“The greatest pleasure in life is doing what people say you cannot do.”
~ Walter Bagehot ~
I remember it like it was yesterday. It was a Saturday morning. I was in college, and I set my alarm so I would wake up in time to see it. I went out to the living room so as to not disturb my sleeping roommate, and I turned on the TV. The commissioner of the NFL stepped to the podium and spoke into the microphone, “With the first pick, the Indianapolis Colts select quarterback, University of Tennessee, Peyton Manning.” I had been a Peyton Manning fan for four years by that point, and that morning would define the next eighteen.
On March 7, 2016, that eighteen years came to a close as the man who taught me to love and cherish the game of football decided it was time to hang up his cleats. As I sat there watching quite possibly the best, most gracious retirement speech I’ve ever seen in my lifetime, I wondered how to process it all. Over the course of the last season, I’ve had many moments to accept this was the end, to process the finality of one the greatest experiences of my life, but when faced with the actuality of it, it didn’t feel real at all. I wanted to laugh. I wanted to cry. I wanted to do anything but accept what was happening before my eyes. It wasn’t until the next morning when my mind began comprehending what the 2016 NFL season would look like. Since 1994, with the exception of 22 games, I could count on Peyton Manning playing football in the fall. That won’t be the case come September. I realized there would be no more live plays to add to the memory bank. All I have now is game film and highlights (God bless NFL Films) and stories I could tell over and over. I want to remember everything because someday someone who is too young now or hasn’t even been born, yet, may ask me, “what was it like to see Peyton Manning play football?” First, I would ask how much time they had, and then this would be my answer.
He could quiet an entire stadium of people with the wave of his hand. He could pick up a blitz faster than a defensive coordinator could order one. Opposing coaches had plays in their playbook specifically named for him that, try as they might, still didn’t work. He could run an 80 yard, 2-minute drill with such pristine efficiency that it was questionable if he was even human. His memory was like a super computer. He could process information so quickly that I’ve said on more than one occasion that he should donate his brain to science research after his death. His passion and love for the game of football and its history is unequaled. His teammates loved him, his fans adored him, and the league was grateful for his professionalism and class. As the son of a Pro-Bowl quarterback, he had every highest expectation possible hanging over his head his entire life, and he lived up to and exceeded all of it. In my heart and soul, there will never be another like him. But that’s just the Cliff’s Notes. Here’s the novel.
Alongside every great football player is his teammates, and Peyton had some of the best in the business. I could attempt to list them all here, but it would take far too long, too much space, and I would surely forget several. It’s easier to talk about it in moments. Let’s start with Peyton’s most frequent target, Marvin Harrison. My favorite Marvin memory isn’t one of his long catches or how he managed to make nearly every corner in the league dive the wrong way on a tackle attempt. It was a two-point conversion in the 2006 AFC Championship game. It’s significant for multiple reasons. It was a pinpoint, accurate pass that only Marvin could catch. It came after a touchdown Peyton threw to defensive tackle Dan Klecko, and it tied the game after a comeback from 18 points down. That game took years off my life. In fact, I very nearly turned it off and went to bed, but I was doing laundry at the time, so I told myself I’d go to bed as soon as the laundry was done. The dryer buzzed on the last load right after that two-point conversion, so I went to bed much later than planned that night. Both teams battled it out, and to this day, these are the final words etched in my brain: “Intercepted by Marlin Jackson. Marlin’s got it. We’re going to the Super Bowl. We’re going to the Super Bowl.” Those are the words of Colts radio announcer Bob Lamey describing Tom Brady throwing an interception to seal the Colts victory, and I will never forget them.
The touchdown catch that runs through my memory like a YouTube video on repeat is touchdown #49 in the 2004 season to Brandon Stokley. I can see that entire play in my head. It was from 21 yards out, and Brandon was lined up in the slot. He took off running as fast as he could, and Peyton threw a pass over the middle to the end zone before Brandon was even there, but by the time the ball sailed through the air, it fell right into Brandon’s hands who had reached the perfect spot at just the right second. It was beautiful, and it broke Dan Marino’s single-season TD record. Tom Brady would eventually break Peyton’s record in 2007 with 50, and Peyton would break Tom’s record with 55 touchdowns in 2013, but that pass to Brandon Stokley might be my favorite touchdown pass Peyton ever threw.
