(EDITOR’S NOTE: To listen to the Jim Irsay interview, click on the following attachment: Ep 56: Colts Owner Jim Irsay Joins The Show | Spreaker)
When Tom Brady returns to New England on Oct. 3 to face his former teammates, we’re told it will be a game like no other.
Except it will.
Climb aboard the time machine and return to October, 2013, when Hall-of-Fame quarterback Peyton Manning, then with Denver, returned to Indianapolis to face his former teammates.
The first overall pick of the 1998 draft, Manning was 141-67 in his 13 seasons with the Colts, took them to 11 playoffs, was named the league’s MVP four times and was a winner in Super Bowl XLI. In short, he was the Indianapolis Colts. But complications from four neck surgeries and salary-cap constraints compelled the club to do the unimaginable and release Manning, who was due a $28-million option bonus.
That was March, 2012. He returned to Indianapolis one year later … in October, no less … for a nationally televised Sunday-night event.
“It was different,” Colts’ owner Jim Irsay said on the latest “Eye Test for Two” podcast on fullpressradio.com. “You’re torn because, man, you want to beat the other guy. But once it’s over, you love and respect the other guy so much. It’s in the theater of what competitors are about.”
And theater it was. Fans showed up in No. 18 Colts’ jerseys. They showed up in No. 18 Denver jerseys. They even showed up in No. 18 jerseys that were half blue (Colts) and half orange (Denver). And they stood and cheered a pre-game video tribute as an emotional Manning removed his helmet, raised his right hand and slowly turned to salute the sold-out crowd.
"Peyton and I are so close,” said Irsay, “and we always have been. I’m forever in debt for him for being the great pro and great person that he is.
"It reminds me a little bit about Ali-Frazier. In the ring, it was vicious – as vicious as two champions can be. But when Ali couldn’t fight because of draft problems (he refused to be inducted into the military) and all those things, Frazier showed up in a car and gave him money to make sure he was doing OK. I mean, it was that kind of relationship that existed.
“One thing with Peyton is that we love each other, but, boy, are we both competitors. I’d be a liar to say I didn’t want to beat his ass, and I know he wanted to beat my ass – always in the context of the gridiron field for those three hours.”
The game had been hyped for weeks, months, and Manning admitted the attention was enervating. However, you’d never know it by his play. In the midst of a record-breaking season, Manning had thrown 22 touchdown passes (including seven in the season opener) in his first six starts, with only two interceptions, and Denver was unbeaten.
He was otherworldly, and so were the Broncos. They hadn’t lost a regular-season game since the previous October, a streak of 17 straight victories, and would finish an AFC-best 13-3. Manning, meanwhile, would throw an NFL-record 55 TD passes, win his fifth league MVP and lead Denver to its first Super Bowl since John Elway quarterbacked the Broncos.
But this was different.
It was, as Irsay admitted, an important game for both teams. But it was more than that. It was a coronation, and both sides understood. When Manning trotted out for pre-game warmups, fans stood and cheered. And when the video tribute ended with an image of Manning hoisting the Lombardi trophy, they erupted in wild applause.
It was emotional for the usually stoic Manning. And he wasn’t alone.
“That is the hardest thing that I ever had to work through,” Irsay said of the decision to release his star quarterback. “I know it was the same for him. It’s just so very difficult. He understood it, too ... We had real cap problems, and we were in a big transition.
“But it wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted to see him play his whole career with the Colts. But it wasn’t the right decision to make as a steward of this professional football team, the Indianapolis Colts You can’t let emotions get involved in those decisions. In professional football we’re all paid to win, and you try to make those decisions as best you can with that in mind.”
So Manning went to Denver, the Colts drafted Andrew Luck with the first overall pick in 2012 and the rest you know. What you might not, however, is that Indianapolis won that Sunday, with Luck and Manning both exceling in the Colts’ 39-33 victory.
"It was just a great football game," Irsay said.
Manning would gain his revenge one year later with a 31-24 defeat of Indianapolis in the season opener in Denver. That made him one of three quarterbacks in league history to beat all 32 teams. Drew Brees and Brett Favre are the others. Now, Brady can join that club with a victory in Foxboro, and Irsay can relate to what his return means for both sides.
“Before and after the game it’s tormenting,” he said, “and you can expect a wave of emotion to come across when all of a sudden you see that tribute, and you see that guy. It’s very unusual.
“Most people don’t see that guy come back … that guy who meant so much to your franchise … that guy that you love so much. And I know how much they love Tom, as they should. It's very difficult; it’s a hard situation.
“I don’t know if it’s like an ex-wife, where you’re just glad that she met someone else and is doing well. But a part of your heart is still broken. It’s a tough, tough deal.
"But you have to keep it in the context of just that game and what you’re trying to accomplish in the 'now'… because each one of our games means so much if you're truly looking to be in the playoffs.”