Despite looming breakup, Peyton always will be Indy's icon

INDIANAPOLIS -- Here's a good bet: The code to the elevator at the iconic St. Elmo Steak House won't change on Peyton Manning.

And sure as that, neither will Manning's stature in the city in which he spent his first 14 NFL seasons.

With the deadline for Manning's $28 million option bonus looming on March 8, the professional bond between the quarterback and the team is already breaking. On Tuesday, owner Jim Irsay said the Colts would love to have Manning back next season ... if he's willing to take a pay cut. With each passing day, it becomes more clear that Manning won't be wearing Stampede Blue any more. His home stadium won't be within walking distance of the convention center and city hall, and all that won't be easy.

But the bridge between a city and its iconic athlete will remain, if in a different form.

It's too personal not to.

At St. Elmo Steak House, Manning's friendships run deep. For years now, he's had a standing reservation in the restaurant's wine cellar for after games. If the Colts played at 1 p.m., the room would be waiting for him at 5. If they played a night game, the place would stay open into the wee hours.

Sometimes, Manning would enter unannounced, punching the aforementioned code into the elevator, and taking it down to the basement before texting his buddy, and Elmo's co-owner, Craig Huse, to inform him that he was there. Whether he's wearing a Cardinals jersey, or a Dolphins jersey, or a Redskins jersey, or something else in 2012, that access won't be altered. Not much, anyway.

"He probably knows the names of more bartenders than I do," said Bryn Jones, the director of marketing for St. Elmo's and sister restaurant Harry and Izzy's, which Manning owns a part of. "He's developed relationships here."

In that wine cellar, there is a 40-inch flat screen affixed to the wall that looks just a little out of place. Jones says most people think it's up as an AV tool for businesses holding meetings down there. Most people are wrong. It was installed for Peyton. When the Colts played early afternoon games, the QB and his family/teammates/guests liked to watch the late-afternoon slate there, a spot that has affectionately been nicknamed "The Peyton Manning Room."

On other days, Jones said, Manning would simply be at the bar postgame, nursing a Bud Light with the locals.

Think it'll be easy for this city to say goodbye to this player? Think it's simple to cut through the emotion and see the logic behind jettisoning a rehabbing Manning for a 14-years-younger Andrew Luck?

It's not, because Manning's impact has been so strong here, and his relationships are so deep.

So when Manning switches teams, you can be sure St. Elmo's won't switch the code for that elevator.

If you want to measure the impact Manning's had on Indianapolis, the easiest place to start is with the great irony of two weeks ago. As the Colts and the quarterback were lobbing grenades at each other, the city was staging its first Super Bowl, an event showcasing a vibrant downtown and growing business community that simply wouldn't exist without the success Manning brought to Indy.

Taking that into account is just the start of trying to pinpoint No. 18's economic footprint on Naptown.

"Everyone would have their own opinion, but my personal opinion is we probably don't have Lucas Oil Stadium without Peyton," said Scott Miller, president of the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce and a 22-year resident of the area. "The stadium alone was $800 million, then there's the convention center expansion as part of that, so the capital invested in the Super Bowl was well over $1 billion. Just that, from a capital investment standpoint is significant.

"Then you have hotels built -- The JW Marriott, hundreds of millions of dollars there -- and streets repaved, and new restaurants, and on and on. It's gotta be a huge number."

And that's just the direct impact.

Chris Gahl, VP of marketing and communications for the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association, doesn't want to draw as direct a correlation between Manning and the stadium construction as Miller does. But he acknowledges that the quarterback-driven team's success helped get taxes passed to build the place, which also hosts other events like the Final Four, and points to additional value in branding Indy as "a more sophisticated and mainstream place to visit and do business."

"His impact here is priceless," Gahl said. "He has unlocked, through the Colts winning and his era of teams, a whole lot of Monday-night games, Thursday-night games, 'Sunday Night Football,' and that brings prominence to the city. The aerial shots, the features, all the sports media in town, that's directly attributable to the Colts winning. There's undetermined value there -- Indianapolis is constantly on TV, tied to a winning team, with Peyton Manning at the helm. It brings strong, appealing brand perception."

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Gahl, a native of the area, says that Manning came at a time, in the late 1990s, when Indianapolis needed a shot in the arm. No. 18 delivered it, and Gahl continues that "over the last 30 years, as far as forward development of this city, he's among the top five people in getting Indy where it is today, and that includes elected officials, philanthropists, urban planners, you name it. He's there with all of them."

His influence, too, has affected attitudes.

"In this city now, in part because of what the Colts have done, we expect to win," Miller said. "We expect to win in business. We expect to win economically. We expect to win in education."

Of course, most of all, they expect to win in football, where Manning's impact goes to the grassroots level.