In Peyton’s 14 year career with the Colts, a lot of players came and went, but my absolute favorite player Peyton has ever played with is Dallas Clark, tight end from Iowa. I’m not ashamed to admit, he’s easy on the eyes, but he was also a workhorse who laid his body on the line for that football team. He played the 2006 post season with a partially torn ACL because we needed him to be an acrobat in football pads. I have watched that man make a one-handed catch for a touchdown with the ball high above his head. I have seen him stumble over the grass untouched, correct his balance, and then complete the 80-yard touchdown in a win vs. the Dolphins in which the Colts possessed the ball for less than 15 minutes of game time. It was unheard of for any team in NFL history to win a game while controlling the ball for less than 15 minutes. The Dolphins gambled that keeping Peyton on the bench gave them the best shot at winning the game. Bad idea. Don’t tell Peyton he can’t do something because no one has ever done it before. It will backfire. It was also the night Peyton surpassed Johnny Unitas as the winningest Colts quarterback in team history. But even those touchdowns aren’t my favorite Dallas Clark completion. In fact, it was a bobbled catch vs. the Ravens in the 2006 divisional round playoff game. The defender was in front of Dallas Clark, but Peyton threw that ball anyway. It grazed the defenders fingertips, and Dallas got a hand on it. It then rolled right down his arm, bounced off his thigh, and landed in his hand. First down, move the chains. Peyton got the next play off so quickly that he managed to catch the Ravens in a 12 men on the field penalty, one of his specialties in picking defenses apart. But, that catch kept the Colts’ drive alive and led to a fifth field goal and a secured spot in the AFC championship game the next week. It was so ugly, it was beautiful.
I remember the first time I ever saw Peyton play in person in an NFL game. It was the opening game of the 2004 regular season vs. the Ravens in Baltimore. That’s not the friendliest of stadiums to play especially for the Colts. There’s a bit of history there, none of which is related to anyone on the team now or in 2004 for that matter. Nevertheless, the animosity still exists, but what I remember about that game is seeing the no-huddle audible up close and live for the first time. TV doesn’t even come close to doing it justice. Not even HD can capture its perfection. I sat there mesmerized by his command and efficiency in the short amount of time a play clock allows. Some people get impatient waiting for him to take the snap, but when you really watch, really sit back and take in every second of it, it actually looks more like art than football.
The important part of that process is the snap itself. I’ve watched enough football in my life to know how a snap can make or break the momentum of a team. For the majority of his career, Peyton had one person snapping him the ball: Jeff Saturday, Tar Heel. (That one was for you, Stuart Scott.) Jeff had the difficult task of translating Peyton’s audibles to the rest of the offensive line. He developed an entirely different language for them, so he would hear Peyton’s audible and relay the plan to the rest of the line in the language only they knew. It was a well-oiled machine, but Peyton put Jeff through the ringer. I remember when they were preparing to play the Bears in Super Bowl XLI, there was a report that it might rain on Super Bowl Sunday. In the week leading up to the game, after practice each day, Peyton would have Jeff dunk the football in freezing, cold water and then snap the ball to him over and over just in case the report was correct. It was, by the way. First time in Super Bowl history it rained on game day.
I was honored to be invited to the White House when the Colts came to visit with the President, and I met Dallas Clark, Jeff Saturday, and Adam Vinatieri. I also had the great privilege of finally meeting Peyton Manning and Tony Dungy at the US Capitol. They all could not have been more gracious and kind. Meeting Peyton obviously was the highlight, but words, much like that day as I bumbled through talking to him, fail me in trying to describe that moment. It is frozen in time, but I remember him sticking out his hand and saying, “Hi, I’m Peyton Manning,” kidding me about graduating from Alabama, and graciously agreeing to take a picture with me. Those days remain two of the best days of my life.
