INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) - From a distance, the job of being Peyton Manning’s backup quarterback looks like the cushiest job in all of sports. After all, Manning missed just one snap his entire career, at least until the four neck surgeries derailed the entire 2011 season. Even when the Colts were blowing out an opponent, Manning often insisted upon staying in the game, just to get the reps.
Being Peyton’s backup was akin to being a left-handed relief specialist, or maybe a punter for an offensively explosive team. No pressure, very little workload, nice paycheck, right?
Well, wrong – sort of.
Listen to Jim Sorgi, who was Manning’s backup here in Indianapolis from 2004 - 2009.
“It was exhausting,’’ Sorgi said the other day. “At times, it was a little bit much. It was great and I learned from the master, but man, it was exhausting. He just cares so much about his responsibility to the sport, to his teammates, to the fans, coaches, friends, the city; I wish all of us were more like that in different aspects of our lives. Just look at the results. That’s what it’s all about.’’
We learned this a long time ago: Manning is a football savant. He possesses a beautiful mind for the game. He played 4-D chess while everybody else was playing checkers. He was physically gifted – “laser, rocket arm,’’ anybody? – but what set him apart his entire career was his ability to surgically dismantle defenses, see the game in ways nobody else saw the game.
And that all came back to preparation. He was a maniac, anal retentive, one could say, and we say that in a good way. Even his basement at his old Indianapolis home was set up like a Colts’ quarterbacks room.
“This happened numerous times, but I remember this one game in particular,’’ Sorgi said. “This might have been 2008 or so, we’re watching film, and he says to me, 'Sorg, go to the film room, grab a tape from 2000; we were playing the Dolphins at home, we’re going left to right in front of our bench, second quarter, about four minutes to play, we ran this play against this defense and it really worked and I think it’s something we can use this week against this defensive coordinator or this blitz.'
“It was truly amazing. I couldn’t remember what happened week to week. He remembered individual plays he ran years ago against a certain defense that worked. So I would go find it and pop [the tape] in. And it usually DID work.’’
But like Sorgi said…exhausting. He’ll be the first to admit, he wasn’t a cerebral quarterback coming out of the University of Wisconsin. He got the play, he ran the play, and if the play wasn’t right, he just figured something out on the run. And then he came to Indianapolis, where an entirely different level of football was being taught by Headmaster Manning.
“I learned in Indy how much intellect and knowledge he has, and how much a quarterback could get his team in the right play all the time,’’ Sorgi said. “He always knew how to take advantage of looks, and when he did, we knew we had them [the opponent].
“There would be games we would watch, I’d be on the sidelines with [third-string quarterback] Josh Betts, we’d get a play called in, watch it being run, then we’d look at each other and ask 'What play was that?' And he'd be like, 'I don’t know.' We'd have to wait for the film later to figure out what happened. He would take two plays and combine them, one front side, one back side. We'd get the play in and it would be a totally different play and we'd be asking, 'How did he get to that?' It was truly amazing to watch.
"I’m telling you, when he figures out what he wants to do beside hilarious commercials, I hope it’s something where he’s breaking down film and talking about games. I want people to hear the knowledge that he has in his brain and how he processes it, all the stuff I was able to enjoy and learn from.’’
Several years ago, I approached Manning with a column idea. I wanted to do a column on his brain. Specifically, I wanted to know, "What are all the pieces of information you process from the time the previous play ends to the moment when the football is snapped? How does you mind work?"
Manning considered it for a day or two, then told me, "I don't want to give away any secrets while I'm still playing. Maybe when I retire I'll talk about it."
Well, it was a great idea, anyway.
Manning not only took ownership of the Colts on the field; he took ownership of his team off it. Even when the Colts went to their first Super Bowl in 2006, it was Manning who stood up and, to the chagrin of some teammates, insisted that families should not be allowed to stay with the team in the hotel. He was all business, and families might prove a distraction.
“One of the things he was always good about was reminding teammates about tipping workers at the complex, training people, equipment staff, meal staff; he was always good with those little details. He’d say, 'Hey, they work tirelessly for us and it’s important we take care of them'," Sorgi recalled. “And he took care of his teammates. Linemen, the other quarterbacks, everybody. Very generous. My favorite gift he gave us was a Gucci wallet. I used that thing until it couldn’t be used anymore. I always remember thinking, 'Wow, I got a Gucci wallet'."
He was also an inveterate prankster.
“Best one? No question,’’ Sorgi. “It was the time somebody’s golf cart (it belonged to former Colt employee Jeffrey Gorman) ended up on a float in the middle of the little lake we had at Rose-Hulman. Now, I cannot confirm or deny he had anything to do with that. But the fact that it happened and went off without a hitch makes me believe someone with a lot of power was involved in that. But again, I cannot confirm that Peyton was involved.’’
He was the sun around whom all the other planets revolved. At Thanksgiving, players would meet at his home, especially those who didn’t have family in the area. He had Indianapolis 500 parties in his IMS suite. He had dinners out on the town. He took several teammates to the Kentucky Derby, to golf outings, you-name-it.
“Me and Marlon [Jackson] were talking about it the other day, how we all liked each other on those teams,’’ Sorgi said. “That group, the success we had was because we had talent and we all truly go along, like a family away from home. And Peyton took it to heart. He knew he had an obligation to everybody, from people working at the complex to fans to the team to coaches and families, and that was really important to him.’’
It wasn’t always easy being Manning’s teammate, though. He demanded so much of himself, he fully expected everyone else would demand the same from themselves.
“People always tell me being Peyton’s backup has to be the greatest job in the world,’’ Sorgi said with a laugh. “Yeah, as long as you don’t get the nod to go in there and do something. Because if something does happen to Peyton, you’ve got to do it right and win. Mediocrity wasn’t an option. Even when I got to play in games after we’d already clinched a bye or a playoff spot, my thought process was to treat those games like Peyton does a game that really means something.’’
“Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t,’’ he added.
Sorgi had a dream scenario in his head as he worked under Manning: One day, he thought, he’d like to be Steve Young to Manning’s Joe Montana, that he would ultimately replace Manning upon his retirement and go on to have a brilliant career of his own.
“Yeah, we’d both be in the Hall of Fame,’’ he said. “But I didn’t hold up my end of the bargain. It’s my one NFL regret because I do have all this football knowledge that I got from working with Peyton, and I never got to use it with my own team.’’
Sorgi grew wistful, regaling me with stories of his team with Manning and the Colts.
“If I could go back and relive those years, I’d do it in a heartbeat,’’ he said. “I got to work with a guy I consider the greatest quarterback ever. I just wish I had taken notes during those years. I’d have more Peyton stories for you…’’
This will do, Jim. This will do.