It’s May 2011, and then-Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning is beginning his recovery from a surgery to repair a herniated disc. He’s two weeks removed from the procedure and has yet to touch a football.
When he finally decides to try throwing again, it’s a clandestine meeting with his old college friend and longtime Colorado Rockies first baseman Todd Helton. They disappear to the depths of Coors Field for Manning’s first toss. Manning doesn’t want anyone else to see this. Helton stands ten yards away as Peyton attempts his first throw.
“The ball nose-dived after about five yards,” Manning recalls.
Helton laughed, thinking Manning was messing with him. It was not a joke.
Manning, universally regarded as one of the most tactical, intelligent and talented quarterbacks of all time, couldn’t throw the ball the length of a first down.
On Sunday, the same man will lead his team into Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California in Super Bowl 50 for a shot at football’s ultimate prize: the Vince Lombardi trophy. This would earn Manning his second Super Bowl win, thereby putting him in an exclusive class of QBs and erasing one of the greatest anomalies in all of sports where his little brother has more championships than he does.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Manning’s road to redemption has a lot more bumps than that.
NFL’s “Golden Boy”
After four years at the University of Tennessee, where Manning led the football team (and marching band) to success, he was selected by the Indianapolis Colts as the number one overall pick in the 1998 NFL Draft.
Over thirteen years, Manning would find considerable success at Indianapolis, including 11 winning seasons, four MVP awards and basically all of the Colts’ passing records. Among these records were passing yards, passing touchdowns, and the all-time NFL mark for most touchdown connections between a quarterback and wide receiver — a record he set with former teammate Marvin Harrison, a guy you really, really don’t want to upset.
A career of hard work and a whole lot of audibles was finally rewarded when Manning led the Colts to a win in Super Bowl XLI, taking home the game’s MVP honors to boot.
Even with a loss to an exceptionally talented New Orleans Saints team in Super Bowl XLIV three years later (according to our Roman numeral math), Manning had built a professional football resume the rest of us can only dream about. On top of that, the whole world (apart from his opponents’ fan bases) seemed to love him.
He was charming, humble, really funny — everything the NFL wanted their feature star to be.
Following a 2010 campaign that ended with a one-point playoff loss to the New York Jets, Manning opted for the aforementioned surgery to repair his herniated disc. But during those workouts with Helton, it was clear the operation had not done all Manning had hoped.
Doctors discovered Manning required spinal fusion surgery, which was done as secretly as possible. Manning, then 35, was told that due to his age it was possible he would be unable to play again. This would effectively end Manning’s streak of 208 consecutive starts. Weeks later, it was announced Manning would not be able to play all year, if ever again.
On the field, the Colts made a serious case for Manning being that year’s MVP despite not playing one down, finishing a dismal 2-14 record without him. The good news for them was that, just as in 1998 when they selected Manning, they had secured the number one overall pick.
And wouldn’t you know it, it just so happened that there was a junior out of Stanford University thought to be the most NFL-ready college quarterback since … yep, you guessed it.
Simply put, the Colts couldn’t keep Manning and draft Luck and keep the stadium lights on. So as the 2012 draft approached, after putting everything he had into the Colts organization for thirteen years, he spoke with Colts owner Jim Irsay.
According to Irsay, Manning told him “You’ve got to take Andrew. You have to. You’d be crazy if you don’t.”
On March 7, 2012, Manning and Irsay held a press conference announcing Manning’s official release from the team he brought from proverbial laughing stock to world champions. The Colts selected Luck with the first overall pick a month and a half later.
Road to Recovery
Three total surgeries left his upper body atrophied. When he began rehabilitation, he could barely grip the football.
“I had to relearn,” Manning says, referring to the act of throwing a football.
In 2011, he reached out to Duke University head coach David Cutcliffe. Cutcliffe was Manning’s QB coach at Tennessee, so Manning turned to his old coach when he felt like he “needed somebody watching me”.
Manning began flooding Cutcliffe’s inbox with clips of him throwing the football. It didn’t go over well with Cutcliffe.
“I called him and I said, ‘You need to stop throwing, now,’ ” Cutcliffe recalls. “ ‘You’re going to hurt yourself. You need to focus on getting well, not getting back.’ “
Soon after, as Manning began to feel less and less comfortable with the situation in Indianapolis, Cutcliffe invited Manning to work with him at Duke’s practice facility.
