No one can ever take this away: I saw Peyton Manning play.
Manning fits in the category of the athletes who transcended their games, who became known by aficionados and non-fans alike. He's Babe Ruth. He's Mickey Mantle. He's Bart Starr. He's Michael Jordan. Just say his first name – Peyton – and there's no doubt who you're talking about.
Forever, I'll be able to say I saw him in his NFL prime. Ruth, Mantle and Starr were before my time. Jordan was of my time, but I saw him only on television. I'm glad I did, but there was still some distance.
I saw Manning up close, a privilege of my News-Sentinel assignment covering the Indianapolis Colts. I saw him make otherworldly throws to Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne. I saw him survey the defense, flail his arms, shout gibberish to outsiders, change plays and hit Brandon Stokley or Marcus Pollard in stride. I saw him in his glory days as quarterback, quasi-coordinator and unquenchable student of the game.
Now he's no longer a Colt, and melancholy is the word of the day.
The idea we'll never see Manning in his No.18 Colts jersey is reality, but has hardly sunk in. I don't care how many times we photo-shop another jersey and helmet onto Manning, we'll still be stunned by the sight of him in another uniform.
No matter what happens next, whether he plays for the Redskins or Dolphins or Cardinals or retires altogether, the past is gone, an era over.
Watching Manning was as entertaining as the game itself. He was demanding. Ask any player who ran the wrong route, failed to pick up a blitz or otherwise botched the chance for the perfect play. Manning is a perfectionist with a memory far beyond those of mortal men. I remember Wayne talking about how, if Manning encountered a certain situation combined with a defensive alignment, he'd bark out the optimum play. Sometimes that play hadn't been run in three years. That was a bit tough on the rookies.
It'll be hard to single out the best moments of Manning watching.
His 49-touchdown season in probably his best season in 2004 was incredible to chronicle. It seemed as if every play he called worked and, if it had any chance of failing, he'd check to another at the last second. His brilliance in an improbable four-minute, 21-point comeback against Tampa Bay on a Monday night a year earlier is appropriately legendary.
Manning's persistence in dealing with losing to, and eventually conquering, the New England Patriots could be a life lesson in and of itself.
Off the field, Manning was willing to poke fun at himself. Who can forget the “Cut that meat!” commercials? Even this season, his lost season, he found his way to the Papa John's Pizza commercial with Jerome Bettis.
Manning was likeable off the field. He was private, no question. He and his wife, Ashley, made a point of not revealing the birth of their twins last year. Yet toward the end of last season, Manning had his son in his arms in the locker room, letting the world see how he added “Dad” to his resume.
He had his critics, those who said he should have led the Colts to more than one Super Bowl win, or more than two Super Bowl appearances, and he shrugged them off for the most part. Circumstances conspired to keep him from more titles – although he could end up with more, depending on what happens next. Seven straight seasons of 12-win seasons counts for something.
His Colts records are piled high. He's all over the NFL record book. The record that stands out the most to me is the 112 touchdown passes he threw to Harrison, the best quarterback-receiver touchdown duo ever. Manning often joked about throwing a short pass to Harrison in his first NFL appearance, seeing it going for a touchdown and thinking, “This is easy. You throw it to Marvin and watch him score.” His approach was pretty close to that for years. As Harrison slowed down, Manning switched to Wayne and they connected on 67 touchdown pass, fourth all-time.
Manning was a loyal teammate, critical only when someone crossed the line (a certain “idiot kicker” comes to mind). He was criticized unduly for comments after a playoff loss to the Steelers when he said there were “protection problems.” The national media felt he'd thrown the offensive line under a bus. Fact was, there were protection problems and he didn't name names and it was about 10 minutes after an emotional loss.
He made the Indianapolis Colts relevant after years of mediocrity following their move from Baltimore. Without Manning's sublime play, Lucas Oil Stadium would not have been built. If the stadium hadn't been built, the 2012 Super Bowl wouldn't have come to Indy. If the Super Bowl hadn't shown up in Indy, we wouldn't have seen how the country's biggest sporting event could be run flawlessly. There would have been no zip line, people.
I saw Manning run the two-minute offense like no one before him. If there was time left on the clock, he could find a way to create and sustain a drive. In 2009, en route to his second Super Bowl appearance, he directed fourth-quarter comeback drive after fourth-quarter comeback drive.
We thought we knew his value all along. We didn't know he was priceless until he didn't play in 2011 and the Colts needed a full season to recover from the shock. Some joked that the Colts 2-14 record proved Manning was the Most Valuable Player in the NFL. Others said the same and weren't joking.
Manning is gone now. Any comeback will be with a new team, wearing a strange uniform that will never look quite right.
I saw Peyton Manning play. They can't take that away. I just wasn't quite prepared for it to hit past tense so soon.