PEYTON MANNING is 37 years old. Pump him full of Sodium Pentothal, and he'll tell you that his right arm and grip are at about 85% of their peak strength because four neck surgeries have damaged nerves that may never regenerate. He's making do at historic levels. With 47 touchdown passes and 4,811 yards in 2013, Manning is on pace to break the two big single-season NFL passing records: 50 TDs (Tom Brady) and 5,476 yards (Drew Brees). Here's a quarterback who's not only adapting every day to a new physical reality, but who also came out of the chute in September with a seven-touchdown game against the defending Super Bowl champs, who is threatening to have the best individual season of an epic career, who is carrying yet another team to the playoffs on his shoulders.
There hasn't been a year when Manning was more deserving to be SI's Sportsman of the Year than 2013, when he rose from the crushing disappointment of a January playoff loss to the top of the QB charts by Thanksgiving. So put aside the he-can't-win-the-big-one beef with Manning, who has won one Super Bowl—one more than Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, Dan Fouts or Fran Tarkenton. Accept that he'll struggle on a night in Foxboro when 22-mph winds amplify his physical limitations. And appreciate that he'll make the Broncos relevant for as long as he chooses to play.
Appreciate a great quarterback, and a great sportsman. These are my fondest memories.
March 1998, Carlsbad, Calif.
I knocked on Sid Gillman's door holding a clunky VHS tape. One of the legendary coaches in football, Gillman was instrumental in developing the downfield passing game. He was 86 at the time, and not many reporters called on him anymore. But when I phoned one month before the NFL draft to see whether he'd be willing to dissect game tape of Tennessee's Peyton Manning and Washington State's Ryan Leaf, then choose which quarterback he'd pick No. 1, Gillman told me, "Come on out!"
So he opened the door and took me up to his second-floor screening room, put in the 35-minute tape—30 plays of each guy—and ran the footage back and forth with his clicker. Leaf appeared first on the video, then Manning (alphabetical order). Halfway through Manning's plays, Gillman watched the QB move an Ole Miss safety to his left using his eyes, and then, almost without looking, throw a screen pass to his right. "Now this is a pro quarterback," Gillman said. "Is that a beautiful throw, or is that a beautiful throw? I'd draft this kid in a second."
Bill Walsh was another expert on my draft panel. After we watched tape in northern California, he thought for a few moments and told me he favored Manning, but said if it were his pick, he'd take a different position player with the first choice then snag Michigan quarterback Brian Griese in the second round. That's Bill Walsh; but I'll always remember Gillman—who died five years later—being over the moon about Manning's mechanics and his awareness in the pocket at all times. Gillman had him pegged. And that was my introduction to the brilliance of Peyton Manning.
November 1998, Baltimore
Following a 38--31 loss to the Ravens, Manning stopped in the tunnel to soak it all in for a minute. He had lost 11 games in eight years at Isidore Newman School in New Orleans and at Tennessee. In three months as a Colt he had 10 losses. "It's eating me up," he said softly.
Booed by an Indianapolis-hating crowd from the moment he had run onto the field, Manning played a precocious game: 357 passing yards, including 10 of 13 on third down, with more than half of those conversions against premier cornerback Rod Woodson. His potential game-tying throw with 1:13 left bounced off running back Marshall Faulk's chest and into the hands of a Raven. That was it. Serenaded brutally as he left the field, Manning kept his head down.
"I grew up in New Orleans as Archie Manning's son," he said. "I learned how to handle myself, how to keep my emotions in check. Now everyone is begging for me to lose my cool. That'd be news. I won't do it."
September 1999, San Diego
"Hey," Colts wide receiver Marvin Harrison called to Manning in the lobby of the Marriott Mission Valley Hotel, one night before a matchup with the Chargers. "We've got the signal, right?"
"Got it," Manning replied.
With that, Harrison made a funky hand gesture—fingers pointed downward, shaking in a spastic way—Manning flashed it back to him, and they went their separate ways.
The die on Indy's first play was cast. If Manning saw standard coverage, he would give Harrison the signal. Then, instead of running a short curl, the receiver would streak by cornerback Terrance Shaw—whom both Colts believed Harrison could beat—on a go route. The next day Manning saw the coverage he craved; he made the signal; Harrison saw it; and Manning's 46-yard rainbow completion started a franchise-record passing day (404 yards) in a 27--19 victory over one of the league's best defenses.
But what really had the Colts enthused was Manning's presence of mind. Leading by a point and trying to put the win away in the last eight minutes, he faced a third-and-seven at his own 45. Manning threw a ball that wideout Jerome Pathon appeared to have trapped but that officials ruled complete. As Chargers players and coaches argued for an incompletion, Manning yelled, "On the line! On the line!" Then, "Run the draw! Run the draw!" And, from under center, "Ready, HUT!," followed by the snap—all before San Diego could challenge. Four plays later the Colts had the insurance touchdown.
