You know about the pledge that came over a seafood lunch at the swanky Surf Club in Miami, the cocky college quarterback with the slow-roasted Louisiana drawl, drenched in ambition and the work ethic to match, pausing and looking his future boss in the eye and telling him, “You know, Mr. Irsay, I’ll win for you.”
Those words sent a shiver down Jim Irsay’s spine.
You know about the threat, too. Peyton Manning’s frustrations were about to boil over in the weeks leading up to the 1998 NFL draft — the kid wasn’t in control, and the kid hated not being in control. Bill Polian wouldn’t tell him who the Indianapolis Colts were taking. Manning left Polian, the team’s new general manager, with this: “If you draft me, I promise we’ll win a championship. If you don’t, I promise to come back and kick your ass.”
Those words left Bill Polian speechless.
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And so it went. Manning got his wish. Spent his first flight to Indianapolis memorizing the names of everyone who worked in the Colts’ front office. Petitioned the league to let him practice early. Came in on his off days as a rookie to throw out-routes to an equipment manager. Stayed in the film room so late he’d fall asleep. Flipped the Colts from league doormat to league power. Made the RCA Dome roar. Silenced the Colts-to-L.A. rumors. Won a world championship. Got Lucas Oil Stadium built. Turned a basketball town into a football town. Fought back tears the day it ended.
The statue will be unveiled Saturday, on the sidewalk outside the stadium that stands as a monument to one man’s influence.
In accordance, here are some of the best Peyton Manning stories you’ve never heard:
Brandon Stokley (Colts wide receiver, 2003-06; Broncos wide receiver, 2012): Practice was grueling. I worked harder in Indy than I did anywhere else in the league. There were no days off, no take-it-easy days in Peyton Manning’s mind. Thursday practices were two, 2½ hours, and I’d wake up Friday more sore than I’d be on Monday after games. With Peyton, there was no gray area. If you didn’t do it his way, you wouldn’t be playing with him for very long.
He’ll deny this story to this day, but it happened. My first year in Indy we’re playing in Houston. I go in motion, run a route and he gets pressure on his backside and has to throw it away. He says he didn’t send me in motion, tells me I messed up the play. He gets all upset with me. All of a sudden, on the sideline, one of the coaches comes up to me and tells me I’m not going in the next series. He got me benched!
On the plane ride home (the Colts won 20-17), I ask him, “Why’d you have them bench me?” He says, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He still denies it to this day. But come on. I was having a really good game before that. Was going to be the best game of my career to that point. I still give him a hard time about that one.
Clyde Christensen (Colts wide receivers coach, 2002-08, offensive coordinator 2009-11): I’d be asleep on the plane ride home coming back from a road win, sometimes at 1, 2 in the morning, and the stewardess would come tap me on the shoulder. “Peyton wants to see you in the back of the plane.” I’d tell her to tell him I was sleeping. She’d come back a few minutes later. “He said he doesn’t care if you’re sleeping.” So I’d walk back there and we’d go over the entire game, play after play after play. He loved every single thing there was to football. He noticed every detail. If I took two steaks in the dinner line, he wouldn’t let that slip.
I never went on a trip with him where everything wasn’t set — where he was going to lift, throw, watch film. We’d be on vacation, and we’d be doing throwing sessions on the ninth fairway before we golfed.
I remember hearing about the time he hosted “Saturday Night Live” from a guy who works for the show. Peyton shot their budget in three days. Kept everyone over time all week long. They tried telling him, “This is New York, this is expensive …” He said, “I don’t care about your budget. I’m not going out here and embarrassing myself. We’re going to work until we get this right.”
Reggie Wayne (Colts wide receiver, 2001-14): The one story I tell all the time — I feel like Peyton has his day planned out before the day even starts. He knows what time he’s going to wake up, what time he’s going to brush his teeth, what time he’s going to go to the store. That’s how he prepared for games. He wanted to figure out what the defense was going to do before they did it. So the way he prepared kind of got the rest of us to kind of pick up our game as far as preparation. Everything was football to him. He was a workaholic, basically had no social life. That’s one thing you can respect.
(Did he ever get on your nerves?)
Every day, man. (Laughs.) It was work. He wanted to be the best. It motivated me to be a better player. He did that for all of us.
Jim Sorgi (Colts backup quarterback, 2004-09): He did it day in and day out for 18 years. Any normal human being would take a day off. Even the year he was hurt and missed all of training camp (2008), he was in his room, watching film of every single practice. We’d be in a meeting and he’d say, “Hey, Sorgi, I want you to go grab the film from the 1999 season, the third game, the second quarter, the camera looking left to right from our bench, go grab it.” He would blow you away with his memory recall.
