CANTON, Ohio — Peyton Manning stepped up to the podium and wasn’t allowed to start talking.
The fans from the back-half of Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium were standing, cheering, roaring. The standing O went on for a full minute when Manning, nodding and acknowledging the applause, knew from experience the only way to stop the noisy momentum was to start speaking.
“Tonight’s speech is an all-time, 'Hurry, Hurry,’’’ Manning said. “The 2021 induction class can thank the previous inductees who made long-winded acceptance speeches, forcing us to have a whopping 6 minutes to wrap up our football careers. I want to give a special thanks to my old rival Ray Lewis for being here tonight. Ray just finished his speech that he started in 2018.”
Lewis stood up from his Hall of Fame stage seat and fist punched in admission. The crowd – which featured so many of his Broncos teammates from 2012-15 (Demaryius and Decker; Emmanuel and Aqib; Von and DeMarcus; T.J. and C.J., to name a few), his family including brother Eli and, as promised, longtime quarterback rival Tom Brady – roared with laughter. Manning’s renowned humor had his speech off to a great start.
“Speaking of rivals, my good friend Tom Brady is here tonight,’’ Manning said. The crowd mixed in some boos. Brady seemed stunned. What he’d do? He forgot Manning fans didn’t like New England beating the one guy who got the better of their hero one too many times. “By the time (when) Tom Brady is inducted in his first year of eligibility in the year 2035 (more laughter) he will only have time to post his induction speech on his Instagram account.”
The laughter got the joke. Brady, who is still playing at a Super Bowl-level at 44-years-old, often posts on Instagram.
Manning then came up with a nice tale about how, as Raiders coach and famed broadcaster John Madden once said, the bronze busts in the Pro Football Hall of Fame Museum talk to each other. Not only that, Manning said, they run plays at night.
“The other night I had a dream that I was in one of those scrimmages,’’ he said. “The other team’s coaches were Vince Lombardi and Paul Brown. My coaches were Bill Cowher and Jimmy Johnson. A Cowboy and a Steeler working together – only in Canton, Ohio. We were on the 50-yard line with only 3 seconds left. Coach Cowher called a running play.’’
Manning audibled, “Omaha, Omaha.’’ He said he faked the handoff to Barry Sanders, threw a 20-yard break-in route to Michael Irvin, “right as Deacon Jones and Ray Nitschke hit me at the same time.”
Ronnie Lott, Steve Largent, Darrell Green and Lem Barney were brought up. Largent lateralled to Lance Alworth, “who dove in for the game-winning score.
“Yesterday it was just a dream but tonight it’s reality.”
Yes, Peyton Manning is one of 321 players on the Pro Football Hall of Fame team.
And then Manning turned serious. He somewhat raced through his speech as he chose not to pause for applause. He got emotional first as he talked about the influence of his dad, Archie, a pretty fair quarterback himself in the 1960s and 70s, and then his brothers, Cooper and Eli, and mom, Olivia.
“Talk about lucking out, I had the most loving mother who could also break down a cover-2 defense as well as any NFL quarterback,’’ Manning said.
He paid tribute to two of his favorite assistant coaches who passed away this year, Howard Mudd with the Colts and Greg Knapp, his quarterbacks’ coach with the Broncos.
“To Pat Bowlen, the Bowlen family and the Denver Broncos’ organization, you took a chance on me at a crucial moment in my career and I will never forget it,’’ Manning said referring to his previous neck surgeries that made him a free agent, a crucial step that brought him to Denver.
His wife Ashley and twin children Marshall and Mosley were paid loving tribute as Manning briefly choked up.
Manning then used the final two minutes to urge everyone involved with the game of football to step up and make it better.
“Throughout our lives, players, coaches, staff and fans have become essential to the sport’s landscape,’’ Manning said with a strong, authoritative delivery. “I don’t know about you, but I’m not done with this game. I never will be. I’m committed to assuring it’s future and I hope you will join me in that commitment.
“As members of this honored class, we have responsibility to make our game stronger from the corner playground to the most celebrated stadium.”
Holy, Manning. This wasn’t humorous Peyton in those Nationwide commercials. This was serious Peyton sending a message.
“During the past two years the game of football has been challenged by an explosion of sports and entertainment options,’’ he said. “Safety concerns, erupting social justice issues and a worldwide pandemic. Displaced fans have taken on an entirely new meaning as our stadiums have been shut down and its fans shut out. We certainly shouldn’t walk away now.
“When we leave this stage tonight, it is no longer about us. It is about cultivating the game that’s given so much to us. It’s about nurturing football to live and thrive another day, a year, decade and another generation. It’s about guaranteeing that kids everywhere can learn, bond, grow and have fun with every flag pulled, every tackle made, every pass thrown, every block, sack and touchdown scored.’’
Again, he didn’t wait for applause. Manning was preaching on the importance of football and the clock on his speech was well past the limit.
“The audience here tonight is made up of diehard fans who feel football deep in your bones,’’ Manning said in conclusion of his 9 minute, 24-second speech. “Now we may have ignited the fire, but you, you have fanned the flames. Inevitably, those flames will be the whipped by winds of change. But they don’t need to smolder. The future of this game is ours to shape. We just need to take tomorrow on our shoulders as readily as we donned our pads before each game.
“Let this moment become a cherished memory and then remember a legacy is only worthwhile when there is a future to fuel.”
Wow. If not concerned about the game’s direction, Manning at least seemed to warn that taking the state of football for granted would place the sport in peril. His bronze bust means he will live on forever in football immortality. Manning seemed to warn that if his generation doesn’t protect the game for the following generation, no one will care about those bronze busts 100 years from now.
“God bless you,’’ Manning said, “and God bless football.”
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Denver Broncos headlines, game previews and interviews with our 9NEWS insider Mike Klis.
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