By Zak Kefer
February 3, 2016
He was different from the start, the privileged son of an NFL quarterback who scoffed at the idea of shortcuts. At times it felt like he was engineered in some sort of football laboratory, this 6-5, 230-pound quarterbacking machine with that laser, rocket right arm and the mind of an offensive coordinator to match, constructed to make all the right reads and all the right throws and when he was finished, say all the right things.
Hours after signing his first professional contract, the Indianapolis Colts’ rookie quarterback and newly minted $48 million man was asked what he planned on doing with all that money.
“Earn it,” he said.
How many 22-year-olds say that?
Peyton Manning did.
Of course he did. He was a throwback from the very beginning. Even a young Peyton Manning never seemed all that young. That he lived alone in a two-bedroom apartment those first few years in Indianapolis wasn’t an accident: He wanted nothing to go home to. He stayed at the Colts’ West 56th Street practice facility until 10 p.m. most nights during the season, poring through film with assistant coaches. Some nights he’d fall asleep, remote in hand.
Which, of course, left him ill-equipped to complete some of the most elementary of domestic tasks. According to a 1999 profile in Sports Illustrated, this included hooking up a DVD player to his TV and opening a can of soup. Imagine: Peyton Manning, athletic wunderkind who’d go on to carve up NFL defenses for two decades, had met his match. A can of Campbell's chicken noodle.
He lacked no such assurance on the football field, where he better resembled a general commanding his troops than a quarterback calling plays. Manning once grew so incensed at his offensive line after he was sacked in a game that he lit into them on the sidelines. “Come on, line, block!” he shouted. He was in the seventh grade.
How many junior high QBs yell at their offensive lines?
Peyton Manning did.
He was always in control. He arrived in control. Just days after the 1998 draft, he petitioned the league to allow him to start practicing with the Colts early. He was denied but undaunted — he arrived for the first practice he was allowed to take part in having memorized the entire offensive playbook. Ten minutes into the workout coordinator Tom Moore turned to incumbent starter Kelly Holcomb and told him, “You come over here and stand by me now.” Manning missed one snap over the next 13 years.
All he was doing was keeping his word. Months before, at that year’s NFL Scouting Combine, the Colts set up meetings with the top two quarterback prospects in the draft. Ryan Leaf missed his. Manning didn’t. He arrived 15 minutes early with a briefcase and a legal pad of paper that had 25 questions on it he wanted answered.
An hour later Bill Polian, the team’s new president, exited the meeting shaking his head. “He just interviewed us, didn’t he?” he asked a colleague.
Still, the uncertainty over whom the Colts would select at the top of the draft — Manning was tagged the safe pick, Leaf the sexy one — persisted into April. Weeks before the draft Manning sat for lunch with team owner Jim Irsay in Miami. There he made his final pitch. He looked Irsay in the eyes. He was succinct.
“You know, Mr. Irsay, I’ll win for you,” he told him. The owner would later admit those eight words sent shivers down his spine.
A week before the draft Manning still didn’t have his answer. So he sat in Polian’s office and pressed further. Polian told him he didn’t yet have an answer. Manning grew irritated. He got up to leave.
At the last moment, he turned to Polian, “If you draft me, I promise you we’ll win a championship,” he said, before adding a minor caveat. “If you don’t, I promise to come back and kick your ass.”
How many college quarterbacks have the audacity to say that?
Peyton Manning did.
He always has. He was the star who never took a practice off, never took a game off, never took the sport for granted. He was the cocky college quarterback who kept his promises to Irsay and Polian. He lifted a perennial loser into the league’s elite. He showed Indianapolis what winning football looked like. He had 12-win, 4,000-yard, 30-touchdown seasons on autopilot. He won with Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark. He won with Donald Brown and Blair White and Devin Aromashadu.
On Sunday in Santa Clara, Calif., he reaches Game No. 293. Super Bowl 50. The End. “This might be my last rodeo,” Manning admitted to Patriots coach Bill Belichick after the AFC Championship Game. He entered the league in 1998 handing off to Marshall Faulk; he’ll exit it in 2016 trying to stall the rise of Cam Newton. Sunday almost certainly marks the last time Peyton Manning will do what he was born to do.
It will mean more here, the city in which Manning saved and strengthened and carried an NFL franchise. Pro football grew up in Indianapolis just as Manning grew up in pro football. The city learned to keep quiet while Manning worked his line-of-scrimmage magic. It laughed at his commercials, from “Cut that meat!” to his “laser, rocket arm” to, “Chicken-parm-you-taste-so-good.” It thanked him for putting his name on a children's hospital, for being the impetus behind the $720 million football palace that is Lucas Oil Stadium.
It stood by him while the “Can’t Win the Big One” critics roared, during those playoff flops to New York and New England and Pittsburgh. It reveled in his sweetest of triumphs, the monkey-off-the-back rally against the Patriots and the Super Bowl win against the Bears a few weeks later. It watched him grow from a prodigy to a Pro Bowler to a Hall of Famer. He became one of the most dependable athletes in history. He made the ridiculous routine.
That city? It never stumbled across his name in the police blotter, never heard him gripe about a contract dispute, never had to question his dedication to his craft, his team, his fans. He became a Hoosier, and he was damn proud of that. As far as role models go, there's no one better.
Which is why this city fought back tears, same as he did, on that still-surreal afternoon four years ago, the day he was forced to say goodbye. He made it all of nine words before his voice started to crack and the emotions began to swallow him. “This has weighed heavy on my heart,” he stammered. “Nobody loves their job more than I do. Nobody loves playing quarterback more than I do. There’s no other team I’ve ever wanted to play for.”
But football, as he said that day, isn’t always fair. March 2012 taught Indianapolis that.
So he started over in Denver, a legend not ready to give up on the game he loves. It has begun to crumble for him, his 39-year-old frame on the inevitable decline, his aging right arm firing far more wounded ducks than lasers or rockets or completed passes. At this stage his game was more guts and guile than anything else. His football life was expiring before our eyes.
Two months ago the NFL’s all-time leader in passing yards and touchdowns was leading the league in interceptions and being booed off his home field by his own fans. He was a backup quarterback with a sore foot. He was facing performance-enhancing drug allegations. He was done, they said.
Then he wasn’t. Then he was winning three straight. Then he was beating Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady in the playoffs, reviving a career that sat on its deathbed in late November, storming into his fourth Super Bowl two months shy of his 40th birthday.
How many 39-year-olds could have pulled off this miracle?
Because Peyton Manning did.
On Sunday, he’ll try to do what few before him could: Go out on top.
How does Indianapolis say thank you?
Dye the canal orange?
Plaster 18 in lights on Monument Circle?
Hang a Broncos banner from the Chase Tower?
A Colts town is a Broncos town for a few days. A Peyton Manning town, forever.
Call IndyStar reporter Zak Keefer at (317) 444-6134 and follow him on Twitter: @zkeefer.