DENVER — He stood behind the bus in the south tunnel, checking his phone, waiting for his cue. It was almost time for Peyton Manning to walk into the warm embrace of Broncos Country, to relish in the revealing of his Ring of Fame pillar.
As I walked by Manning on Sunday in this moment, he said hello and motioned me over. There are plenty of things I miss about Manning no longer playing — the 10 starting quarterbacks since he retired drives that point home — but the shoot-the-breeze sessions rank tops on the list.
He told me how much he enjoys coaching his son Marshall's flag football team — good friend Brandon Stokley filled in one weekend and routed the opponent 72-6 — loved a "bucket list" trip to Israel with wife Ashley and looks forward to his ESPN Monday night ManningCast with brother Eli even when the birds and F-words (Thanks Marshawn Lynch) have become headlines.
"And this has been a great week to remember my four years in Denver," Manning said.
Moments later, Manning walked up the tunnel, shared stories about his time with the Broncos, including the Super Bowl 50 walk into the sunset, and unveiled his pillar which "got the forehead right."
For the first time in nine years, the Broncos held the ceremony in the pregame, allowing fans to attend. And they let Manning hear it, yelling, "The Goat," "PFF" and "MVP!" The reality of Manning's presence clobbers fans over the head. Ask Broncos Country who they'd like to own the team, if, as expected, the Bowlen family sells after the season, Manning remains the favorite.
So is Manning considering it? Is he part of a group preparing a bid?
"I haven’t had any serious conversations with anyone. Certainly, there have been some people who have called me who say, ‘Hey, what do you think is going to happen with the Broncos? Are you gonna try to own the team?’ I keep looking for that $3 billion in my pocket. I can’t find it. I think it’s in a hidden account somewhere," Manning said as he checked his bright orange Ring of Fame jacket.
"That’s not really on my radar. People are obviously interested. They care. I care because I live here, and I go to the games. I want to know what’s going to happen like everyone else. I have no relationship with anybody. Even if I am offered an opportunity I haven’t decided if I would even do it. I actually like what I am doing now, right? I get to stay close to the game. The one positive of COVID is that you can actually broadcast a game remotely. I do it from my buddy’s garage. Eli does it in his back house. I get to coach Marshall’s flag football team. I went to a DH softball game yesterday with Mosley. I still get to do everything on a one-year-at-a-time basis. Next year who knows how I will feel. I will always be part of the Broncos in some way."
Manning has experienced several pinch-me moments over the last several months. In August, he entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which resonated with him as much as any player because of his encyclopedic knowledge of the game's history. But Sunday in Denver, where his family makes its home, was special.
"Canton was awesome, but it was about my time in Tennessee and Indianapolis. This was about remembering my four years in Denver and how it all came about," said Manning, whose signing as a free agent made former coach John Fox "jump up and down like a little girl."^
"It was quite the ordeal, that free agency and that frenzy if will. It was so nice to make the decision. Come here, get settled and go back to work. I couldn't have made a better decision. It was an awesome four years. We love Denver."