Afterward Manning was proud of breaking Johnny Unitas's record, and of robbing San Diego of a crucial replay. But his chemistry with Harrison on the first play—that was the biggest takeaway for Manning. By his locker he looked at me, smiled and said, "Like Montana to Clark, you know?"
January 2007, Baltimore
I'm picking an odd one as my most memorable Manning game: a divisional playoff at Baltimore in Indianapolis's 2006 Super Bowl season. Manning threw zero touchdown passes. His quarterback rating was 39.6. ("Sounds about right," he says now. "Actually sounds a little high.") In a showdown between Manning and his '03 co-MVP, the late quarterback Steve McNair, there were just seven field goals. Colts 15, Ravens 6.
This was one of those Manning-as-puppeteer-till-the-play-clock-hits-two games—then he'd lift his right leg, catch the snap and hope that the coverage he had studied was what he faced. With 3:57 left, Indy led 12--6 and Manning was looking at third-and-five at the Baltimore 45. Convert, get a few more yards, bleed the clock, and Adam Vinatieri could kick the clinching field goal. Manning sent Dallas Clark—a traditional tight end playing as an H-back—on a short out route designed to isolate him on a linebacker, but instead, cornerback Corey Ivy picked him up.
Manning quickly surveyed his receiving options—Harrison and Reggie Wayne were blanketed—so he cocked to throw quickly to Clark, barely out of his break. In the press box, I thought, "Stupid throw. Corner's all over him." ("I knew exactly what the play was," Ivy said afterward. "I wasn't going to give Peyton any room to make that throw.")
Manning's pass came within millimeters of Ivy's hand, draped over Clark's shoulder, and hit Clark in the arm, sort of rolling up the arm as he fell. Clark secured it just before hitting the ground; gain of 14. Manning bled the clock, got the field goal, and the game was over.
As I walked off the field with Manning, I told him I couldn't believe he'd even tried that throw to Clark. "Sometimes you don't have great options and you've just got to make a play," he said.
Seven years later I needed to know what really happened, so last month I asked Manning. I was shocked by how crystal clear his memory was. He described getting to the line of scrimmage with a play called and seeing Clark covered by a corner. (Read: Ivy had the speed to blanket Clark.) Manning also saw a blitz coming, so he called a timeout.
Manning: "I come off to the sideline, and now you've got this discussion. Me, [offensive coordinator] Tom Moore, [receivers coach] Clyde Christensen, [line coach] Howard Mudd up in the booth. It's like: O.K., they were blitzing. Are they gonna blitz again? They kind of showed their hand.
"I didn't have a good answer, so I said, Let's have a 'check with me'—let's have a max protect if they blitz, but if they drop back we could have a run play. So I'm under center, and I'm thinking they're not gonna blitz—then, damn it, they're creeping up. Now I'm thinking, They're gonna bring 'em again. So I check—I go back to the shotgun, I keep our tight end in to block, I keep the running back in to block.
]"Marvin would be doubled for sure; Reggie, doubled for sure. I had one guy with a chance: Dallas had just Ivy, a nickelback, on him.
"Dan Marino always says, 'You can't defend the perfect throw.' That was one of the first times that really hit home for me. Ivy had perfect coverage [on Clark], and I remember thinking, If I'm gonna miss, I've got to miss outside, not inside where Ivy would have a chance. Sure enough, Dallas made a play."
Who remembers things like this?
January 2013, Denver
I've always believed that SI's Sportsman of the Year award should be about more than on-field greatness. There should be something idealistic—greatness with a touch of selflessness. Twelve days into 2013, after Manning had just made one of the worst throws of his life, I wouldn't have said that he deserved to be named Sportsman. In fact, as the top-seeded Broncos slunk off their home field in the minus--6° windchill of the AFC divisional playoffs, vanquished by the Ravens in large part because of Manning's late interception, goat was the word that came to mind.
But then something quite sportsmanlike happened. Eighty minutes after a 38--35 double-overtime upset, Ray Lewis was in the middle of a postgame press conference. Lewis had announced that he was retiring at season's end (whenever that would be), and now, in the near empty Ravens' locker room, Peyton and Ashley Manning and their 21-month-old son, Marshall, waited for the middle linebacker to return so they could say a proper goodbye.