Their sessions were held in the early hours of the day or late at night to avoid any prying eyes. The focus was on agility, quickness and footwork. Rather than trying to conquer the difficult advanced maneuvers he had once mastered, Manning concentrated on the basics (a philosophy to which we can definitely relate).
Nothing was easy. But, after weeks of stagnant repetition, Manning showed some improvement. And then more improvement. Cutcliffe told Manning it was time for a true test. So on March 3, 2012, Cutcliffe put Manning through a complete play-by-play simulation of the 2009 AFC Championship game.
Former Duke players and even some of Manning’s old Colts teammates showed up to help. And in the simulation, Manning was sharp.
“I don’t think I’ve ever won a game,” Cutcliffe recalls, “that I felt any better after what he accomplished, in this ballgame that nobody watched.”
Not long after, Manning was officially released by the Colts, and after several teams’ fevered pursuit of the rehabilitated quarterback, he ultimately signed with the Denver Broncos.
The Broncos’ Executive Vice President John Elway believed there was a chance to bring the old Manning back from the depths, and help them capture the franchise’s first championship since 1999 (when Elway himself was quarterback).
In Denver, his training is similar. Manning and Co. focus on flexibility, movement, agility, and lots of stretching — some of the basic tenets of calisthenics.
Cutcliffe is thrilled to see his student experiencing this reemergence.
“Both of us wished we would have documented a little bit more of this,” he says. “Because it is really a story worth telling about hard work. Everybody says ‘I’ll do whatever it takes.’ That’s whatever it takes.”
In Manning’s first year in Denver, he led them to a 13-3 record and added “NFL Comeback Player of the Year” to his trophy case, but a playoff loss due in part to a baffling error by Denver’s defense ended their campaign. Manning’s overall decent outing was overshadowed by two interceptions, which helped recall an argument that has plagued him for years: he can’t win when it matters most.
The next year, Manning led them to the Super Bowl, his third overall, where they were thrashed by the Seattle Seahawks 43-8.
Manning is a career 13-13 in the playoffs, but the years of early playoff exits are what stick out most prominently to critics, especially when Manning’s teams were the heavy favorites.
And despite one of the most remarkable personal comebacks in modern sports, it appears Father Time may finally be setting up for the knockout punch. This season has been tough for Manning. The arm speed isn’t there like it’s been in years past. He’s thrown just nine touchdowns and 17 interceptions.
Manning also missed six games in the second half of the season due to plantar fasciitis. During this stretch, backup Brock Osweiler performed more than adequately, and many wondered whether it was time for Manning to unceremoniously pass the torch to Osweiler and watch his career end on the sidelines.
And then came the doping allegations.
In December 2015, a report broke naming Manning (among other athletes) as having allegedly received performance-enhancing drugs during the time of his 2011 rehab. The report was conducted and released by Al-Jazeera America, who have as much business reporting on sports as McDonald’s does reporting on a balanced diet.
In the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, the report has been scarcely mentioned, but a PED allegation is a tough bell to unring. Even when the guy who rang the bell retracted his story.
“My Last Rodeo”
On January 24, after edging out longtime rival New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game, Manning met Patriots head coach Bill Belichick mid-field. On sight alone, it was a slightly warmer embrace than we normally see from Belichick, who can be notoriously icy in the post-game handshakes.
But audio picked up what the two said and Manning can clearly be heard telling Belichick, “This might be my last rodeo.” Belichick embraced him and told him he was a great competitor. When they parted, Manning was left with the cameras and the confetti and, perhaps, a moment to truly consider the gravity of what he just said.
After so many had written his career off, after secret practices with old coaches and starting over and defying both critics and odds, it may all be winding down.
How does the story end? Does Manning get to ride off into the sunset in Santa Clara, taking his place with other multiple-Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks? Does he fall to 1-3 in the big game and become irrevocably known as just another superstar who can’t win when it counts?
He and the Broncos face a 15-1 Carolina Panthers team led by the odds-on MVP favorite Cam Newton. Manning may feel like he’s dealing with the Ghost of Super Bowls Past: Carolina has a stout defense, a head coach who’s not afraid to roll the dice, and a smart, mobile quarterback, similar to the Seattle team who routed Denver two years ago.
Like Seattle, Carolina is heavily favored this Sunday.
For a five-time MVP and Super Bowl champion, Manning sure seems to get the underdog label a lot these last few years. But perhaps, for him, going from the NFL’s poster boy to the unpredictable long shot is just another obstacle to overcome. Another exercise to meticulously practice until mastered.
And now it’s time for one last test.