December 3, 2000 was a cold, late fall day in East Rutherford, NJ. It was just above freezing as the Indianapolis Colts, led by third year gunslinger Peyton Manning, took on the New York Jets in a game with serious playoff implications.
Both teams were fighting for their season and every chance the Jets got to play at home was an opportunity they couldn’t pass up.
Manning was just two years removed from being the Colts’ No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft. His talents were beginning to show themselves.
Nick Ferguson, a young Jets safety who was playing in his first full year in the NFL, knew that Manning would test him.
“We had heard so much about him coming out of Tennessee,” Ferguson said. “He was this highly coveted quarterback, a first round draft choice of the Indianapolis Colts. At the time, there was so much said about Peyton Manning and what he could become as far as taking his rightful place among the great quarterbacks. I wanted to get the better of him”
During that game, Nick Ferguson did indeed get the better of Peyton Manning, diving to pick off a pass and record the first interception in what would become a decade-long NFL career. He still has the scar on his hip to prove it.
“He looks across the field and kind of looks at you and gives you that nod to say, ‘Okay, you got the best of me on that particular play, and you knew exactly where I was going to go with the ball.”
Nick Ferguson still has that ball.
He’s kept it all these years as a reminder of the first time he bested one of the greatest minds to ever play the game of football.
Peyton Manning announced his retirement Sunday after one of the most storied careers in the long history of professional sports. For some, he will be remembered as the friendly looking football player who sold us pizza and insurance and shouted “Omaha!” from the line of scrimmage.
However, for those who fought against him on Sundays Manning will always be remembered as a ruthless competitor, who turned preparation into an art form and turned football into chess.
Despite leaving the Jets in 2003, Nick Ferguson could never quite escape Peyton Manning. In fact, he would play against him 16 times during his decade-long NFL career with the Jets, Broncos, and Texans. “I played against Peyton my entire career,” Ferguson said.
During those ten years, Ferguson learned what it took to compete against Manning. Now, as Manning walks away from football after 18 seasons, five NFL MVP Awards, 14 Pro Bowls, two World Championships, and just about every single passing record known to man, Ferguson can’t help but remember the battles he waged against the future first ballot Hall of Famer.
“Facing him is a little different than facing any other quarterback,” Ferguson said. “So many times you hear about how cerebral he is as a quarterback. It’s true. In all those years playing him, we always tried to dictate to him what to do. Unbeknownst to us, he already knew what we were going to do.”
After signing the largest rookie contract in NFL history, Manning was asked what he would do with the money. He replied, “Earn it.”
To do that, Manning became obsessive about his work. He installed a full-sized film room in his Indianapolis home and would stay up until the early morning hours breaking down tape there during the middle of the week before a big game.
Ferguson says that work showed itself on Sunday. “Sometimes teams try to attack an area of the field,” Ferguson said. “Peyton Manning had become great at attacking a particular player. He would look at the tape and see one or two players and those players would be telling him exactly what a defense was going to do.”
It’s that remarkable intelligence that made so many of Peyton Manning’s opponents into his biggest fans. “I loved playing against Peyton because he made you think,” Ferguson said. “He made you strategize.”
Playing against No. 18 was a constant chess match. Too often, his opponents tried to play checkers with him. 539 touchdowns and 200 career wins are enough for Manning to change his name to “First ballot.” However, to really understand how great he was, and what the NFL is losing, you have to look beyond the film and the box score. You have to look into the meeting room.
Nick Ferguson retired from the NFL following the 2009 season. Still, he couldn’t escape Peyton Manning. Last summer, their relationship came full circle when Ferguson returned to his former football home in Englewood, CO to work with the new Broncos coaching staff as a coaching intern.
“I got the chance to do something I know a lot of defensive players would love the chance to do,” Ferguson said. “I got to sit in the room with Peyton Manning and see how he thinks.”
That experience proved to Ferguson that no matter who succeeds Manning as the Broncos’ quarterback, no one will be able to replace him.
“When I was sitting in the room and coach Knapp was going over the play with other young guys in the room and Peyton was making his checks, Brock Osweiler was there. It was one of those things where he said, ‘Listen, only Peyton Manning can do these type of things because he’s seen so much football.’ That comes with maybe more playing time than Brock had up to that point.”
Not only will Manning be irreplaceable for the Broncos, he’s irreplaceable for the NFL. “This next generation, this crop of quarterbacks will have to understand what they’re stepping into,” Ferguson said. “To look at what he brought to the game, why people watched the game, whether you were a Broncos fan, whether you were a Colts fan, you watched those Monday night games, those Sunday night games because you wanted to see what No. 18 was going to do.”
Nick Ferguson’s 16 matchups against Peyton Manning were never easy. In fact, Ferguson’s teams went 5-11 against him. However, those games are now some his most treasured football memories.
“You’re talking about an actual chess match that you had to play with Peyton Manning,” Ferguson said. “He made the game worth playing.”
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