Baltimore's director of media relations, Chad Steele, told Lewis that Manning was waiting for him but that first the linebacker had an interview to do with NFL Network. "I'm missing a great warrior right now," Lewis said, annoyed, as the TV crew fiddled with equipment, setting up. Few knew what he meant. The interview ran long. Deion Sanders made small talk. By the time Lewis made it back to the locker room, Manning had been waiting 15 minutes, at least.
While Ashley and Lewis hugged, Manning, wearing a charcoal-gray suit, spotted me. He appeared broken. I asked him how he felt. "Should never have thrown that ball," he said matter-of-factly. This game would hurt for weeks, maybe months. But here he was.
The two players walked away for a few minutes to be alone. I was 30 feet away, and I caught just one word of their talk. "Respect," Lewis said as they were parting. The two embraced, and Manning grabbed Marshall's hand so they could all take a photo together. Then it was time to go.
Ten months later I was having lunch with Manning in the Broncos' cafeteria when I reminded him of that scene and asked what it felt like to lose a game that way, then have to wait for Lewis.
"Part of it was having my son there for the first time after a game—that provided a little perspective," Manning said. "But I wasn't going to see Ray anymore, as players. It was just.... It was the right thing to do."
September 2013, Denver
Have you heard the one about the minicamp that Manning invented so that he could get extra work with his new receivers?
It happened in March. Manning had incumbent wideout Eric Decker and two prospective new starters—receiver Wes Welker and tight end Julius Thomas—meet him at Duke's campus in Durham, N.C., where his old Tennessee coordinator, David Cutcliffe, put together a weekend camp. Eli Manning came too, along with three Giants receivers.
That's where Peyton first got to appreciate Welker. "After every throw, there was a discussion," says Manning. "Hey, Wes, that's exactly what I was looking for. Or Hey, I really think I need one more yard. Then he's going, Hey, Peyton, I'm gonna stem outside. [Meaning that Welker will streak upfield to get the corner thinking deep ball, then cut quickly outside.] It's a conversation. After any incompletion, we're throwing it again. We focused on a couple of routes per day—over and over—mastering them, simulating press coverage, simulating zone.
"And Wes was a texter at night. After watching the film [he'd text me], Hey, I'm gonna push the corner up two more yards. When you get a receiver like that, it gets you pumped up about football."
Through the first four games of his sixth (and last) season with Tom Brady in New England, Welker had 25 catches on 37 targets (.676 catch percentage) and one touchdown. One year later, through the first four games of Welker's first season with Manning: 26 catches on 36 targets (.722) and six TDs.
The work paid off.
On opening night of this season I watched the fourth quarter of the Baltimore-Denver game and focused on the end of the Broncos' bench area. With about four minutes to go Manning tossed a strike to receiver Demaryius Thomas in the short left seam, and Thomas ran it in for a 78-yard touchdown.
With Denver up 49--27 after seven Manning TD passes, crowd going bonkers, Peyton jogged to the bench. He accepted six or seven handshakes and high fives—nothing overly celebratory. He took off his helmet and put it under the bench, as usual. He put on a ball cap, as usual. He found offensive coordinator Adam Gase, who carried a binder full of instant photos from the last drive, as usual. The stadium was so loud at that moment, maybe two minutes after the touchdown, that I couldn't understand how Manning and Gase were hearing each other—never mind what they could possibly be talking about with Denver up 22 and less than four minutes to play. But for two, three minutes, Manning made hand gestures to Gase, and Gase listened, feeding a few thoughts back to the quarterback. "He was so nonchalant," Welker said afterward.
The work paid off. With Peyton Manning, it always has.
"Everyone is begging for me to lose my cool," Manning said after losing 10 of his first 12 NFL games. "That'd be news. I won't do it."
Sticking around to say goodbye after a humiliating loss: "It was just the right thing to do," says Manning.
Photograph by AL TIELEMANS/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
COLT HERO Manning's freshman NFL experience may have been woeful, but his next season was a sign of things to come: In 1999 Indianapolis reversed its record and won the AFC East at 13--3.
JAMIE SQUIRE/GETTY IMAGES (DRAFT)
INDY MUSIC Compared—mostly favorably—with Leaf (top) before the 1998 draft, Manning went on to build a near-telepathic relationship with Harrison (bottom), who caught 953 of his passes, an NFL record for a QB-WR tandem.
PETER READ MILLER/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (HARRISON)
[See caption above]
JOHN IACONO FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
DIRECT TO DALLAS Manning's daring dart to Clark (who caught 44 career TDs from Peyton, No. 3 alltime for a QB-TE combo) was the type of undefendable "perfect throw" that Marino once spoke of.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
TASTE THE ROCKIES Longtime foes with the Colts and the Patriots, Manning and Welker have proved fast friends in Denver—they've combined for 10 touchdowns and 778 yards in just 14 games.