DENVER — It can’t be easy surprising someone who knows what’s coming.
Everyone knew Peyton Manning was the No. 1 player who would be elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame class of 2021. Manning’s place among the greats became official Saturday night, but he first found out about his election a couple weeks earlier, on Friday, January 22, at Empower Field at Mile High.
It was a top-notch production organized by Manning’s wife Ashley and Broncos’ public relations boss Patrick Smyth. David Baker, the Hall of Fame’s president, had called Smyth to relay that because the traditional knock on the hotel door of nominees in the Super Bowl city had to be called off because of COVID-19 concerns, Baker would visit the five newly modern-era Hall of Famers at their homes.
Smyth wanted something special for the most special of NFL superstars. He texted Ashley and asked her to give him a call when she wasn’t around her husband. She told Smyth that it was the coaches who Peyton had always held in the highest regard.
Plans quickly became motion. Within two days, Smyth had arranged for Manning’s college coach at Tennessee, Phillip Fulmer, his Indianapolis Colts’ coaches’ Tony Dungy and Jim Caldwell, his college offensive coordinator and neck-surgery rehab coach David Cutcliffe, and his Broncos’ coaches Gary Kubiak and John Fox to join Baker for the otherwise private ceremony at Empower Field.
Manning was there under the pretense of filming one of his "Peyton’s Places" episodes.
"My antennas were up, I’m not going to lie," Manning said.
As he was standing near the south end zone, facing the full playing field doing his readers to the camera, he noticed the cameraman looking over Manning’s shoulder. Manning turned around and out from the Broncos’ tunnel strode Cutcliffe, Fulmer, Dungy, Caldwell and Kubiak in single file. They lined up in the end zone, socially distanced at six feet apart, and each said a few nice words about Manning.
Dungy then said there’s one more person who had something to say. The coaches’ flattery lasted long enough for Baker to sneak his hulking frame from the 50-yard tunnel to the end zone. Congratulations, Peyton, on your election into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Then out from the 50-yard tunnel came Manning’s 9-year-old twin children, daughter Mosely, wearing a Manning No. 18 Broncos jersey, and Marshall, wearing a Manning No. 18 Colts jersey.
"It was a real cool moment to find out that way," Manning said. "They called Ashley on Wednesday and said they weren’t doing the hotel knocks because of COVID, they were coming out to each person individually. So she kind of quarterbacked it. Made it a really cool football moment. I think at first they wanted to come to our house and have dinner with cameras perfectly in place and Ed McMahon comes to your door and says you won a million dollars. She said we’re not going to do that, we’re going to make this a football moment."
They were all told to look up on the giant video scoreboard. There were also videotaped messages from Manning’s Isidore Newman High School coach in New Orleans, Tony Reginelli; Manning’s longtime Colts’ offensive coordinator Tom Moore, who is now with Tampa Bay; former Colts coach Jim Mora, and Fox, who was the first to commit to the event but learned a couple days before he had tested positive for COVID.
"Yeah, in a quick little 4-minute span there I went through about 30 years of coaching and a lot of memories came with that," Manning said in a Zoom interview with 9NEWS. "Besides my family, coaches have had the greatest impact on me. My dad (Archie) -- who is going to present me by the way (during his Hall of Fame induction) -- had the greatest influence on me as a kid. Even though he never coached me he was there to help me whenever I needed his help. And I asked for his help a lot. I can’t tell you how many throwing sessions I had with my receivers where I asked my dad to come and watch and give us his help and expertise. And he was glad to do it so it’s only appropriate that he introduces me.
"But besides him, it’s the coaches who had an impact on me."
Afterwards, there was a celebratory reception for Manning at Shanahan’s Steakhouse. It was so no hush-hush, the Hall of Fame had key parties involved signed non-disclosure agreements.
"I’m pretty sure the bartender at Shanahan’s had his eyebrows up when he saw Dungy and Fulmer and me and Kubiak that something was going on," Manning said. "(Brandon) Stokley came by. Brock Huard, who had recently moved to Denver. Couple old teammates came by. So we had kind of a quiet little deal and then the next day we all went skiing."
In subsequent days, Manning reached out to his parents, brothers and former teammates -- including Von Miller, Emmanuel Sanders, Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker from the Broncos. He also reached out to the video and equipment staff and the trainers – the little people who he always treated with respect – employed by both the Broncos and Colts.
"Can’t get to everybody but called a few people to not just share the news but to thank them, really," Manning said.
Manning is easily the headliner of this most recent Hall of Fame class that also includes former Broncos safety John Lynch, defensive back Charles Woodson, receiver Calvin Johnson and guard Alan Faneca. Boulder native Tony Boselli, a star left tackle for Jacksonville, was a finalist for a fifth time but again fell short of election.
The 48 voters cast their ballots back on January 19 – 18 days earlier than the usual Super Bowl eve date – but to help assure the secrecy of the five nominees, the committee voted “yes” or “no” on the 10 players who made the first cut. Ordinarily, voters make a cut from 15 to 10 finalists, then 10 to the final five. In those cases, the voters knew the final five.
This year, the voters left the room only knowing the final 10. The five who got the most "yes" votes got the Hall of Fame nod.
Although Manning was a shoo-in, his appreciation for the game’s history, which started while idolizing his NFL-star father, meant there was no chance of taking his Hall of Fame honor for granted.
