The Broncos quarterback on giving advice to younger players, staying on top of non-football current events and why he thinks he'd make a good free safety
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The challenge of interviewing Peyton Manning is coming up with something new to ask. He might be the most interviewed athlete of this generation. Over the past few years, I’ve struggled to find something—anything—that he hasn’t talked about in a while. Or ever. In a late-August conversation with him, I was determined to come up with 10 questions that Peyton Manning had never been asked. Alas, I believe only six meet that threshold. But here’s what the Denver Broncos’ quarterback has to say …
The MMQB: What’s the first organized football game you ever played?
MANNING: I didn’t play organized football until I was in the seventh grade. Up until that point, I only played at recess and in the backyard. So in seventh grade, I played for my school—Newman School in New Orleans. We had seventh-grade football. We played St. Martin’s, kind of our rival school, even as we got into high school. I played quarterback. When you entered practice for the first day, you had to sign up for an offensive position and a defensive position. I signed up for quarterback and free safety. I never got to play free safety. They had enough players back there. Anyway, we won the game. I threw a couple touchdowns and I ran one. We actually ran a little option back in the day. They had trouble reading if you faked the veer to the fullback. They would kind of suck to the fullback and believe it or not, I could get around the end and run a little option. That option ended for me pretty much when I left junior high and high school. It was a good way to start off. So yeah, I played quarterback. I was number 11 in the seventh grade. I couldn’t be 8, my dad’s number. Back then they just gave you a jersey. Lucky for me, at least I got a quarterback number.
The MMQB: What other positions have you played over the years?
MANNING: I’m sometimes kind of embarrassed by this. I’ve never played, on the field, any other position besides quarterback. Never been on a special team. Never been on defense.
The MMQB: Maybe in your last NFL game, you should play another position—just for one snap. Peyton Manning at safety?
MANNING: I always say, ‘I’d like to go play safety.’ I mean, I would know what the quarterback is doing. The Ed Reed range though … I just don’t quite have it.
The MMQB: If what happened to your brother Cooper—who had to quit football because of spinal stenosis in college—happened to you, what would have done with your life? Do football from the broadcast booth?
MANNING: That’s a good question. I mean, it’s funny because at the time, Cooper handled it so well, with an unbelievable grace and attitude. At Ole Miss, during two-a-days, he was having some numbness in his hand. They just kind of said, ‘Hey, we need to go get a look at this thing.’ So they did the full MRI and everything, and they said, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa—you’ve got spinal stenosis.’ He didn’t have any neck symptoms. It was just kind of some numbness. Then they just said, ‘We can’t clear you to go back out there.’ So he handled it so well, and I’m not sure that I could have handled it as well, at that age, as he did. I know it was hard. I can’t speak for him and how disappointed he was. He just kept a good attitude about it and he’s kept a great attitude his entire life. He audibled and went on to become a ‘social legend’ at Ole Miss and obviously he’s got a great family and is successful in business. But I will say… Well, it’s different because I got to play for 20 years. But I had my neck injury and was potentially done with football. I felt like I had that same good attitude that Cooper did. Now it’s different. Like I said, I got to play. Cooper never really got his chance. But I guess I had matured since I was in college and I was able to handle that well. So I don’t know what I would have done. I really don’t. It’s hard to say. Football’s been such a part of my life. It’s allowed me to meet so many people and do so many things. At Tennessee, I was a communications major—which I enjoyed. I do enjoy public speaking. But I get asked to speak because I play football. So I’m not sure… It’s hard to say if I would have tried to stay involved in the game from another point of view—from coaching or something like that. TV, I don’t know. I’m not sure how good I’d be at it. I guess I’ve always liked being on the players’ side. Once you cross over, you’re on a different side. Obviously I won’t be a player forever, but while I am, I’m just trying to enjoy it while I can.
I have voted ever since I’ve been eligible to vote," Manning says. "I don’t do it just to do it. You try to know who you’re voting for.
