Peyton Manning Week: Five Enduring Memories From Covering No. 18

Phillip B. Wilson

INDIANAPOLIS — The first impression that resonated about Peyton Manning was in his rookie year in 1998.

The Indianapolis Colts finished 3-13, and losing didn’t sit well with Manning. Players were showered, dressed, and departing from the locker room. Manning sat motionless in his locker. And he was still in uniform.

Whether it was just trying to decompress from the game, or getting a grip on his ultra-competitive nature or perhaps he was just genuinely ticked off about not being able to lead the Colts to a win, Manning only knows.

But it couldn’t have been more evident how much he put into the effort. In thinking back to covering the NFL since 1988 as a USA Today stringer on Cleveland Browns games, which included mistaking fiery coach Marty Schottenheimer’s booming voice for being upset with yours truly — he was praising a player next to me — I’ve never witnessed anyone with more desire than Manning.

That’s why the finale to Peyton Manning Week demanded a bit of a deviation from writing about some of the stories everyone knows too well. Watching Manning from that rookie year until the time he departed in free agency in early 2012, eventually bound for Denver, it’s an understatement to admit it was a privilege. If you cover enough NFL games, the weekly routine doesn't always include greatness. But of most of the time with Manning, it did.

At some point on that ride, the realization hit that those of us assigned to the Colts beat were fortunate to witness his career. Just like fans, we kind of took it for granted. Manning reshaped an Indianapolis landscape that until his arrival was all about basketball - be it high school, college, or the NBA - and the Indianapolis 500.

Sports Illustrated has so many nostalgic Manning stories and photographs. Here’s a link to rare Manning photos. Be forewarned, there’s 40 in the gallery.

In preparing the Manning chapter for my 2013 book 100 Things Colts Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die (Triumph Books), I relied on longtime Colts media relations director Craig Kelley to provide the ideal finishing perspective. It was especially appropriate to describe a Colt as a famous horse.

"There are race horses, and then there is Secretariat," Kelley said of the legendary 1973 Triple Crown winner. "Peyton is Secretariat." 

Once more, perhaps for sentimental reasons because you never know how many opportunities there will be to share personal memories, here’s what I will always remember about covering Peyton Manning.

5, Blocked call

While on the phone in the middle of a 2012 afternoon, the cellular buzzed for another call. The ID read: “Blocked call.” Ordinarily, those are quickly dismissed. But enough experience covering the NFL teaches you never know when it’s someone important on the line.

Stunned wouldn’t begin to describe my reaction when the voice said, “Hi Phil, it’s Peyton Manning.” You know it’s true because his familiar voice with that Southern accent is cemented in the memory from 14 years of interviews.

Manning was becoming a free agent and leaving Indianapolis, and decided to call media members to thank them for their work. That I merited a call came as a surprise. You don’t ever truly think the stories are greatly appreciated by the pros, who typically say they don’t pay attention to the “outside noise.” But I learned in 2001 after writing a story about Colts free agents who didn’t pan out, Manning notices everything. He walked up in the locker room and advised me of disappointing players I forgot to mention in the story. And he was right.

Manning thanked me for what I had written in his time with the Colts. I don’t remember my exact response, but I said something about how the honor was all mine, that it was a lot of fun watching him play.

Some suggested that the Manning media cellular tour was just a clever, calculated way to get some positive pub. I didn’t care. That he called meant something. I wrote about it in my blog at The Indianapolis Star, and was told later that Manning didn’t particularly like that. Again, no matter.

That call probably didn’t last more than five minutes, but I’ll never forget it.

4, Failing to Get Quote

A story that has never before been shared needs to see the light of day, just so everyone doesn’t think that covering Manning was always a joyride.

Assigned to The Indianapolis Star’s effort to cover the final regular-season home game of Indiana Pacers star Reggie Miller in 2005, an editor advised that Manning was in attendance at Conseco Fieldhouse.

As a Colts reporter, it made sense to give me the task of getting a Manning quote. Easy enough? Uh, no. He was seated courtside along with other Colts, including Jeff Saturday. I waited until halftime to approach Manning.

Before I could ask a question, Manning flashed a discerning eyebrow in my direction and advised in a rather stern tone that he didn’t appreciate comments I had made on a flight home from their playoff loss at New England. We weren’t on the same flight, but evidently the wife of a player was sitting within earshot. Manning advised that I had upset her and, again uttered words never to be forgotten, “You better watch how you run your mouth.”

He never got my explanation, nor would it have changed his mind. The vague recollection of that flight conversation with someone next to me pertained to how whether the Colts won or lost, I had a job to do, that a journalist can’t get too emotional about wins or losses. We’re there for the fans, i.e. readers, first and foremost.

I looked at the playoff game as a win-win, regardless of the outcome. If the Colts won, it’s every writer’s dream to cover the Super Bowl and beating the Patriots would have advanced Manning’s team to the AFC title game. If they lost, and the Colts sure did in an ugly 20-3 defeat, that meant a long season was finally finished and I could unwind with quality time at home with two young children.