"Very humbling to join the Broncos Hall of Famers in John Elway and Terrell Davis and Gary Zimmerman and Steve Atwater to the late Floyd Little," Manning said. "And a couple Indianapolis Colts teammates I played with, Marvin Harrison, Edgerrin James, my old coach Tony Dungy, Bill Polian our GM. So I certainly have an appreciation for the significance of it. I’m honored to kind of be teammates with all those people, for a second time with guys like Marvin and Edgerrin.
"But I feel like I have it in proper perspective. I was there with the Bowlen family, when Pat Bowlen got inducted and Champ Bailey so I understand the impact that it has. It’s just been a time to reflect on the people who have been involved in my football career. That’s my greatest takeaway: Not a touchdown pass or a game-winning drive. It’s the people, the relationships, your family members, support staff, people who were a part of this journey, that’s the best part of this for me."
Manning was the Colts’ No. 1 overall draft pick in 1998, threw a then-NFL record 49 touchdown passes in 2004 that broke the mark set 20 years earlier by his childhood hero Dan Marino, and led Indianapolis to a Super Bowl 41 victory to cap the 2006 season. After his 12th season with the Colts, Manning suffered a neck injury that caused him to miss the entire 2011 season and led to his release in 2012.
Hurt in more than ways one, the battered, free-agent Manning wound up signing with the Broncos, who gambled the quarterback could rebound from his dramatic neck injury.
"I certainly had concerns and looking back you can definitely say I was not 100 percent confident," Manning said. "The only thing I was 100 percent confident in is I wanted to try. I wanted to give it a go. I knew it was going to be tough, playing in a new physical state after these neck problems and nerve problems that it had caused in my right arm. Learning a new system, learning timing with new receivers. It was a challenge in of itself.
"But I wanted to give it a go. And Denver was the best place for me. They were very adaptive, welcoming. Greek (Head trainer Steve Antonopulos) and the training staff had a great rehab plan. The coaches said we’ll take some of your plays in Indianapolis and mesh it with some of our plays and really make you feel comfortable. That was not the case that all teams were presenting. Those were big reasons why I ended up choosing Denver and really glad it worked out the way it did. I started feeling better, started feeling more confident throughout that season and got my edge back a little bit and was able to have four wonderful years here with the Broncos."
Manning led the Broncos to a 50-14 regular-season record in his four seasons here, along with two Super Bowl appearances and a Super Bowl 50 title to give him a Lone Ranger sendoff to his final season of 2015. By far his best individual season – the best of his 17-year career – was in 2013 when he set single-season records with 55 touchdown passes and 5,477 passing yards. Seven full seasons have passed and those records still stand.
Had the Broncos won Super Bowl 48 in New Jersey, and not got trounced by the Seahawks, Manning’s 2013 season would have been stamped as the greatest season by a quarterback ever. As it is, it’s still the greatest regular season that not even the incomparable Patrick Mahomes has threatened.
"That was a special season. Of course, it didn’t end the way we wanted it to," Manning said. "So many things felt right about that Super Bowl going into it. My brother (Eli) had come into Indianapolis and won a Super Bowl where I’d played and I had a chance to go into the stadium where he played. Some things just don’t work out perfectly like they do in a fairy tale.
"I do think that Super Bowl loss, at least for me and some of the guys who were on that team, had an impact on us going back and winning it two years later. It motivates you. It makes you realize how hard it is to get there. How hard it is to win that game and it makes you want to go work harder to try and get back. That we were able to go back two years later in San Francisco and win it, sometimes it’s worth it to go through those disappointments."
As for those single-season records, Manning has always been most proud of his TD record.
"I tell ya most of my records are going down or are already gone," Manning said in reference to the career TD pass (539) and yardage records (71,940) he held at the time of his retirement that have been since been surpassed by Tom Brady and Drew Brees. "And that’s the one record (55 touchdowns) that my son Marshall keeps his eye on. He was on the Russell Wilson Watch earlier this year. Russell I think had 28 at the halfway point."
Indeed, Wilson had 28 touchdown passes through eight games. He cooled off and finished with 40.
"So Marshall likes to keep me posted on who’s nearing that record," Manning said. "Maybe it’ll be fun to hold on to that one for a little bit longer. I’m not sure how much longer. Because there’s great quarterbacks out there, they’re throwing it a lot these days. That’s not why you play, the records. You play to be a part of your teams, and hopefully to be a part of some winning. So if they do go down, that’s fine with me."
As Manning’s bronze bust gets ready to be placed into football immortality, some may view him as more Colt than Bronco. But while he was in Indianapolis for 13 seasons to just four with the Broncos, the fact Manning, Ashley, Mosely and Marshall have called Denver home for all five years since his retirement reinforces that Peyton Manning was a Bronco. As well as a Colt, and a Volunteer and a Greenie.
"Well, we’re proud to be here," Manning said. "Denver was very welcoming to us in 2012. We moved out here that first year, sold our house in Indianapolis quickly because I think it’s easier and important to live where you’re playing while you’re playing there. We didn’t know if it was going to be one year, two years, it ended up being four years.
"And in that time found that we really liked it here. Started to make some friends. Our kids had friends, started to get know their parents and had guys like Brandon Stokely who had already moved here and stayed here, and didn’t feel like an outsider because we got to know some people who were from out of town who had come to Denver at some point for business or whatever reason and stayed here. We decided to do that. Moving is a pain, I will share that, and that was a pretty big ordeal for us to move from Indianapolis and we’re not looking to do it again so I really give the credit to Denver. Just a welcoming feel and a great place to live and really proud to be a Denver resident."
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