The MMQB: Absolute gut feeling—how many more years will you play?
MANNING: If you had asked me when I first came here to Denver, I probably would have said if I could get two more years then that would probably be good. But I feel a lot better than I thought I would. The regeneration [of the nerve controlling his arm strength] has been slow but steady—kind of like they said. There’s never been that one day or month where there was this huge regeneration and complete increase in weights. It’s just been a slow progression. My strength coach, Luke Richessen, has kept a chart since the day I got here in March 2012. You can see it. I can see the numbers and I can feel it as well, by the weights that I’m doing. I think it’s progressed to the field with some throws and some velocity. So that’s been encouraging. I’ve always said that I’m only gonna do it A) if I can help—if I can truly help—and B) if I still enjoy, not the playing—anybody enjoys playing—but enjoy the preparation and the work part of it. Right now I’m still enjoying those things. I’ve heard Drew Brees and Tom Brady say that they have this target, like, ‘I’m gonna play until I’m 45.’ I’m not in that position, I think because of my neck injury. But I think the smart way to handle it is, every March, I do this physical and we take a look at it. It’s the perfect time, because it says, ‘Hey, everything looks good.’ And it also kind of allows me to go, Do I still wanna go through a lifting, offseason schedule again? I do my neck check, but I do my heart check as well, my desire check. I like it when my heart says, ‘Hey, let’s keep this going.’ I’ve been encouraged.
The MMQB: Do you pay any attention to current events—Syria, the Ebola virus, what’s happening in the Gaza Strip?
MANNING: Yeah. Yeah. I keep up. Believe it or not, in our cafeteria—I wonder how this compares to other teams—we keep it on news channels. We keep it off the sports channels. It’s Fox News or CNN. We’ve usually got one of each to kind of balance it out [laughs]. So, the events in Ferguson, yeah, you keep up. Maybe I didn’t say it as much early on, but when Katrina occurred, when you see what’s going on and you see that’s your hometown, I feel like I can relate more now to seeing something that’s not my hometown and going, ‘Well, I’ve seen my hometown on that before.’ You might watch a current event and say, ‘Ferguson, Missouri—I’ve never heard of it.’ But Montee Ball and Sylvester Williams are from near there. So you do have more of a sympathetic view and you pay attention. Your thoughts go out to the people affected by it.
The MMQB: Do you vote?
MANNING: Yeah, I do vote. I have voted ever since I’ve been eligible to vote. It’s not a simple process when you go in there. There’s always a little more that goes along with it. In Indianapolis, there’s a Jewish Community Center right near my house, and so… Yeah, I don’t do it just to do it. You try to know who you’re voting for. I was good friends with the Governor of Indiana, Mitch Daniels, who’s now the president of Purdue. Probably could have been President of the United States. You try to get to know them. I’ve gotten to know some of the folks here in Colorado. There’s some different laws out here in Colorado. Pizza business is pretty good out here, believe it or not, due to some recent law changes. So when you come to a different place, you’ve kind of got to learn everything that comes with it.
The MMQB: Is it a great day when you can go out in public and no one recognizes you?
MANNING: I try to enjoy both sides of it. If you’re really dreading something then, to me, that’s not having a good attitude about it. So, you know, I realize that it won’t last forever. When you stop playing, there’s probably still some of that light, but it’s not the same. There’s a certain hat that you wear when you play quarterback. If you can make an impact when you’re wearing the hat, I enjoy doing that. At the same time, I certainly enjoy the quiet moments, when it’s just with my family or… I saw my high school tight end. He was also our catcher in baseball. He lives out in San Francisco—a guy named Mike Keck. He and I got to visit for 30 minutes after the 49ers game [in the preseason]. We kind of got just in a corner. There was nobody else around. He said, ‘Man, it’s so nice to just be able to talk to you without anything else.’ I even said the same thing. We were talking high school stories and there was nobody else around. He calls me PM and I called him Keck. So I enjoy those moments certainly. At the same time, after that, I went and signed some autographs for the fans. Ronnie Hillman’s mother came up to me. Julius Thomas’ dad came up to me. I’ve never met them before. Both of them just said, ‘Hey, it’s nice to meet you. We’re pulling for you.’ I still enjoy doing that part of it. So I try to have a good attitude in either of the situations that I’m in.