Initial surprise at Manning’s tone eventually turned to a bit of anger, but standing on the court in front of so many people keeping an eye on an icon wasn’t the time or place to engage. I remember looking at Saturday’s eyes getting wide as he eased back in his chair, as if to say, “I’m staying out of this.”

I didn’t get the quote from Manning on Miller. As much as I hate failure, the conversation wasn’t going to shift to, “Hey, let’s move past that and you give me your thoughts on Miller.”

Ticked off but calling an audible for plan B, I walked over to wide receiver Brandon Stokley and he obliged with a good quote.

But, yeah, you don’t forget when Peyton Manning is miffed at you.

3, Monday Night Miracle

Manning recently said the Colts’ miraculous comeback from being down 35-14 with less than four minutes remaining to defeat Tampa Bay 38-35 in overtime on Monday Night Football on Oct. 7, 2003, was his favorite game.

It has to make this list, too, because there was just no way anyone could have expected that comeback. The beat writers were already punching away on their laptop keyboards about how the Colts had laid an egg in primetime and spoiled coach Tony Dungy’s birthday and homecoming to the Sunshine State.

The Buccaneers built the 21-point lead on a Ronde Barber pick-six. Dungy was thinking about taking out Manning and the starters, but changed his mind when Brad Pyatt returned the ensuing kickoff 90 yards.

After the Colts’ James Mungro scored on a fourth-down rush, the visitors recovered an onside kick, then Manning hit Marvin Harrison with a 28-yard TD pass on fourth down to make it 35-28 with 2:29 remaining.

At that point, a writer starts thinking about rewriting just in case. The smart move is to have two leads, so lead No. 2 was being crafted in case the Colts somehow pulled this off, which still seemed unlikely with little time left.

But the Colts got the ball back, Manning hit Harrison for 52 yards, and Ricky Williams scored the tying touchdown on a 1-yard run with 35 seconds left.

Now press row is in limbo, especially with the game lingering on in overtime. Finally, after what seemed like forever, Colts kicker Mike Vanderjagt got a bit lucky after pushing a 40-yard field goal attempt wide right as the Bucs’ Simeon Rice was flagged for “leaping.” Vanderjagt’s deciding 29-yard field goal was also lucky as it deflected off the finger tips of Bucs defensive end Ellis Wyms at the line, fluttered like a knuckleball, then banked through off the inside of the right upright with 3:52 remaining in overtime.

It's the first time in NFL history a team has rallied from 21 points down inside of four minutes to win.

Writers scrambled to file whatever possible in practically no time after getting back from locker-room interviews. It’s the one time in my career that I can recall an editor back in Indy advising that anyone who didn’t file their story at that precise moment wouldn’t see it in the newspaper the next day. Story sent.

The NFL recently ranked the comeback as the 65th greatest game in history.

In the fourth quarter and overtime, Manning completed 18-of-26 passes for 235 yards with one TD and one interception.

“That damn Peyton Manning,” Bucs coach Jon Gruden bemoaned. “He really irritated me today.”

2, Super Bowl XLI

Manning wouldn’t admit this, because he was always a stickler for preparation, but he’s probably never been as intensely focused about one game as before the Colts faced the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI on Feb. 4, 2007, in Miami.

He rankled teammates in a Colts complex meeting before departing for Miami by reminding them this was a business trip, that families shouldn’t be permitted in the team hotel and he didn’t want to be dealing with “crying kids.” The ever-patient Dungy struck a compromise by setting up a special area on the Marriott Harbor Beach resort’s third floor, two below the off-limits level. Manning could study film without distractions, which is about all he did. While teammates went out and enjoyed the South Beach scenery, Manning stayed in the hotel. 

Sports Illustrated's Michael Silver, who wrote the “Colt Heroes” cover story on Super Bowl XLI, reported that one of Manning’s irritated teammates said the Colts should be renamed the “Indianapolis Peytons."

Despite Dungy’s insistence that it wouldn’t rain, Manning saw the weather forecasts calling for precipitation. The quarterback had center Jeff Saturday dunk footballs in water before hiking them in practice.

Smart move. It rained. Manning didn’t lose his grip on the wet balls. The Bears fumbled four times, losing three. Bears quarterback Rex Grossman had two of them, recovering one, but that botched play on third down ended a drive.

Sitting in an auxiliary press area outside, my first concern was keeping the laptop covered. But the adrenaline rush of covering a first Super Bowl made it easy to forget about the rain.

Although the Bears seized a 7-0 lead on Devin Hester’s 92-yard kickoff return just 14 seconds in, and led 14-6 at the end of the first quarter, the Colts rallied with 10 second-quarter points for a 16-14 halftime lead.

Because of the adrenaline rush of being at this game, the appreciation for Prince’s halftime show didn’t register until much later. Again, nobody seemed to mind the precipitation when the soggy star was singing “Purple Rain” in the rain with the stadium lit up in purple.

Colts fans will never forget how the game turned out. Manning was the smart game manager in relying on the 1-2 rushing punch of running backs Dominic Rhodes and Joseph Addai. When Kelvin Hayden sealed a 29-17 victory with a 56-yard TD interception return in the fourth quarter, the only question that remained was deciding MVP.

