Joe Reitz remembers how his head was still swimming when he joined his hometown Indianapolis Colts back in 2010.
The offensive tackle/guard had been cut twice by Baltimore and Miami, so it was a thrill to be claimed by the Colts.
On Monday, when quarterback Peyton Manning retired after 18 years in the NFL, Reitz recalled first meeting the player he grew up idolizing in Indianapolis.
“I grew up here, I love the Colts,” Reitz said. “The first practice walkthrough, I walk right out and he puts his hand out and says, ‘Hey, I’m Peyton Manning, nice to meet you.’”
Reitz smiled when thinking about that moment.
“I’m like, ‘Oh really, I didn’t know who you were,’” he said. “I guess that kind of broke the ice for me and he let me know right away that I was a part of the team and he treated me just the same as everybody else which I have a lot of respect for.
“I was a young guy on the practice squad and he, like I said, treated me like one of the guys that were playing and one of the leaders of the team. That’s something that I’ll always remember and always treasure for him, is kind of treating me as an equal when I was still a young guy that really wasn’t playing a lot on Sundays.”
Reitz as well as former Colts linebackers David Thornton and Gary Brackett shared Manning memories at the team complex. Thornton spoke of playing with Manning, then against him after the linebacker joined the Tennessee Titans. Brackett, considered the Colts’ defensive leader during so many of the Manning years, spoke of going up against No. 18 in practice.
The future Hall of Famer is largely credited with transforming Indianapolis into an NFL city as he won four of his league-record NFL MVP honors and one of his two Super Bowl rings (2007) with the Colts. Manning retired Monday after winning his second Super Bowl ring with the Denver Broncos.
“I’m excited for him and obviously the chance to go out as a Super Bowl champ is a fairy tale ending,” Reitz said. “For me, I grew up in Fishers (Indiana) so I grew up watching him and watching the Colts become really good and watching them win a Super Bowl and watching this town, this city and really the whole state change from kind of a basketball-centric state to now football just as well.
“Going to high school games now and you see 10, 15,000 kids there, obviously he had a big impact on that. Then for me getting the chance to come here and play with him for two years, being around him every day, just the way he approaches business I think is what I’ll remember how every day he brought it. He was going to be at his best every day and he was going to challenge you to do the same and if you weren’t he was going to tell you about it. So I think his leadership, he raised everybody around him and you’ve obviously seen that throughout the years how his teams are always in the hunt and always right there.”
Reitz mentioned Lucas Oil Stadium, which opened in 2008, and is commonly referred to as “The House That Peyton Built.”
“Yeah, obviously the Colts and now we’ve got wonderful Lucas Oil Stadium, which is rocking and there are 70,000 people at the game,” he said. “I can remember growing up and they were giving away tickets to get to the Colts game and now it’s, ‘Hey, three years from now can I get a ticket to the game?’ Just seeing that and seeing the impact he had on this city and the whole state as well. You go to all ends of this state, up in the region to down to Evansville, everywhere around the state it bleeds blue and he had a profound impact on that and the Colts success when he came here and started in ’98.”
Brackett, who played with Manning from 2003 to 2011, told a story about how as a rookie he intercepted the quarterback in practice.
“I think one of my first practices during the first week of rookie minicamp,” Brackett said. “I had a pick six against him in the corner. It was funny. Before that, I was a free agent and no one really knew my name. As a free agent you come in and people are like, ‘Oh, who’s this guy? What’s your name again?’ Kind of after that, he asked me what I saw, jumped the route.
“But after that, we always had a great relationship. He was the quarterback of the offense. I felt I was the quarterback of the defense, so we always kind of tried to read each other’s mind a little bit during practice and kind of figure out how we can both excel.”
Thornton played with Manning in Indianapolis from 2002 to 2005, then against him as a member of the Titans from 2006 to 2010.
“For me to be able to play with him for four years and then compete against him for five years, as a teammate to service captain with him, that was an honor, that was a special treat,” said Thornton, who now works in the Colts front office. “I had a great deal of respect of just watching how he prepared himself as a professional. That was something that I really kept under my bill as a professional. The unique thing about him in the locker room, Peyton made other guys around him better. Several times I would hear the O-line say, ‘Hey, we got to make sure we keep 18 clean today.’ Even on the defensive side of the ball, you knew if Peyton was going to score points, ‘Hey, we got to go out there and get a three-and-out.’ That’s the mark of a good leader when you’re able to help those around you elevate their game. That’s something that I would like to think that he was able to do here for a number of years.
“Going to Nashville and playing against him, that was tough. It’s one thing to be with him, but to compete against him, I think my level of respect went up even more just to see how precise he was with that football and just the decisions he made in certain situations. It’s probably going to be unmatched for someone at that position.”
Reports have surfaced that the Colts intend to honor Manning in Indianapolis at a later date. Brackett didn’t hesitate to say what would be an appropriate tribute.
“I think he’s already probably got the key to the city and everything else,” Brackett said. “I think a statue. I think that’d be very fitting. I think probably a statue in front of Lucas Oil Stadium. I think if anyone deserves a statue, I don’t think there’s one out there yet, but if anyone deserves one, I think it’s definitely Peyton Manning. I think Lucas Oil is ‘The House That Peyton Built,’ a lot of folks like to call it.
“I think honoring him and memorializing him with a statue, probably announcing him in the Ring of Honor or whatever other huge accolade you could go alongside of that. I think what he’s meant to the city of Indianapolis. I can remember in 2003 playing in the RCA Dome and people being in the crowd in shirts and ties. The decibel level was very low. I think at that (time in) 2000 when we really got hot, we really transformed the city from being a basketball city in my mind to a football city. I think a lot of that had to do with Peyton Manning.”
Phillip B. Wilson also can be found on Facebook and Google+.