I will never forget the first time he beat the Patriots in Foxborough. That stadium had been his kryptonite, but one Monday night in 2005, as I sat in my bedroom floor bawling my eyes out, the final seconds ticked off the clock in a 40-21 win. It was something I never thought I’d get to see, but by golly, he pulled it off. I remember sitting in the floor in front of my parents’ TV on Thanksgiving Day in 2004 wearing my #18 Colts jersey as I watched Peyton throw six touchdown passes against the Lions. I’d never seen anything like it, and I thought I never would, again. Funny thing, though, Peyton always likes to prove me wrong.
The second time I saw Peyton play an NFL game in person was in Indianapolis in a September 2006 game vs. the Jaguars. That was the day I realized how genius it was to play football indoors in a controlled climate. So much more enjoyable for spectators to not have to worry about being too hot or too cold or rained/snowed on. It was heavenly for this girl who grew up sweating to death at Tampa Bay Buccaneers games. The game was even better. Dallas scored, Terrence Wilkins – the little engine that could- scored on an 82-yard punt return, and Peyton Manning scored a rushing touchdown on a naked bootleg. I couldn’t have asked for a better game to see live.
Since I mentioned the Buccaneers, maybe this is the perfect time to talk about that miracle night in 2003. It was Tony Dungy’s second season as the Colts head coach and his first return to Tampa after being fired by them following the 2001 season. Every single member of that Colts team wanted to win that game for him, but things seemed bleak down the stretch with the Colts down 21 points with less than seven minutes remaining in the game. The Bucs wouldn’t score another point while the Colts would score 24 unanswered. It was a Monday night game and my mom had stayed home and sent my father and brother to the game by themselves. I remember talking to her as the Bucs, winning by 7, punted the ball back to the Colts with a little more than 90 seconds left in regulation. I told her, “you have left him too much time on the clock. You will lose this game.” Peyton didn’t need 90 seconds. He needed four to tie the game. A Bucs missed field goal later and the game went into overtime with the Colts eventually winning on a 29-yard field goal. To this day, of all the come from behind victories I have watched Peyton orchestrate over the years, that game remains my absolute favorite one.
Of course, it wasn’t always as easy as it seemed. In fact, sometimes it was downright excruciating to get through a season that didn’t end in a Super Bowl win because the narrative was always that Peyton couldn’t win the Big Game…until he did. Then it became he can’t win another one. The media never stopped. He evicted one monkey from his back and another one was placed there the next day. In total, his teams reached four Super Bowls and won two. The pain of losing in a Super Bowl is something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, but mark my words, losing in your first game of the playoffs is more brutal than I can even put into words. I wanted a championship for him so badly, that I physically ached after some of those playoff losses. The problem was always that I knew he was one of the greatest to ever play the game, and no Super Bowl ring was going to change that. He was the same quarterback who walked onto the field against the Bears for XLI as walked off the field after wining the game. He simply had more hardware and jewelry afterward. His skill level and ability didn’t change except to the media…for a split second until they moved the line for him, again.
The game wasn’t always kind to his body, either. Some problems were man-made while others were simply part of the natural aging process, but I remember the exact moment his neck was injured. It was a game against the Redskins in which two defenders, one of whom was fined the next week for the hit, came at him low and high. They bent him backward at the waist like he was Stretch Armstrong, and when they let go, he bounced back to the earth violently. He laid there for a few seconds until the referee told him that if he didn’t call a team timeout, they would have to call an injury time out, which would require Peyton to sit out a play. Peyton called the time out. The defensive coordinator for the Redskins that season was Gregg Williams who would later be found guilty by the NFL for developing an illegal bounty system with the Saints to pay players for injuring opponents. Over the next four years, the nerve damage sustained during that play, though not noticeable at the time, would gradually worsen until the four neck surgeries became necessary along with sitting out the entire 2011 season. Prior to that lost season, Peyton missed one play due to injury when a defender hit him under the chin strap and broke his jaw. He came out, missed one play, and returned to the game with a bloodied and swollen jaw.