The MMQB: What’s the best round of golf in your life?
MANNING: I shot even par, 72, at St. Andrews. Me, Cooper and Eli, and my dad went three summers ago. But, we were playing from the ‘up’ tees—because they made you. They get so much play. Everybody wants to go and play where the pros play. They’d be six-hour rounds. So they say, ‘Hey, this is where you’re playing.’ It’s probably 6,400 yards. Not a long course at all. I like to say that even if I was all the way back there, I had it dialed in that day. So it was fun. Obviously, that’s my favorite golf foursome of all time.
The MMQB: Say you had every rookie quarterback in the league sitting in front of you right now, and you could give them a message to try to help them as they begin their careers. What would it be?
MANNING: I think about the advice that I got when I was a rookie and what really stuck with me. There’s a couple of things. Steve Young—we played the 49ers that year out in San Francisco. He came up to me after the game and kind of put his arm around me and it’s funny because he said, ‘Peyton, just trust me. The game will eventually slow down for you. It will slow down.’ It’s funny, because it was kind of this weight off my shoulders. I had been thinking, It’s just not the same as college. It’s so different. Of course, I was like, Please hurry up and slow down. Please hurry up and slow down. But boy, he was right. Even toward the end of that season, I started to see some things a lot slower. Then the next season, we went from 3-13 to 13-3. Each game in Years 2 and 3, it was just what Steve said. It did slow down. So just trusting the process—it is a marathon and not a sprint.
If I could give them a couple pieces of advice, I would start with this: ‘Don’t ever go to a meeting to watch a practice or a game without having already watched it by yourself.’ That’s one thing that I have always done. When the coach is controlling the remote control, he’s gonna rewind when he wants to rewind. He’s gonna skip certain plays. He’s not watching every single detail. When you can control the rewind button, you can go in there and you watch—first, you better watch your mechanics. Watch what you’re doing. Is your drop good? How’s your throw? OK, now rewind it again. Now you better watch your receivers. OK, looks like Demaryius Thomas ran a good route here. Not sure what Julius Thomas was doing here. Then you better rewind it again and watch what the defense is doing. So, there’s time in that deal. You have to know what they were doing so you can help them. So that has helped me. When I go in and watch it with the coach, I’m watching it for the third, fourth, fifth time. That’s when you start learning.
I still think playing early is the best way to learn," Manning says. "I still hold that rookie record for interceptions. I’m not gonna lie—I pull for these rookies every year to break it.
The other thing I would tell them: ‘To ever watch film without a pen and paper in your hand is a complete waste of time.’ You do it that way, you’re only watching it, as I call it, to please the coach. If you’re in the QB room and you leave the door open so they can see you in there, don’t. Shut the door. You ought to have the door shut. Whether they know you’re in there or not, they’re gonna know by the way you play out on the field. Don’t go showing off.
So those are some things that I have been doing for a long time that have helped me, and I’m still doing them today from a preparation standpoint. But I pull for quarterbacks. I do. These young guys that are playing—I still like the ones that get to play early. I still think that’s the best way to learn. I still hold that rookie record for interceptions. I’m not gonna lie—I pull for these rookies every year to break it. Now you have to be a 16-game starter, so I don’t like these guys who start like 10 or 12 games, because they don’t have enough opportunities. So, I’m not gonna lie, as much as I’m pulling for them to be successful, I do not like holding that record. So, whoever wants to start their rookie quarterback 16 times and throw it a lot this year, I’m all for it.
Playing early: I still think it’s the best way to learn.