I remember exactly where I was when I heard the Denver Broncos had signed Peyton Manning. I remember for two reasons. First, because of the significance of the signing in Denver sports history. Secondly, because of the unique circumstances that led to me hearing the news.
When Peyton Manning was released by the Indianapolis Colts in March of 2012, he became the greatest free agent in NFL history. At that time, Manning was a four time NFL MVP, a two time AFC Champion, a Super Bowl Champion, and well on his way to holding every major record the NFL had to offer. Players like him were never supposed to hit the open market.
It took extreme circumstances, a neck injury that cost him his 2011 season and much of the strength in his right arm, to make him available. Had Manning decided to retire after Colts owner Jim Irsay cut him in favor of shiny new rookie Andrew Luck, he would have walked into the Hall of Fame.
Instead, Manning decided to try and come back. He decided to try and go out on his terms. He toured the quarterback needy teams in the NFL, taking calls from the San Francisco 49ers, the Arizona Cardinals, the Miami Dolphins, the Tennessee Titans, and the Denver Broncos.
San Francisco rushed him. They poked and prodded at Manning, then demanded a quick decision.
Arizona’s head coach Ken Wisenhunt wasn’t sold about Peyton’s health, and Manning wasn’t thrilled about playing in the same conference as his brother.
Tennessee wanted him badly. Owner Bud Adams said he was willing to do, “Whatever it took.” However, Peyton wasn’t nearly as excited about the idea. Tennessee was one of the least talented rosters in football.
Then, Manning went to Denver. Reporters and talk radio hosts tracked tail numbers as he flew into Centennial airport with Broncos CEO Joe Ellis and GM John Elway. Elway introduced Manning to then Broncos head coach John Fox and did exactly what the San Francisco 49ers failed to do. Elway made Manning feel comfortable.
Elway told him he understood the gravity of the situation and the difficult decision Peyton faced. He told him to take his time. He did. He chose Denver.
It was March 21, 2012. I worked in politics back then and was sitting on the floor of the Colorado State Senate waiting on the state’s highest legislative body to take a final vote on a bill about home loan assistance for veterans.
Suddenly, a coworker ran out on the floor holding a sheet of paper and asked me to hand it to my boss, Senate President Brandon Shaffer. Shaffer, a Denver native and enormous Broncos fan, had gotten me the job working as an intern in his senate office. I had known him for eight years. I had never once seen him show as much as excitement at any piece of news.
Without looking at it, I walked over to his desk and handed the note to him. When he unfolded it, his eyes popped open, and suddenly the second most powerful man in the State of Colorado jumped to his feet and released a sound I still can’t quite describe. “Yes!” he shouted. “We got him!”
Instantly, the heads of 34 other elected officials whipped around. Outbursts like this never happened on the floor of the Senate, especially from the President of the body.
One senator on the other side of the aisle shouted across the chamber, “What happened, Mr. President?” Shaffer read the note, “Peyton Manning has made the decision to sign with the Denver Broncos and has begun contract negotiations.”
The room erupted.
35 elected officials, dozens of media members, senate and party employees, and the 40 or 50 people watching the senate proceedings from the gallery all rose to their feet and started cheering.
It wouldn’t be the last time they cheered for Peyton Manning.
Win or lose, this Sunday will almost certainly be Manning’s final home game as the quarterback of the Denver Broncos. It will close the book on the most successful four year period in franchise history.
In his four years as the starting quarterback of the Denver Broncos, Manning is an astounding 48-15 with four straight division titles, three playoff victories, two AFC Championship appearances, and a Super Bowl appearance.
As a Bronco in the regular season, Manning has completed 65.7% of his passes, thrown for 17,112 yards, put the ball in the end-zone 141 times, and become only the third Denver Bronco in NFL history to win the AP’s MVP award.
His numbers are good enough to put Manning second behind John Elway in nearly every career franchise passing mark. He holds all of the single season records.
However, for me, no amount of statistical greatness can match the memories Manning will leave behind.
I remember watching the first game he played for the Broncos on Sunday Night Football against the Pittsburgh Steelers, leading Denver to a 31-19 comeback victory. After that game, Manning said something that stuck with me for a long time.
“You hear about how many fourth quarter comebacks a guy has,” Manning said. “I tend to think that means a guy screwed up in the first three quarters.”
I remember watching him fall down about as gracefully as a drunken mule when his knee brace locked up while trying to run for a first down in a 36-14 win over the Carolina Panthers. Once he got back to the sideline, John Fox told Manning, “Next time you’re thinking about running it, throw it instead.” Manning took that advice to heart, frustratingly so for some Broncos fans.
I remember watching him take his revenge against the Baltimore Ravens during the 2013 season opener, throwing seven touchdown passes in a blowout Broncos victory that set the tone for the historically great season to come.
I remember watching him throw for exactly 400 yards in the AFC Championship game to best Tom Brady for the first time as a Bronco and secure his third Super Bowl berth.
I remember watching him throw a deep touchdown strike in Seattle to force overtime against the team that had embarrassed him months prior. Yes Peyton, it was embarrassing.
Finally, I remember last Sunday. I remember watching a man who had become a shadow of the player he was when I watched the entire Colorado senate cheer his arrival.
I will always remember the image of him rising to his feet, throwing off his heavy winter coat, and beaming from ear to ear once a hard-fought postseason win against the Pittsburgh Steelers had finally been secured.
No matter what you think of Manning as a person, or a player, there can be no doubt that his time in Denver has been a resounding success.
When Manning decided to make Denver his home in March of 2012, the team was coming off one of the worst periods in franchise history. Tim Tebow was viewed as the best hope for Denver.
Yes, the same Tim Tebow who led the Broncos to an embarrassing playoff loss in New England that featured Tom Brady punting on third down. That guy was considered the Broncos best quarterback.
Make no mistake about it; Peyton Manning saved the Denver Broncos. He made the team the most popular one in all of pro-football. He brought the Broncos out of the dark ages of the McDaniels era.
It may not end this Sunday when Manning gets one more shot at his arch-nemesis with the a fourth Super Bowl appearance on the line. However, the Broncos are underdogs and there’s little chance John Elway and the Broncos front office staff will want Peyton Manning back to finish out his contract.
It’s fair to say this is the closest the Broncos have come to the end of the Manning era. I wouldn’t want that to slip by without taking a moment to say thanks.
So, on behalf of myself and the 35 elected officials who celebrated with me when you came to this city, thanks Peyton.
Now, go beat the Patriots.
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