The lost season would lead to the end of an era and the end of my loyalty to the Colts. I suppose someday I will have to visit Indianapolis, again, to see the statue they plan to place in front of Lucas Oil Stadium and maybe to see his name in the ring of honor next to Johnny Unitas’s, but March 7, 2012 ended any respect I had for that organization when he was fired by the Colts because of the injuries he was rehabing at the time. The speech and press conference Peyton gave at his public firing was one of the kindest, most dignified, and professional demonstrations I have ever seen in my life by any human being, but it didn’t stop me from sobbing uncontrollably at my desk at work. I, like Peyton, had hoped and dreamed and really believed all those years ago in 1998 that he would be a Colt for life, that he would achieve that rare feat of playing his entire NFL career with one team. His father hadn’t even done that despite his loyalty to the Saints and New Orleans. But, alas, both Peyton and I would be forced to mourn the loss of that dream and search for a new landing spot.
That spot resides a little more than 1000 miles west of Indianapolis in Dove Valley for the Denver Broncos Football Club. For the best behind the scenes story on Peyton’s free agency tour and eventual signing with the Broncos, check out Peter King’s column for Sports Illustrated. I was cautiously optimistic, still emotionally hurt by the firing, and fearful that he wouldn’t be able to play football by the time the 2012 season rolled around. What happened over the next four years was captivating, enthralling, unbelievable, and brilliant. Though the last season and a half the aging process really took its toll on his performance, what I saw in the midst of it was a seasoned veteran who found a way to contribute even when his body was failing. He was never, in eighteen years, going to win a game with his legs or his speed (or lack there of), but he could always, always win with his mind. So, when the body stopped responding the way he needed it to, he put all his eggs in the brain basket, and with the extraordinary help of the greatest defense in the history of the NFL, he won a second Super Bowl to close out his career.
Wait, not so fast. How did we get there? We can’t possibly just skip over four whole years, right?!
Of course not! I wouldn’t leave out the most crucial part of the story. I just needed to wrap up the Indianapolis chapter before moving on. There was a moment at that first game in a Broncos uniform when my heart skipped a beat. I’d spent the previous year thinking I would never get to see him play football, again, so seeing him run out of that tunnel and take his first snaps for Denver truly took my breath away. Obviously, I cried because as the years grew closer to the end of his career, I got significantly more emotional. I didn’t know at that moment the next four years would go by so fast and hold so many incredible achievements and memories.
I don’t remember the first touchdown he threw to Demaryius Thomas, but I do remember pausing to appreciate the irony of finding another #88 to throw to. Like Marvin Harrison before him, DT became a bit of a security blanket for Peyton’s first three years in Denver. Marvin Harrison will remain Peyton’s top receiver of all time in touchdowns, but DT, in only four seasons, comes in at #4 on the list.
I remember the press conference when Emmanuel Sanders was signed by the Broncos. I remember it because he said the magic words every Peyton Manning fan loves to hear:
To play with Peyton Manning is like wide receiver heaven. I feel like he’s one of the greatest quarterbacks to play the game. Definitely I look up to him a lot in terms of his preparation, and I know that he’s going to make me a better player whether it’s mentally and physically. I know that I’m in a great environment.
I have always appreciated a player who wanted to play with Peyton, but also one who wanted to learn from him. Over the years, there have been plenty who thought just being on the same field with him would be enough. That the game would be easy just because Peyton was throwing passes to them, but the truth is he wants you to work for it just as much as he does. He wants you to study and prepare the way he does. But more than anything he wants you to do those things because you want to do them to become a better player and out of respect for the game not because he asks or tells you to. Emmanuel Sanders got that, and he got it by just watching Peyton. He saw the structure and the dedication, and he understood that to be the best football player he could be, he needed to follow that blueprint. E was handsomely rewarded for his hard work on and off the practice field with pass after pass after pass his first season with the Broncos, but it took until game six for him to catch a touchdown pass. I had many an argument with the football gods about why E hadn’t found the end zone, yet, and then they finally threw me and E a bone. He would finish that season with nine touchdown passes and over 1,400 receiving yards. In all his seasons with the Steelers prior to that, he’d never been above 800 yards on the season. In his two years with Denver and Peyton, he amassed over 2,500 yards and quickly became one of my all time favorite Peyton teammates.
