ENGLEWOOD, Co. — I remember distinctly the first and only time I outsmarted Peyton Manning. It was during a practice in 2013, my second season in the NFL. I had come to Denver from Jacksonville hoping to make an impact on special teams, but I found myself obsessed with performing well on the “show”—the scout team defense. I wanted to understand our quarterback’s pre-snap checks that were baffling the NFL that year. I wanted to beat Manning in my own small way.
We were in a red-zone period, and he moved the running back over to the opposite side. I yelled, “Sprint out!” And Peyton looked at me, then looked at the center and snapped the ball. Peyton rolled and the receivers flooded one side of the field: sprint out. He never said anything about it, and that was the last time it ever happened.
I love Peyton Manning, but not because he’s a great teammate or an incredible leader or a genuine person. He is all of those things. I love him because he changed my life, and he doesn’t even know it. During his retirement speech at team headquarters on Monday, I was sitting in the front row when he recited this Ralph Waldo Emerson quote: “Treat a man as he is, and he will remain as he is. Treat a man as he could be, and he will become what he should be.”
I had already been cut three times by the Jaguars when I arrived in Denver. Peyton Manning forced me to raise my level of play in practice, which gave me an opportunity to become a starter and contribute in a big way to a championship team.
Peyton introduced me to this idea on my first day in Denver. Before my second NFL season, I had already been released by the Jaguars three times. My choices going into 2013 were: Return to the Jaguars’ practice squad; join a struggling Raiders team; sign with the Broncos’ practice squad. I chose stability over the opportunity to possibly get on the field sooner.
On my first day in Denver, coach John Fox introduced me in a team meeting. “All right guys, we have a new practice squad player,” he said. “His name is Brandon Marshall.” After the meeting, Peyton walked over to me and said, incredibly, “Hey man, I’m Peyton Manning. Nice to meet you.”
I'm thinking, Why is Peyton Manning introducing himself to me? But there was purpose in that introduction that I didn’t understand at the time. Peyton knows that each member of the team has the potential to play a critical role in preparation and on game day. Acknowledging the new practice squad guy and treating him like a veteran starter is about holding people accountable. That week, despite being winded by the high altitude, I earned my first of many Practice Squad Player of the Week awards.
From that moment on I watched him closely. I saw how competitive he was, his approach to the game, and how serious he was about it. I looked at Peyton and cornerback Champ Bailey not simply for how hard they practiced, but also for how smart they practiced. I started focusing on technique and the details the coaches taught us—in coverage, keep my eyes on the receiver's waist; don’t cross my feet when pressing a receiver; use both hands when taking on a lineman. Attention to detail, attention to detail, attention to detail.
You have to strike a delicate balance as a practice squad player between showcasing your skills and giving the offense an accurate look at the upcoming opponent. For instance, a coach will show you a card before every play with a diagram of the coverage, and they’ll say something like, “Bite hard on this play-action.” Peyton would notice and complain if guys weren’t replicating the other team’s coverage perfectly. So I would straddle this line between following instructions and hustling to make plays. As the play began, you could see that it was pass, and I’m thinking the linebackers in the game won’t be convinced by the play-action, so I would start to do what they said, then sprint back. And for some reason, Peyton would never complain.
By the end of 2013, Peyton was telling anyone who would listen about this Brandon Marshall guy. I was told that he made offensive coordinator Adam Gase take notice, and Gase came to me one day and said he would bang the table for me to be on the active roster and get a shot. In training camp the following season, I was working to earn a starting role when I did something I’d been trying desperately to do for an entire year. We were in a nickel formation and I dropped into the flats, and Peyton threw the ball to a wide receiver and I cut hard and came up with the interception. I finally got him.
By my third season, in 2014, I was starting at linebacker. This past season, I finished second on the team in tackles behind Danny Trevathan. Peyton came to me in the locker room the week the Pro Bowl rosters were announced and said, “Hey man, I thought you got snubbed on that Pro Bowl.”
Think about that. Here’s Peyton Manning, at the beginning of the playoffs, dealing with a foot injury during one of the most difficult seasons of his career, telling me I was a Pro Bowl snub. Treat a man as he could be, and he will become what he should be.
A few weeks later, we were in Santa Clara on the eve of the Super Bowl, getting dressed for a walkthrough and team photo when I saw Peyton on his way to the equipment room. I walked over and told him, “Peyton, I want to win this for you.” I think some cynical fans will hear that and roll their eyes, like it’s some line in a football movie. I can tell you that I meant it with all of my heart, and I believe Peyton meant it when he said, in a team meeting that night, that he wanted to win the Super Bowl for all of us.
And it’s not just the starters he cares about, as I learned on my first day in Denver. He cares equally about the practice squad guy busting his ass, which is why Peyton gave props in his farewell press conference to Jordan Taylor, the little-known backup who ran routes for him while he was recovering from injury this season. Peyton finds guys who are putting in the work, hungry, and doing the right things, and he takes an interest in us. That’s how you lead.
Almost immediately I understood this about No. 18 back in 2013: I can't just be a mediocre guy in practice and expect to earn a paycheck. He will expose you. He forced me to raise my level of play in practice, which gave me an opportunity to become a starter and contribute in a big way to a championship team.
Maybe without even realizing it, he always treated me as I could be.