By JIM LITKE
Peyton Manning strides across America this week like some modern-day Colossus, blocking out the sun from every other story on the NFL’s broad horizon.
His back foot is planted squarely in Denver, the front one hovers just above the giant footprint he left behind in Indianapolis. Yet somehow the hype has stretched even further. The clash between Manning’s present and his past has dominated the airwaves, headlines and social media for days, so freighted with emotional baggage and divided loyalties that his return trip has already been compared with everything from Ulysses’ homecoming to a visit with an ex-wife.
Manning finally broke his relative silence Wednesday, talking to reporters about the Colts only after the Broncos had finished practicing to play them.
Asked how he’ll feel during a Hall of Fame-worthy tribute planned before Sunday night’s kickoff at Lucas Oil Stadium — a.k.a. “The House That Manning Built” — the 37-year-old shrugged, then correctly pointed out there was no way to know until then.
“And,” he added, with a mischievous glint in his eye, “I might not tell you afterward, either.”
A moment later, Manning was asked what it would feel like playing against former teammates, especially fierce defenders and longtime friends like linebacker Robert Mathis, who were barely allowed to touch him during practices for years. He responded with a question of his own.
“A guy asked me, ‘Is this like playing Eli?’” Manning began, referring to his baby brother, a two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback with the New York Giants and the youngest of Archie and Olivia Manning’s three sons. Stories about football games between the boys on the family’s front lawn in New Orleans have since become the stuff of legend.
“And I said,” Manning continued, “I know Robert Mathis hits harder than Eli. I can guarantee you that.’”
After 14 years, 11 trips to the postseason and the same number of Pro Bowl selections, a record four MVP awards, one Super Bowl title and more passing records than you can count, Manning was released by the Colts on March 7, 2012. He’d had neck surgery the previous May, followed by spinal fusion surgery in September, then sat out the entire 2011 season. Doctors questioned whether Manning would ever play again, let alone whether his once-fearsome “rocket arm” would be good for much beyond holding a clipboard.
Faced with surrendering $28 million in bonus money to keep Manning, or hitch the future of the franchise to the most Manning-like QB prospect to come out of college since the original, Colts owner Jim Irsay elected to roll the dice on Stanford’s appropriately named Andrew Luck.
In the 22 games since he moved to Denver, Manning has never looked better. After a bitter, improbable, last-second loss to Baltimore in the playoffs last season, Manning opened this one by torching those very same Super Bowl-defending Ravens with seven touchdown passes, the first step in what’s become a 6-0 season.
But the Colts haven’t been too shabby in his absence, either. Indianapolis posted 11 wins last season, despite coach Chuck Pagano being sidelined for most of it while he battled leukemia, in large part because their rookie quarterback displayed poise and maturity beyond his years, both on the field and off. With Pagano back at the wheel, and Luck becoming more Manning-like with each game, the Colts have beaten NFC West powerhouses San Francisco and Seattle and fashioned an impressive 4-2 start of their own.
“I never viewed it as replacing Peyton,” Luck said after practice Wednesday. “I just viewed it as a chance to play quarterback in the NFL. It just so happened that one of the greats of all time was here before me.”
The Indianapolis chapter of Manning’s career began with an interview with then-Colts general manager Bill Polian at the scouting combine in March 1998. The Colts had the No. 1 overall pick in that year’s draft, and the only other player they were considering, strong-armed Washington State quarterback Ryan Leaf, had blown them off just days earlier.
“So now comes our chance to interview Peyton, and considering what’s at stake, I’ve got a long list of questions ready,” recalled Polian, who departed Indianapolis just months before Manning did and now works as an NFL analyst for ESPN.
“Instead, he sits down, opens his briefcase and takes out a list of 25 questions he has for us — technical football questions, questions about our offensive approach, our personnel priorities, practice priorities and so on. He said he wanted to be sure he was going to be with an organization that was dedicated to winning.”
A lot of that — winning — took place in Indianapolis between that day and this one. Yet during an interview earlier in the week, Irsay, a bona fide attention hound, called into question whether it was enough. He’s told The Associated Press much the same thing for the better part of a year now without ever getting this kind of traction.
But even after walking back some of those comments on Twitter, Irsay is sparing no expense and going full-speed ahead with plans to honor the player he treated like a son — and whom insiders like Polian credit with keeping the Colts in Indianapolis and convincing the locals to chip in tax dollars to build Irsay’s team a new stadium.
Meanwhile, Manning’s real father, Archie, is recovering from back surgery in Memphis. When a text popped up on his phone asking what concerned him most in those days before his son made the soft landing in Denver he had no trouble answering.
“Peyton’s health. Not football.”
Of course, everybody knows now how things worked out. Luck’s father, Oliver, who’s been around the game in one role or another — as a college and NFL quarterback, administrator and current athletic director at West Virginia — isn’t unhappy either.
“I don’t know that I had any real concerns, beyond the concerns any dad would have with a son who was drafted with the first pick,” he chuckled.
“So often in sports, a decision gets made and right away people rush to label it black or white, winner or loser. Andrew’s not that far along, certainly nowhere near Peyton, but what’s important is that he’s trying to get there doing things his way. … And if you look at where we were, and where we are, it really does look like a win-win for just about everybody involved.”
Colts receiver Reggie Wayne, long one of Manning’s favorite targets, said he’s had enough of everybody singing “Kumbaya.” Or maybe he’s still smarting over what Manning told the Colts would happen if they let him go: “I’ll kick your butt for the next 15 years.”
Either way, it’s high time to see who can tip the “win-win” scale in their favor, starting with Sunday.
“I’m just … I’m just … ready to play ball and get it over with,” Wayne said. “It’s like Ringling Bros. around here, man.”
Reach Jim Litke at jlitkeap.org or http://twitter.com/JimLitke