For as long as I live, I will never forget the joy of the 2013 season. It started with Peyton proving me wrong like I said earlier he liked to do by throwing seven touchdowns against the Ravens in the opening game, and by the end of the season, it became one of the greatest statistical seasons for any quarterback in the history of the NFL. Peyton broke the single-season touchdown record, again as well as the single-season passing yards record. If there is any one season that I enjoyed watching Peyton play the most, it was that year. He was having so much fun with his teammates, with the game of football. It just seemed like a dream come true. It was during that season I realized the dream of playing for one team for an entire career had to die in order for this to happen. As much as I will always carry with me the pain of seeing Peyton heartbroken over being fired, and rightfully so, I also will always carry with me the memories of watching him prove how much he still had left in him. I would go through all that heartache, again, if that’s what it took to get the last four years of his career.
Don’t get me wrong, that season ended terribly at a Bruno Mars concert also known as Super Bowl XLVIII. From the start, it was clear it was not the Broncos’ night, but try as it might, it could never take away how magnificent the rest of the season was. Peyton’s time with Denver wasn’t without its problems. There were endings in the playoffs that ripped my heart out and stomped on it like the overtime loss to the Ravens in 2012 and excruciatingly painful loss to the Colts in 2014. There would be the season he finished even while playing on a torn right quad muscle, and the final season when a new offensive strategy caused a partially torn plantar fascia in Peyton’s left foot. It was hard sometimes to watch him struggle to run out on the field, but that faded away in February as he lifted the Lombardi Trophy high above his head with his teammates who had struggled and fought through the season with him to bring home a championship to Denver. I loved those teammates because they loved and supported Peyton. No matter how bad it got, they had his back. Perhaps they recognized the man who had carried them for the three years before and realized it was their turn to carry him. Whatever it was, I will forever be grateful to that team and franchise.
There are a million more stories and memories and moments I could tell. There are players and coaches and front office executives I haven’t mentioned who deserve recognition like Pat Bowlen, Tom Moore, Adam Gase, Bill Polian, Jim Mora, Jim Caldwell, John Fox, Gary Kubiak, John Elway, Joe Ellis, Gary Brackett, Bob Sanders, Dwight Freeney, Cato June, Joseph Addai, Tarik Glenn, Ryan Diem, Hunter Smith, Pierre Garcon, Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, CJ Anderson, Eric Decker, Wes Welker, Jacob Tamme, Chris Harris, Jr., Champ Bailey, Terrance Knighton, Julius Thomas, Montee Ball, Bennie Fowler, etc. All of them…every single player…who ever suited up and battled for 60 (or more) minutes alongside Peyton on either side of the ball has a memory in my bank because they helped write his story. I could talk at length about the gracious man he is outside of football and the millions of big and little wonderful things football has provided him the opportunity to do over the years for those less fortunate than him or those who just needed a positive message of hope and encouragement because they helped write his story, too. I could tell you about the beautiful person he became when his children Marshall and Mosley came into this world, but I will leave that story for them to tell in the years to come.
For my part, all I know is twenty-two years ago, when he committed to Tennessee, I started building my Peyton Manning memory bank, and as I sit here fighting back tears, I find myself immensely overwhelmed and in awe of these years. This is not my story. It is his, but I will cherish every second of it he shared with us, and after all the tears have stopped falling like rain, I will still have these memories to be my sunshine.
Thank you, Peyton. Words can never appropriately express what an honor it was to love the game of football with you.
*If you were looking for a lengthy discussion about the actions of a 19-year-old, you did not and will not find it here. I have known and understood that story for 20 years after extensively reading and researching both sides of the situation. Though some believe this information was not available until recently, they are wrong. A simple Google search or reading of his Wikipedia page is all it would’ve taken. Nothing new has been revealed that hadn’t previously been reported nor changed the fact that no physical contact was made that day between the plaintiff and defendant other than the plaintiff examining the defendant’s foot. But I learned a long time ago that nothing I say or do or Peyton says or does is going to change the opinion someone has already developed about him. If you choose to believe the lies and biased view of a tabloid reporter with an agenda, that is your choice, and you are well within your right to do so. I, on the other hand, prefer to stick with that extensive research I did each time the plaintiff brought this up, again, in order to make money for her livelihood. That research turned up nothing but a childish prank by a 19-year-old whose behavior since has not demonstrated a repeat offense. I’m not going to crucify him for it for the rest of his life because I don’t want to live in a world where forgiveness doesn’t exist.