Carmel High, in suburban Indianapolis, won the state championship last fall and finished eighth nationally in the USA Today poll. On Monday morning, 163 players, from Grades 10-12, showed up there for winter workouts. For the first time, coach Kevin Wright and his staff broached the idea of making cuts. In the past, these were problems -- good problems -- that coaches in neighboring Ohio would face. Or coaches in Texas. Or coaches in Florida. But not Indiana.

"You've got increased numbers from the youth level all the way up," Wright said. "When I started coaching in the '90s, one of the major differences -- and I've talked with college coaches about this -- is that the 6-foot-5 kid in Indiana would be a basketball player, and it was hard to convince them to play football. It isn't anymore."

Wright pointed to Hamilton Southeastern senior Gary Harris, a Michigan State basketball recruit who chose to play football all the way through high school, something the coach says "wouldn't have happened 20 years ago." The difference now, as compared to pre-Peyton times, is immense.

"Night and day," Wright said. "Our football team wound up fourth in one poll, eighth in another. Warren Central, where I used to coach, was ranked nationally. Indiana had 50 Division I signees, the most we've ever produced. ... We've come a long way. You see it every Friday night. People talk about Hoosier hysteria for basketball. Well, now, it's not any more for basketball than it is for football. Peyton and the Colts have had a huge impact in that way."

Manning has been involved directly, too.

In 2000, he established the PeyBack Classic, an event connected to his PeyBack Foundation. The idea was to stage a day of high school games at the RCA Dome to give kids who wouldn't ordinarily have a shot to play on an NFL field that chance. The event moved with the Colts from the old building to Lucas Oil Stadium, and the 12th Classic was staged last August.

Back in 1997, Wright explains that "football was afterthought, especially at the pro level." Not anymore. Now, the sport matters in Indiana.

"To a large extent, he's made football popular at all levels here," Wright said. "And if you're asking about high schools, he in particular, and the Colts in general, have had a huge impact on Indiana high school football. No high school coach here would disagree. It's obvious. And part of it is he's such a good role model."

So, what if all this is to crumble in the next few weeks, and next fall we see that No. 18 emblazoned on, say, a Cardinals jersey?

"I bet you'd see a lot of Cardinals Manning jerseys around here," Jones quickly answers.

Now, any player with the success Manning had, playing the position Manning played, would become the face of his franchise -- as Archie's middle son has. But Peyton Manning has become more than that here.

He's become the face of the city itself.

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Wright mentioned Manning as a role model, and that, perhaps, is what most cements the relationship between the people and their star. There's his play. There's his impact on the community, through the foundation and the children's hospital that bears his name. But more than just that, it's that the people here seem to identify with him, and believe he represents their best qualities.

"What Peyton represents, with a clean, winning brand, marries well with the Indianapolis brand," Gahl said. "He embodies what Indianapolis stands for, and how we want to portray ourselves as a city. It's been incredibly beneficial as we market the city, to have someone like Peyton, who's so marketable, so identifiable."

Miller expands on the point, adding, "He's not just a great football player. He represents what's great about this place. His work ethic is part of our culture here in Central Indiana. ... It all goes back to that characteristic. When I talk to people about why they move their businesses to Indianapolis, it's our work ethic, built on a lot of people who grew up on farms. Those people relate to Peyton."

During Super Bowl week, the city was flooded with Colts jerseys, something no one would've imagined back in 1998 on the day he was drafted, and a good number of those had 18 on them. Other people wore "Save Peyton" t-shirts, holding on to what now has become an impossible dream.

Clearly, the folks here see Manning as one of their own. As Gahl explains it, everyone seems to have a story of running into him at the supermarket, or at church, or on that second floor lounge at St. Elmo's. Unlike a lot of other athletes, who keep separate in-season and offseason homes, Manning settled in Indianapolis.

So, as we rapidly approach the end of the Colts' Manning era, it won't be an easy breakup -- logical as it might seem to outsiders, because of the franchise's unstable roster, first-time GM and first-time head coach -- for the populace to endure.

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Wright's wife, Elizabeth, is a middle school principal who, in the coach's words, "thinks Peyton hung the moon." She might not know much else about the Colts, but she knows all about Manning's family and his history. Connections made with the public like those aren't easily replaceable.

"I don't know that there's ever been a player that's been embraced by a city like Indianapolis has embraced him," Jones said. "I think a lot of people would be heartbroken (if this is the end). But I don't see anything that could sever Indianapolis as a town from him, the feelings for what he's done for this city and for whom he is. Regardless of what happens, I don't think anyone would begrudge him."

So the high school quarterbacks around here will still ask to wear No. 18, sick kids will continue to be treated at the Peyton Manning Children's Hospital, the city will still benefit from the impact of his 14 years here, and all those jerseys will still be seen around town.

And should he return someday to play in someone else's colors, Manning will still have that table waiting for him postgame.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer

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