Indiana, to pick up the supplies. Peyton Manning now lives in Indiana and runs a charity there.

"This is not like an everyday trip," said pilot Lee Nall Jr.

"We're just trying as best we can to add a little sanity to these people's lives. I've done two of these trips already. I'll do as many as I can."

When the plane landed in Indianapolis, it taxied to a staging area where local volunteers began loading supplies into the belly of the plane, onto the seats and into every overhead compartment.

"I can't always give as much money as I would like, but I can give blood and give my time," said Becca Lang, an AirTran employee in Indianapolis.

The Manning brothers helped load some of the pallets of baby formula and water. They also talked to more than a dozen reporters from Indianapolis newspapers, radio and TV stations before boarding the flight to Louisiana.

Peyton Manning said he knows it's a balancing act for athletes and other celebrities who genuinely want to help.

"I talked to the Red Cross and told them I certainly didn't want to get in the way, but I wanted to do whatever I could to help," he said. "They said these people are down, so any kind of morale boost we could give would be good for them, too."

The Mannings have been involved in community assistance for many years. When he joined the NFL, Peyton Manning set up the PeyBack Foundation, which has since contributed money to youth organizations in Indiana, Tennessee and Louisiana.

While he said he's contributed to other disaster funds after last year's tsunami, the 9/11 attacks and Florida's hurricanes in 2004, Peyton said knowing the streets, businesses and neighborhoods in southern Louisiana hit him hard.

"It's just different when you have your hometown hit. It just triggers a nerve," he said. "We grew up in New Orleans, and my parents are from Mississippi. Slidell, St. Bernard -- I can just visualize them."

Eli Manning said it has been difficult to see the TV pictures of the devastation in the city where he grew up. Both brothers accompanied the supplies to their old home town.

"It's hard to watch what's happened to the city, people with no place to go, up to their waists in water. We just wanted to do something extra, so we set up this plan to help some of these people," he said.

He also echoed Lang's sentiment that it's not just about monetary donations.

"You don't have to be a celebrity to get involved," he said.

One of the AirTran volunteers on the flight, New Orleans native Toni Pugh, said she was trying to stay busy to keep her mind off her own fears.

"My daughter and grandbabies and I evacuated New Orleans just before the storm, but my husband didn't come," Pugh said. "Maybe he was just stubborn, but he said he wasn't leaving, and I haven't heard from him in six days."

Pugh tried to take a nap in the back of the plane on the trip from Indianapolis to Baton Rouge. When she turned her cell phone back on after landing, she had a voice message that lifted a weight off her shoulders.

The message was from a neighbor, who said her husband, Ralph, was safe with him and doing fine.

"I just, it just all came out, tears of joy, I just couldn't stop shaking," she said, laughing and crying at the same time. Co-workers hugged her when they heard the good news.

Scores of Red Cross volunteers at the Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport loaded the tons of supplies onto waiting trucks.

"This stuff is great, and we need it so badly," said Red Cross volunteer Karyn Degenais, a school psychologist from Oregon on leave from her job to help with the relief effort in Louisiana.

"This is the largest disaster in Red Cross history. We already have more than 300 shelters set up, in six states already," she said.

The agency knows many more shelters will be needed, and they're looking as far away as Utah and Oregon, she said.

"Last box!" cried out a now euphoric Pugh from inside the plane, as the final container was emptied from the coach seats, down a conveyor belt and onto a Red Cross disaster truck.

"I feel so good now I could lift all these boxes myself," she said, smiling.

As the empty AirTran plane taxied for its return to Atlanta, Peyton and Eli Manning headed off to spend some time in the region they call home.

"We know these people; these people know us," Peyton said. "We have a connection to these people."

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