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April 02, 2012
The behind-the-scenes story of how the most prized free agent in NFL history hit the recruiting trail—and how he ended up a Denver Bronco
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April 02, 2012

Peyton Manning's Long Game

The behind-the-scenes story of how the most prized free agent in NFL history hit the recruiting trail—and how he ended up a Denver Bronco

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He then flew to Miami, where he and his wife, Ashley, have a vacation home, and was annoyed to be chased by local news crews and a helicopter as if he were O.J. riding up the 405. One of his first phone calls that night was from Fox, who told Manning that the Broncos would love to have him visit when he was ready. From his 10 years working the phones and living rooms of recruits for eight college programs, Fox knows one of the keys is to get in on the ground floor.

Manning was uncertain what he would do—as recently as the day before he was released he had thought that he and the Colts might work things out—but his decision wasn't going to be about money. It was going to be about picking a place where he'd feel comfortable early on because of how quickly he'd have to mesh with a new team.

"He sounded bothered that night," Fox said. "Wasn't in his comfort zone."


There's a nifty website,, that allows users to enter the tail number of a private plane and follow its movements around the country. Thus it was discovered that the Cessna Citation X twin-engine jet belonging to Broncos owner Pat Bowlen had flown to Miami early on March 9, stopped in Stillwater, Okla.—where a Broncos delegation that included Elway, Fox and McCoy was watching Oklahoma State's pro day—and landed at an airport in suburban Englewood, Colo. After disembarking from the plane with Manning, the party traveled to the team facility two miles away, pursued by a media armada.

From the start it was apparent that Elway would be the Broncos' greatest asset. He had won back-to-back Super Bowls with Denver at ages 37 and 38, after many thought he was finished. Manning is 36. "How many people in the world can identify with what Peyton's going through right now?" said former NFL safety John Lynch, a friend of both men. "A very small handful. John's one of them. I saw it in their conversations. They really connected."

Fox had Broncos p.r. man Patrick Smyth address two elements he thought would be used against Denver in the bidding—that its defense would hurt Manning's chances of winning big and that Manning, who'd played his home games indoors since entering the league in 1998, would suffer outdoors in Denver. Smyth came up with two tidbits for Fox to use on Manning.

"Do you realize," Fox asked the QB, "that the Broncos have played 519 home games, and the average temperature at kickoff has been 60.1 degrees?"

That was Manning's kind of stat. As was the next. "In your 14 years in Indianapolis," Fox said, "the Colts averaged 26 points per game. In my 10 years as a head coach [with the Panthers and the Broncos], when our teams scored 26 points or more, our record is 39--3."

The Broncos had planned to host a dinner for Manning that Friday night, but how to do it quietly? To dodge the media, staffers prepared seven vehicles to leave the complex at the same time. A news crew from Fox affiliate KDVR-TV followed the van that had transported Manning from the airport. When it reached a seafood place, the crew went in and asked a Broncos employee, "Where's Manning?" Not here. He'd slipped into a black SUV with tinted windows, which had taken him to Cherry Hills Country Club. There he was ready to hear Elway's sales pitch.

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