Ryan Diem (Colts guard, 2001-11): So after games on the road, when we’d win, we’d celebrate on the tarmac with some cigars. We’d be standing there, underneath the plane, where the luggage goes. We’d just talk about the game, the plays, general locker room BS. Just Peyton and some select offensive players. One time they were fueling up the plane about 100 feet from us, and one of the security workers sees us. Says, “Hey, you guys gotta put those cigars out!” Then he looked up and saw Peyton. Peyton just kind’ve looked at him. The guy says, “Oh, never mind, it’s all right. Just be careful.”
Justin Snow (Colts long snapper, 2000-11): It’s my rookie season, and it’s Thanksgiving, and they’re giving us players free turkeys at Marsh. Peyton asked me to get his. I’m a rookie, and he’s in his third year, so I listen. The words you had to give them at the counter were “extra gravy.” So I go there, give them the words, tell them I’m supposed to get Peyton Manning’s turkey, and the guy behind the counter is like, “Well, we’re really not supposed to do that.” He tells me I have to do this touchdown dance in order to get the turkey. I’m thinking, nah, this isn’t worth it. I’ll just buy him one. But the guy behind the counter says, “Let’s go!” and hits the button and music starts playing. Tells me, “Only way you’re getting this turkey is if you dance.”
So I break into my dance for, whatever, 20 seconds. The guy is eating this up. So he gives me my turkey, and I bring it to the facility the next day. I was walking by the equipment room and I start seeing Polaroids of my dance on the wall. Then, we’re in a team meeting, and at the very end, coach (Jim) Mora says, “We have something to share with you guys.” And the video starts playing. Apparently, there was a hidden camera behind the counter the whole time. They put all the rookies through this, but apparently since I was the best one, they showed mine last. Eleven years they showed that at Thanksgiving. Peyton loved it. He always cued it up. He’d show it to all the players and wives at his house after games.
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Pat McAfee (Colts punter, 2009-16): I got asked to go on a golf trip with Peyton before he ever really knew me. … I was like, I gotta learn how to (expletive) golf. I borrow Adam Vinatieri’s clubs. I lost, roughly, 160 of Peyton Manning’s golf balls that trip.
We get back to the hotel after a day of golf (at the Pete Dye Course in French Lick) and you have to walk through a casino to get to the escalators. Apparently, word had gotten out that Peyton Manning was there. I stop at the roulette table. I say, “I’d like $500 in chips.” When Peyton walked into the casino, a buzz started. Peyton walks by my table, slaps me right on the butt. I’m like, I’m never washing that ass cheek ever again. Everybody just looks at me, like, “Who the hell are you?” I tell them I’m his caddy. He kinda stood behind me for a couple minutes, then he went to leave. He goes, “How ‘bout that red 18?” with a wink and a grin. I go, that was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. Then he’s gone. So I took all my chips off all my other numbers and put all my chips on red 18. Everybody at the table goes, “We should probably do that too.” (Soon) every chip at the entire table was on red 18. It looked like the (expletive) Eiffel Tower. All of a sudden, the number stops on red 18. The other people at the table are like, “OH MY GOD! Jesus himself walked into the casino!”
I saw him the next morning. I go, “Did you know red 18 hit?”
He goes, “Yeah.”
Bill Polian (Colts president, 1998-2011): His rookie year was rough. There were plenty of people in Indianapolis who said we picked the wrong guy. We knew he’d fight through it. Jim (Irsay) understood the process. There were never any doubts in our minds we were on the right track. We played in Baltimore late in the year. We had an awful defense, and it wasn’t anything to do with our coaches. Game goes back and forth. We couldn’t hold the lead, but we were playing well offensively, and with very little time left, we had an opportunity to take the lead and win the game. And Peyton and Marvin (Harrison) misfired on a side adjust. Marvin went one route and Peyton expected another. The ball fell incomplete and we lost the game. After the prayer in the locker room, I got both aside and told them, “I don’t want you to be upset and hang your heads, because this is never going to happen again. After one offseason together, believe me, it will never happen again.” Peyton just looked at me and said, “OK.” And then those two went on to become the league’s best quarterback-wide receiver combination in history.
Marshall Faulk (Colts running back, 1994-98): The speed of the game, even if you’re as prepared as Peyton Manning was as a rookie, will surprise you. There were moments when he’d throw a ball and be in awe that a defensive back would get there. After a few practices I looked at him and said, “Peyton, in this league everybody can get there.” He looked at me and said, “You’re right.” It was just amazing what he did as a rookie, coming into a locker room full of grown men with kids and be a leader. You have to have that. The position requires it … and the amount of questions he asked. I was a guy who asked a lot of questions. He asked more than me.
