Peyton Manning left indelible mark on football -- and beyond

INDIANAPOLIS -- "Can I come in," Peyton Manning asked, approaching the office of the Indianapolis Colts president.

"Of course," Bill Polian responded.

It was the summer of 2011. The quarterback was still more than seven months from becoming a Denver Bronco, and in the dark enough on his neck condition to think playing that fall was probable. The lockout had just ended.

So it was time for some hard questions after six months away from the facility.

Somewhere in the two-hour conversation, Manning got down to brass tacks with Polian: "How much longer do you think you'll stay?" Polian responded, "Until we get back to the point where we can be a genuine Super Bowl contender one more time." Manning shot back, "How long will that take?" Polian answered, "In three years, we should be ready to go."

Polian then turned the tables, asking Manning how much longer he planned to play. "At least that long," the quarterback responded. Finally, Polian looked back at Manning and said, "Let's go get it."

Manning didn't know he'd already played his final game as a Colt any more than Polian knew that he was in his final season running team. But Polian remembered this exchange. And Manning did, too.

"As it turned out, it only took him two years to get back -- and then he went back again this year and he won it," Polian said on Sunday morning. "It was fulfilling what we both thought could happen."

That would be a heck of a story, even if this had all played out according to plan -- if Manning's neck fusion took the first time around, and he stayed with the Colts, and Polian and Jim Caldwell and Co. all kept their jobs as a result, and they rode off into the sunset together a few years later.

It's a far more incredible one, having played out as it did.

Since that talk, Manning had three neck surgeries (on top of the one he'd already undergone), then threw for 19,062 yards, 151 touchdowns and 59 interceptions on 1,639-of-2,479 passing. He went 50-15 in his 65 starts for the Broncos. He played in two more Super Bowls, and won another one. In the process, he just about drove his body until the check engine light was bright red and the tank was at "E", which is where a lot of people thought he was four years prior.

What's left? There'll be a lot to unpack here on Monday as Manning says goodbye -- and we certainly haven't heard the end of the HGH story, or the resurrected Tennessee trainer saga -- but a good place to start would be with the impact he's had on the people who'll come after him. That's where, of course, his place in the NFL lives on, and it's where he continued to make a dent long after that summit five summers ago, and even longer after Manning showed the capability of creating such a legacy.

Manning's first NFL coach, Jim Mora, happened to be the same guy who let the young quarterback on the Saints' practice field first as a Louisiana teenager, and later as a college athlete. Archie Manning -- a New Orleans legend and Peyton's dad -- would call Mora and ask if his son could watch practice, which often would turn to the younger Manning actually jumping in and, well, practicing.

Mora could see then what everyone would soon find out: The kid saw the game on a different level.

"I think, if there's been a lasting impact Peyton has made, it's the mental part of it," Mora said on Sunday. "His ability to go to the line, recognize what the defense was doing, and be correct about it on a consistent basis, then call a play based off that, and have it work most of the time -- you didn't see that consistently from quarterbacks in the NFL prior to Peyton."

In fact, Polian's belief is Manning's ability to do it led to the advent of the spread offense as we know it today, and as it's prominently played at the college level. Not everyone can think like Manning. But looking to cull a similar edge, coaches started using cards on the sideline as a device to get play calls in after the defense was set, simulating the advantage Manning gave the Colts on every snap.

So in a way, guys like Chip Kelly were looking to coach like Manning strove to play.

The former Colts GM and president also mentioned how Manning's pitter-patter footwork was revolutionary -- "People in the media accused him of having happy feet, and now every quarterback from the fourth grade on is taught to keep their feet alive in the pocket" -- and there's no question his family's summer camp has impacted how young passers are raised. But even greater was the impact Manning had on the city he played his first 14 seasons in.

The team didn't leave for Los Angeles, as it might've otherwise. High school football boomed, and the state now has the kind of talent pipeline for football that had long been reserved for basketball in those parts. And so many were left with such strong memories that they kept rooting for the guy even after he changed shades of blue in 2012.

"It's very clear -- when we got there [in 1998], the Colts were fifth in the pecking order, behind Indiana basketball, Purdue basketball, Pacer basketball and the Indy 500," Polian said. "In a year or two, he turned that around, by the dint of personality and by his play. Lucas Oil Stadium and the Peyton Manning Children's Hospital are monuments to him that will stay there for the rest of his life, beyond his life. He's a civic icon on par with Larry Bird."

He'd never be that in Denver -- that's what his boss there was -- but he was able to create something in Colorado that he couldn't in Indiana: His own coaching tree. Manning played, for the most part, under one offensive staff with the Colts, led by Tom Moore. In Denver, the coaches were younger, and rising -- and he could affect them the way coaches had previously affected him.

As one prominent former Bronco assistant explains it, "It's an adapt-or-die situation. He was so much more of a forward-thinking player, it was all the information you could possibly handle. And if you couldn't hang with him, you'd weed yourself out naturally."

At first, it was so overwhelming that head coach John Fox, offensive coordinator Mike McCoy and quarterbacks coach Adam Gase convinced John Elway to lend the staff a personnel assistant, Bert Watts, to help Brian Callahan with the extra work. When Watts left after the season, Jim Bob Cooter replaced him. Cooter left the next year, and Bo Hardegree replaced him.

McCoy's now the head coach in San Diego, Gase is the head coach in Miami, Watts is the defensive coordinator at UC-Davis, Cooter is the Lions' offensive coordinator, Callahan is quarterbacks coach in Detroit, and Hardegree is quarterbacks coach in Miami. Just like that, Manning has a coaching tree.

And they all took lessons from Manning. Here's one: Hanging in his office at Chargers Park, McCoy has a picture of Manning with his hands submerged in a bucket of ice as a confused Eric Decker walks by. Unbeknownst to some on the practice field, the quarterback was trying to freeze his hands, to simulate the conditions he'd be up against in that week's divisional playoff against Baltimore.

"That goes back to the whole thing -- attention to detail, work ethic, doing everything to get an edge," McCoy said on Sunday afternoon. "That's what it's about. The preparation you see every day is amazing. It makes you better. You prepare differently because you see that. He was always trying to get that little extra edge. Not a lot of people knew about the bucket of ice. He set it up with the trainers, and had the receivers out there ready to go. It's just different.

"I love that I have that picture."

Like the rest of these guys, Polian heard from Manning on Saturday night, before the quarterback's final call as a pro became public. And as Polian reflected on Manning's career, the feeling he got was much different than what he was feeling a few years ago, when No. 18's football mortality was first called into question. So he thought back to the first time it really clicked for him that Manning was special -- sitting with his personnel director, Dom Anile, in Lexington, Kentucky, back in 1997. He remember the championship and the records. He recalled the pain of 2011. And he, like Manning, knew now it was time.

The story's finally complete.

"During that time, when he left the Colts, there were tears," Polian said. "He didn't wanna leave, none of us wanted him to leave, the fans didn't want it, we didn't want it. It was hard. It was emotionally difficult. Now, there's only applause. This is the end of a great, great career. Someone wrote a book about presidents, and called this kind of thing 'the second act'. He had a second act in football, and he's one of very few people to ever do that.

"I'm grateful for that. We all are. We're joyful that he went out on the highest note. And I'm grateful, and proud to be associated with him."

Manning got those years he told Polian he would back in his office on that summer day five years ago. And he got the second championship he was so focused on, and took all the records with him.

But ask Polian, and others, about that.

They'll tell you he gave back a whole lot more.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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