Arguments were made on press row and by fans that Rhodes or Addai was more worthy than Manning. Rhodes ran for 113 yards and one TD on 21 carries. Addai caught a Super Bowl-record 10 passes for 66 yards in addition to rushing for 77 yards on 19 carries.

But after years of hearing or reading how he was considered a great “regular-season” quarterback, which didn’t turn out to be true, I’m kind of glad Manning received the honor. The Colts wouldn’t have been there without him.

Manning also went out a winner in his final game while with the Broncos, claiming a second ring in Super Bowl 50. Even if that never happened, just winning one ring meant everything.

“I wanted to be on a team that won the Super Bowl,” Manning said. “To me, that’s what it’s always been about. In years past when our team has come up short, it’s been disappointing. But somehow, some way we have found a way to learn from some of those losses. We’re a better team because of it.”

On the shuttle ride back to the hotel in the early morning, my first Super Bowl experience had me thinking back to a first ESPN TV interview with Bob Ley for “Outside the Lines.” Ley’s key question pertained to when does the window close on Manning winning a Super Bowl?

The question was given in advance. Unsure of the best answer and wanting to make the most of being on national TV, I consulted longtime NFL writer Rick Gosselin, one of the best in the business. He made me sound smart when Ley posed his question.

“The window never closes on a great quarterback,” I said.

Quarterback Peyton Manning holds up the Vince Lombardi Trophy earned in the Indianapolis Colts' Super Bowl XLI triumph in 2007. The team was honored on the 10-hear anniversary of the championship at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Quarterback Peyton Manning holds up the Vince Lombardi Trophy during a 10-year anniversary celebration at Lucas Oil Stadium of the Indianapolis Colts' Super Bowl XLI victory in 2007.Thomas J. Russo/USA TODAY Sports

1, 2007 AFC Championship Game

As much as sitting in press row for Super Bowl XLI is one of the most unforgettable experiences, nothing in the NFL will ever compare to the game the Colts won to get there.

Live blogging during the AFC Championship Game between the Colts and rival Patriots on Jan. 22, 2007, at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, I remember typing that I didn’t know if the Colts could come back from being down 21-3 after Asante Samuel returned a Manning interception for a TD in the second quarter. The Colts had lost to the Patriots in New England in the 2003 and 2004 postseasons, so it felt like, “Here we go again.”

Even the players were panicked, center Jeff Saturday admitted. But head coach Tony Dungy kept insisting, “It’s our time. It’s our time.”

That second half was perhaps the most clutch performance of Manning’s career, considering coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady on the other sideline, and the stakes of the game.

Manning started the comeback with a 1-yard TD run, then threw a 1-yard TD pass to defensive lineman Dan Klecko and a two-point conversion pass to Marvin Harrison to knot it at 21 in the third quarter.

After that, it was a heavyweight slugfest, toe-to-toe, each team trading shots. The Patriots scored and the Colts answered with Saturday recovering a Dominic Rhodes fumble in the end zone. Then they traded field goals. Then the Patriots kicked another field goal for a 34-31 lead.

The situation that every athlete, or even wannabe player or sports writer, envisions in the back yard as a kid was in front of No. 18. The Colts needed to negotiate 80 yards in the final 2:17 with one timeout.

Manning found tight end Bryan Fletcher for a key 32-yard pass play. The Colts kept driving and actually scored a bit early when Saturday pancaked Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork to open a gaping hole for an untouched Joseph Addai’s 3-yard TD run with one minute remaining.

The TV broadcast showed Manning lowering his head on the bench and not looking as Brady tried to rally the Patriots. Marlin Jackson came up with the game-clinching interception to finish a 38-34 Colts triumph for the ages.

It’s the only time in my life I’ve been in a stadium that shook like that, as if the dome roof was going to be blown off by the noise. I remember asking a colleague next to me, “Do you feel that?”

Manning finished 27 of 47 for 349 yards with one passing TD, one rushing TD, and one INT. Not his best game statistically, but when it counted in the second half, he completed 15 of 23 passes for 225 yards with the one passing TD and one rushing TD. The Colts scored 32 second-half points on a Patriots defense that had not allowed more than 27 points in a game all season.

That’s why this game is the one the Colts say they will always remember. It’s been referred to as “Peyton’s revenge.”

“The greatest football game I’ve ever been a part of,’’ Saturday said. “No question.”

“Obviously we had to win another game, but that was it,” Dungy said. “That was our Super Bowl.”

Retired quarterback Peyton Manning gives a thumbs up after being inducted into the Indianapolis Colts Ring of Honor in 2017 at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Peyton Manning gives a thumbs up after being inducted into the Indianapolis Colts Ring of Honor in 2017 at Lucas Oil Stadium.Thomas J. Russo/USA TODAY Sports

(Phillip B. Wilson has covered the Indianapolis Colts for more than two decades and authored the 2013 book 100 Things Colts Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die. He’s on Twitter @pwilson24, on Facebook at @allcoltswithphilb and @100thingscoltsfans, and his email is phillipbwilson24@yahoo.com.)

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