Jeff Saturday (Colts center, 1999-2011): The best way to frame him is he was one of the few guys I’ve met in my life who really enjoys the process as much as the success. And he drives everybody to be about that. Everybody talks about the hours he spent watching film, which is all true, but he wanted his teammates to do the same thing. I love the fact that he asked questions on Mondays, “Hey, Jeff, if they bring this defense, what’s your call going to be here and why? What’s the advantage?” And if he knew you were BSing — coach or player — he’d call you to the carpet. If he knew a guy was jacking around or not paying attention, and wasn’t on the details, he’d undress them right then and there. Coaches too.
Of course we’d have arguments. We’d challenge each other. He’d pull something out of the playbook we hadn’t practiced since training camp and he’d want to call it on a random Wednesday practice. I’m like, “Man, you wanna get yourself killed? You’re gonna get smoked.” Yeah, you’d get frustrated (with him). He’d be chasing ghosts, what-if you to death. But that’s the way he prepared. It’s not always fun being challenged like that. Sometimes, enough is enough. But it made me a much better football player for a much longer period of time.
Eddie White (Reebok vice president of NFL team properties, 1996-2008): We’re at the Pro Bowl one year in Honolulu. Bill Belichick is the coach of the AFC team, and Peyton Manning is the quarterback of the AFC team. After a morning practice, they go and have lunch together, just the two of them. They’re sitting there at this restaurant, Belichick drinking Coronas and wearing a Patriots visor, Peyton drinking Budweiser, of course, and wearing his Colts visor. And they’re there for hours. These guys are lining up beer bottles, moving around salt and pepper shakers like they’re offensive linemen! People would walk by, sort of stare for a second then get a “Don’t bother us” face from Belichick or Peyton. To me it was like an NFL meeting between George Halas and Vince Lombardi back in the ’40s.
Years later I asked both of them, “You didn’t give anything away, did you?”
Both looked at me and gave the same answer: “Hell no.”
Hunter Smith (Colts punter, 1999-2008): During our tenure at the Colts facilities, we kinda treated it like national intelligence. Everything was run like the Department of Homeland Security. Nothing got out, certainly not nefarious in nature. We never let injuries out of the building. Everyone knew we weren’t going to win if Peyton Manning wasn’t our quarterback. I wish you knew how many injuries No. 18 played through in his career, and how many things were kept on the down low. In particular, I know he played through a shoulder issue at one point. He was just a tough guy who was going to be on the field no matter what. When it came to the neck injury, if he wasn’t able to fight through it, then it wasn’t able to be fought through. I, along with a lot of other people, owe a debt of gratitude to Peyton Manning.
Marvin Harrison (Colts wide receiver, 1996-2008): I remember the first day he came in. I didn’t know anything about Peyton. But the first day of practice, I saw how he was and the determination on his face and the way he was on the field. I said, “He wants to be good!”
Marcus Pollard (Colts tight end, 1995-2004): He was the real deal upon arrival, a leader, a stud, focused, driven. I can remember him telling me right away, “MP, I’m not here to make friends. I’m here to win a championship.” Sometimes you couldn’t even tell if he was a player or a coach. The line got blurry. In those first few seasons, I think he lived at the facility. He was a grinder. I went to his house years later and went down to his basement, and the setup was identical to the Colts’ film room. To the T! I was like, “This man is insane!”
Edgerrin James (Colts running back, 1999-2005): I keep stories private, but I will say this: His whole life was consumed by the sport. Greatness wasn’t an accident with Peyton. You always got a good understanding of how important the game was to him during the bye week. He’s still in there taking all the reps when everyone’s relaxed. He’s still treating it like a game week.
Kelly Holcomb (Colts backup quarterback, 1996-2000): We’d pull pranks on each other all the time. He never had a TV in his room at training camp, but I always did. So one night we’re in my room, and I’ve gotta run to Walgreens to pick up something, and I tell him he can just hang in my room and watch SportsCenter or whatever. So about five minutes into the drive, I realize I’m an idiot. He’s gonna get me. I get back to the dorm, and my room’s on the second floor, and I see guys heads peeking out of the rooms. They’re snickering, about to burst into laughter. I walk into the lobby on the first floor and find every single piece of furniture from my room just sitting there. He got all the linemen to help him move it down there in five minutes.
Dallas Clark (Colts tight end, 2003-11): My favorite Peyton story? That’s like picking your favorite movie. But it’s been a few years since he retired, so I think the statute of limitations has expired and I’m allowed to tell this story. As the years went on, training camp became known for pranking. It was kind of fun being one of the elder statesmen. We’d do all kinds of stuff to the rookies or guys on the staff. We’re at Rose-Hulman (Institute of Technology) one year in Terre Haute, and they had this pond right in the middle of the quad. And there was this raft in the middle of the pond. One night, we’re coming back from eating supper, and someone kind of mentions, “Man, how awesome would it be to put someone’s golf cart on that raft?” We all drove golf carts around campus every year at camp. Everyone had one with their name on it. Peyton gets an idea.
