Rich Nye: I'm honored to attend Peyton Manning's retirement party


I’m on an airplane headed to Denver for a retirement party. The most influential football player of my lifetime, maybe in the history of the NFL, is ready to quit. I doubt there will be cake and punch served at the Denver Broncos headquarters Monday at 1 p.m. Indianapolis time. But I feel honored to attend what should be a celebration of the remarkable career of Peyton Manning

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I covered Manning closely when he got his first paying football job. The Colts held the number one pick in the 1998 NFL draft and were looking for a quarterback. The Colts narrowed their search to a pair of candidates, Manning and Ryan Leaf. I remember some people thought that Leaf had the greater potential as a passer. I couldn’t differentiate between the two on football talent, but there was never a doubt in my mind that Manning was franchise quarterback material in personality, temperament and character.   

Manning impressed me from the first time I met him at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, holding court with reporters in the lobby of the Crowne Plaza Hotel downtown (This was before the combine blew up into the major media event it is today). He handled questions deftly with confidence, like a quarterback sitting in the pocket who could see the blitz coming because he had studied tirelessly and was prepared for anything.

See a timeline of Peyton Manning's career 

The next time I ran into Manning was a private workout for the Colts in Knoxville, Tennessee, inside the Volunteers’ indoor practice facility. We weren’t allowed in with our camera, but I watched through a small door window as Peyton threw passes to his Tennessee receivers. He looked good to me. I think new Colts general manager Bill Polian and new coach Jim Mora liked what they saw that day, too. They wouldn’t tell me.

The day before the 1998 NFL draft in New York City, the top prospects went on a harbor cruise with the media. This was our last shot to talk to Leaf and Manning before the draft day. I remember thinking that Leaf seemed like a cocky brat while Manning was a classy pro already. If I was going to have to interview one of these guys for the next decade or longer, I hoped it would be Manning.

On April 18 (how appropriate), 1998, the Colts made the decision that soon turned the Colts into a perennial contender and changed Indianapolis into a football town. I was standing just below the stage when Manning walked out to shake hands with then NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and posed for pictures wearing a Colts cap and holding a Colts jersey. My phone didn’t take pictures back then, or that might have been the biggest tweet of my career.

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I had been hounding Manning, through his father Archie, for an interview in New Orleans since before the draft. The family politely put me off until after the draft. But arrangements were finally made for me to spend a day with Manning in his hometown during the summer before his first season.

We started at an early morning outdoor workout. New Orleans summer humidity is ridiculous. By the time we arrived, a shirtless Manning was in a full sweat. I was soaked just watching him.

“Is it this hot in Indy?” Manning asked into our camera.           

Before the extreme heat of the day, we retreated to the Manning home for air conditioning and conversation. Peyton showed me his bedroom, where the walls told the story of a quarterback’s proud son who wanted to grow up and be like dad, maybe even better. Peyton even showed me his cassette collection of the radio broadcasts he loved to listen to of Archie’s college games at Ole Miss. 

We sat on the back porch, drank lemonade (as I recall) prepared by Peyton’s mother Olivia, and interviewed each other. Manning wanted to know as much about the Colts and Indianapolis as I wanted to know about him. It was obvious he was working me for information, just part of his meticulous preparation for everything he’s ever done.

Over a couple of days, I met and interviewed Archie, big brother Cooper and Peyton’s high school coach at Isadore Newman High School, Tony Reginelli. I’ll never forget Reginelli describing the passing combo of Peyton to Cooper: “It’s like red beans & rice in New Orleans. You want it every day.”

Manning had a short holdout his rookie season. I was back in New Orleans as his first contract negotiations heated up, and found myself on his flight to Indy when he reached an agreement with the Colts. Manning was kind enough to give me an interview during our layover. I think it was in Memphis. Peyton would remember. He never forgets anything. But there we were, sitting in the corner of the airport lounge doing a television interview. Can you imagine the scene that would cause today?

PHOTOS of Peyton Manning through the years

That was 18 (appropriately) seasons ago, 18 (again) years ago. Now I’m sitting on a plane with free Wi-Fi watching a Peyton Manning marathon on NFL Network as I write this story. The world has changed. The game has changed, in part because of Manning. I’m remembering all the passes, all the games, all the interviews, all the moments – all the commercials.

I’m not sure Peyton Manning is the greatest quarterback in NFL history. I give that title to Joe Montana and have to grudgingly admit Tom Brady might be his equal. But Manning is the most influential football player. Manning changed the way quarterbacks call games and make changes at the line of scrimmage. He holds every NFL passing record that matters. He’s the only quarterback to win a Super Bowl with more than one team and play in multiple Super Bowls for more than one team.

His influence off the field is incredible as well. His name is on a children’s hospital in Indianapolis. His Peyback Foundation has done great things for kids in Indiana, Louisiana, Tennessee and Colorado. Despite leaving the Colts four years ago, he is as much loved as ever in Indianapolis. That’s why WTHR sent me to Denver for his retirement announcement.

Manning was emotional at his Indianapolis farewell news conference on March 7, 2012. He didn’t want to leave, but he had no choice. Exactly four years later to the day, Manning will announce his choice to retire. He will deliver a speech for sure, thoughtfully prepared and thanking all the right people. Expect a funny story or two.

RELATED: Peyton Manning's impact on the Indianapolis Colts

What’s next for Peyton? He could announce a republican presidential run tomorrow and have a good chance of winning this fall. More commercials are sure to come. He was hilarious on Saturday Night Live and could make endless TV and movie cameo appearances. I don’t see him wanting to coach, but I could definitely see him in the front office of an NFL team in short order. Ownership seems like a definite possibility. Would Jim Irsay consider a Colts partner? Jim’s three daughters have taken on increasing responsibility, but do they really want to run the team in the future?

When Peyton left Indianapolis four years ago, he didn’t know what was next. This time, we at least know induction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame is coming in five years. Peyton is probably already working on that speech. He is always prepared.