INDIANAPOLIS — Peyton Manning still holds Indianapolis in a special place. Even if Denver is opening the season against his former team.
Two days after Manning found out his rematch with the Colts would be the first Sunday night game of the NFL’s season, the reigning MVP returned to town for a very different reason: to help host an annual fundraiser for the Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital at St. Vincent.
It’s the first time Manning has been back since his emotional October homecoming ended with Denver’s first loss of the season.
“I had a pretty good feeling that game (Colts-Broncos) would be on TV,” Manning said as reporters laughed. “It’s a tough schedule with three playoff teams (Indianapolis, Kansas City and Seattle) right off the bat, and we play the Colts right at the start. They’re a good team; they were right there at the end. And we know they’ll be an excellent opponent.”
Manning said he expects the Colts to be so good, in fact, that after taking a quick peek at the schedule Thursday, the record-breaking quarterback changed his plans and immediately returned to the weight room. His teammates soon followed.
What else are players to do when they see the only five-time MVP in league history going in for another overtime session?
For Manning, there’s plenty at stake this season. He’s coming off a year in which he proved he was back to his old ways by breaking NFL records for yards passing and touchdown passes. He won a third AFC title before a devastating blowout loss to Seattle in the Super Bowl. He wasn’t even sure he’d be back this year until doctors examined his surgically repaired neck.
Now, the 38-year-old Manning said, he intends to keep playing as long as his body allows it and as long as the Broncos want to keep him.
But this weekend is one of those rare times Manning pushes football to the back burner.
After Thursday’s workouts in Denver, Manning flew to Indianapolis and spent Friday with patients and their families at the hospital that bears his name.
On Saturday night, he planned to add to the $7 million-plus total he helped raise over the past six years at the Celebration of Caring Gala. This is the third straight year he’s come from Denver to attend the event.
“It’s one of the best teams that I’ve ever been part of,” Manning said, referring to the people he’s met at the hospital. “I’m not sure who are the bigger heroes — the patients or the staff. It’s truly inspiring.”
Reporters were not allowed inside the FedEx Aircraft Hangar where the event was held because of security reasons, but Manning has traditionally raised money by auctioning off a vast array of autographed items from some of the biggest names in sports and beyond. Two years ago, the prizes included an autographed item from Mother Theresa and a clipping from a contract signed by Marilyn Monroe.
Manning became such an ingrained part of the Indianapolis community that it’s still hard for some Colts fans to accept he plays for Denver.
It’s not any easier for Manning.
Before his first career game against the Colts, Manning interrupted his pregame warm-ups to mouth the words “thank you” after a two-minute video tribute played on the stadium’s large video boards. Denver wound up losing 39-33.
A couple of weeks ago, Manning and some of his ex-Colts teammates got together for a golf trip, and they started texting some of their former teammates who weren’t there.
And when team owner Jim Irsay was arrested last month on suspicion of intoxicated driving and other charges, Manning said he contacted Irsay, though he wouldn’t elaborate on what the message was.
“That’s a private topic,” Manning said. “It’s very private and very personal.”
So it wouldn’t be surprising if Manning’s emotions come rushing back again when he faces Andrew Luck’s Colts again on Sept. 7, this time in Denver.
And to the surprise of nobody, he’s already working on a solution.
“It’s nice that the schedule comes out during our offseason workouts,” he said, “because it’s a reminder of how hard you have to work to get where you want to go.”