So a few days later, a couple of the offensive linemen get in the pond, drag this raft to the shore, put a golf cart on it and drag it back to the middle of the lake. It was a staff member’s cart, but I won’t say who. This guy wakes up the next morning and sees his golf cart, sitting there, in the middle of the pond. We all just lost it. Peyton? He may or may have not been the commander in chief of that one.
Tom Moore (Colts offensive coordinator, 1998-2009): You knew from the get-go that he was just damn special. There are three ingredients to a successful QB: Your ability to recall, then you gotta process, then you gotta apply what you should do based on what you recalled and what you processed. And you got about one second to do all that. And he’s the best at that I’ve ever been around. A lot of people want to be great. A lot of people just want to talk about it. He did every single thing in his power every single day to be great. He just wouldn’t allow you to have a bad practice. Just wouldn’t allow it. He wanted answers. He’d see a college game on a Saturday up in his hotel room and he’d come down to the meeting and say, “I just saw this play and I want to know what we’d do in this situation.” You’d have to have an answer, even if you really didn’t have an answer.
Michael Silver (longtime NFL reporter): [Silver was a senior writer for Sports Illustrated in 1999 when the magazine assigned him to profile the Colts’ precocious young star. Silver’s portrait was one of the most revealing of Manning ever done. For all his on-field acumen — Manning was in the midst of flipping the Colts’ 3-13 record his rookie year to a sizzling 13-3 in 1999 — he struggled with a handful of elementary domestic tasks. Among them: dressing himself (mom Olivia sent him Polaroids with outfit ideas), hooking up a DVD player, even opening a can of soup.]
I just couldn’t believe how openly lost he was in terms of nonfootball things, in a super-endearing and vulnerable way. Talking to (then-girlfriend, now-wife) Ashley definitely helped a lot. She was able to poke fun in an affectionate but brutal way. The access was incredible. We just drove over to St. Elmo’s and hung out, then we went to his apartment. He was literally showing me these Polaroids that his mom had sent him showing him what outfits to wear. They were in this little envelope. This is a guy who today is viewed as a potential senator! And of course there was the time (in college) he asked Ashley to call and order Chinese food for him.
The thing about Peyton is, and I’ll give him credit for this, but even way back then he was so invested in being a franchise quarterback and so good at it that he even prepared for interviews. Later in my career, when I’d come to Indy, I sort of pictured him spending some time the night before preparing for our interview, driving home from practice, telling himself that Sports Illustrated is coming, trying to come up with a cool anecdote that would be perfect for my story. And I didn’t view it as a negative or contrived thing. He was probably telling himself, “I need to nail this interview, because that’s what a franchise quarterback is supposed to do.”
Jay Norvell (Colts wide receivers coach, 1998-2001): I was there for the draft process in ’98. We worked out Ryan Leaf and we worked out Peyton Manning. And there was a huge difference in the two workouts. I’ll never forget Peyton’s. We land in Knoxville early one morning, and his workout’s supposed to start at 11 a.m. We show up 40 minutes early, thinking he might not even be at the team facility yet. Then we see him on the 50-yard line, in a full sweat, working with a few receivers. He’d been there for an hour. To this day that memory makes the hair stand on the back of my neck.
Bob Lamey (longtime Colts radio voice): Super Bowl XLI. After two weeks of anticipation, the (Chicago) Bears run the opening kickoff back. Here we go again. It’s pouring rain. You know we’re not going to be able to throw the ball like we want to. And supposedly Peyton is walking up and down the sidelines, telling everyone, “We got them right where we want them.” I never confirmed that, and I never asked him about it. But I believe it.
In practice, if you didn’t run a route, he would get pissed. What people saw on Sunday afternoon, Marvin, Dallas, Reggie, Joseph, that was born on the fields out here during the week.
Perfection is what he wanted. Perfection is what he got.
Call IndyStar reporter Zak Keefer at (317) 444-6134. Follow him on Twitter: @zkeefer.
Peyton Manning’s big weekend
Manning statue unveiled
3 p.m. Saturday: The Colts will unveil a statue of Peyton Manning on the north plaza outside of Lucas Oil Stadium. IndyStar will stream the unveiling live on Facebook.
Manning jersey retired
Halftime of Sunday’s game: Manning’s No. 18 jersey will be officially retired and he will be inducted into the team’s Ring of Honor during the Colts’ home game against the San Francisco 49ers.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Peyton Manning: The best stories you’ve never heard