When Peyton Manning learns that another NFL star is retiring from the game, he makes a point to take pen to paper and write that player a long, congratulatory letter on his career and the mark he made on the game. Sunday, we learned that which was inevitable; Manning himself is going to retire and make it official during a Monday press conference in Denver. I am quite sure several NFL players will reach out to Manning, through social media or even in an old-fashioned letter, but I wanted to write my own digital letter, of sorts.
Andrew Luck’s agent here. Remember the latter stages of the 2011 season when I’d approach your locker and you’d crack a broad smile and say, "Hey, it’s Andrew Luck’s agent"? I’m quite sure that it bothered you a little bit that I was pushing for the Colts to start over with Luck – at last check, I wrote about 412 columns about it – but I never sensed there was a lot of anger behind the barb. Fact is, our relationship only grew after that, and I will always appreciate the fact that you entrusted me to objectively tell your side of the story during the divorce proceedings with the Colts.
But enough about that.
You know this; heck, everybody knows this: You’re leaving at precisely the right time. In 98 percent of cases, the game retires the player, robs him of his health or his ability to help a team win football games. But you’ve always been the exception to the rule. You’re not leaving too early, not leaving too late. This is just right, walking off into one of those brilliant Denver sunsets over the Rocky Mountains, a second Lombardi in hand, your mind-boggling legacy fully completed. If there’s a record for men at your position, you own it. Not to mention those two Super Bowls.
What blows me away, though, even more than what you accomplished on the field in Indianapolis, is the way you forged that second act in your career. Very few people in any line of business have a second act, and even fewer get to enjoy a renaissance in a sport as brutish as football. To think that you could come back after four neck surgeries and sundry other injuries, and win more MVP’s and reach more Super Bowls, finally winning that one this year over Carolina, is mind-boggling. Normal people don’t do that. You’re not normal, and I say that as nicely as I can possibly mean it.
I’m guessing that for most Colts fans, their enduring memory will be your performance in the second half of the AFC Championship Game victory over the New England Patriots, coming back from a 21-6 deficit, exorcising all the old demons along the way. And there was that self-satisfied grin on your face when you held up the Lombardi in the rain in Miami, a champion then and forever, an exclamation point on an already-brilliant career.
I would acknowledge that on the field, that New England game is the one that lives on in my mind’s eye. But after maintaining a professional relationship with you over the years, I have different sorts of memories from your time here.
Many, many years ago, I wrote a piece (or the Indianapolis Star wrote the piece; I can’t recall) about a child from the Brownsburg Little League team who suffered horrific injuries in a skateboard accident. The day the story appeared, I got one of those calls from "unknown number" and there you were, asking if I had the family’s number.
"Do you think they’d mind if I called and lent them my support?" you asked.
I laughed, said they’d be thrilled to hear from you.
"Oh, and don’t write it, OK?" he asked.
Sorry, Peyton. I lied. I’m writing it. And I’m writing it because that’s what you did and what you do, and you do it routinely, all outside the glare of the media spotlight.
Last year, I wrote a piece about a Terre Haute woman who was dying of cancer, only had a few months, maybe weeks to live. She told me one of her last wishes was to actually speak to you.
A week later, I got an e-mail from her friend to say that you had called this dying woman and had absolutely made her day.
We all know about the PeyBack Foundation and the Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital, but it would require a 500-page opus to fully chronicle all of the good works you’ve done, whether it’s been here or Denver or Tennessee or New Orleans or wherever people are hurting.
Some other memories, vignettes:
I can remember one day at training camp, we were sitting in a golf cart, and we must have talked for about 45 minutes about autographs. You kept insisting that it was important to write your name legibly, and not in chicken scratch, because people wanted to be able to say, "Look, I got Peyton Manning’s autograph." Your dad taught you that, along with lots of other things about being a professional. I kept thinking, "Who spends time thinking about the quality of their autograph?" And then the answer dawned on me: You do.
Then there was the day you called me out of nowhere, and man, you were HOT. I can’t remember what you were angry about, but I’m sure it was something I had written. So we went back and forth, both of us getting more and more ticked off, and at one point I said, "Y’know, Peyton, that’s absolute bull----." Well, my older daughter was walking by my home office at that moment, she looked at me in amazement and mouthed the words, "Peyton Manning?" And the funny thing is, we came to a meeting of the minds and our relationship was never better than it was after that little tiff.
I remember a couple of years ago, I threw a Hail Mary and wondered if you might be in Indianapolis to play in my annual ALS golf tournament. You answered that you couldn’t make it, but wondered if it would help if you sent an autographed helmet for the auction.
Umm…yeah, that would be OK. We made a mint on that autographed helmet.
You didn’t just throw passes and win games in Indianapolis; you left a footprint. You became the athletic standard bearer for this community. Reggie Miller was great, Tamika Catchings is a civic blessing who is too often under-valued, but I think we can all agree, you were the most impactful athlete and civic citizen ever to come through these parts. And folks around here, they never forgot. Even after you went to the Denver Broncos, Indianapolis fans followed. When you won the most recent Super Bowl, people around here felt proud and proprietary, even if you were wearing Bronco orange. The truth is, you’ve never stopped being one of us.
From a football standpoint, these things almost go without saying: Without you, the Colts are probably in Los Angeles. Without you, Lucas Oil Stadium never gets built. Without you, high school football doesn’t become a prime recruiting ground for big-time programs. Without you, we don’t have about 10,000 little Peytons, boys and girls, walking around this town.
We all know you will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer and a soon-to-be member of the Colts Ring of Honor, but I’d take it a step further: I firmly believe there should be a Peyton Manning statue outside of Lucas Oil Stadium. If not you, then who? Who has done more for this franchise? Who will EVER do more for this franchise?
You didn’t just change Indy, lead the transition from a basketball town to a football town. You changed the game, the NFL game. True, John Unitas was at the forefront of calling plays at the line of scrimmage and using his mind as well as his arm, but you took preparation and the cerebral game to an altogether new level. It was actually kind of comical, watching you do that bizarre St. Vitus dance at the line of scrimmage, gyrating, waving, leading the orchestra like some manic maestro. But there was a method to the madness. Yours was and continues to be a beautiful football mind. And they love you in Omaha.
Anyway, I’m rambling here. I wish I could be in Denver Monday, just to shake your hand and tell you what an honor and privilege it’s been watching you perform and chronicling your feats. I always cherished our professional relationship, even when you were calling me "Andrew Luck’s agent." And for the record, I haven’t gotten dime from Luck for all my hard work.
All the best to you and your family,