The message was one of many received by Carson Palmer in the dizzying two days between the severe knee injury he suffered against the Steelers in January and reconstructive surgery -- "So many," the Bengals quarterback recalls wryly, "it was like I was dying of AIDS" -- and it stood out only because it came from the sole NFL passer who'd had a better statistical season in 2005.
Then Peyton Manning called again, and again. When the two quarterbacks finally spoke, Palmer thought, Wow, he must really want to get a hold of me. Why is he taking time out of his day to call a young punk like me?
Manning, who knows Palmer only on a casual basis, had his reasons for being supportive during the young Cincinnati star's moment of crisis. Like millions of other football fans, Manning was highly impressed with Palmer's pronounced progress in only his second season as an NFL starter. With his arm strength, accuracy and utter command of the offense, the kid seemed to be the second coming of Troy Aikman.
And like only a handful of men in his position, Manning understood the potential for loneliness and isolation that such an ill-timed injury could provoke. If you know Manning, you come to realize pretty quickly that his empathy for quarterbacks -- as players, as team leaders, as people with a unique set of pressures -- is constant and unending.
When he saw Palmer go down after releasing his lone pass early in the Bengals' first-round playoff game against the Steelers, a 66-yard completion to Chris Henry, Manning viewed the injury in a context beyond football.
"I don't know, I just think sometimes in the offseason guys get hurt and people kind of forget about them somewhat," Manning explains. "It's kind of the same way when guys retire all of a sudden -- I'll usually send them a bottle of wine or a note when that happens -- and I'm just kind of sensitive to that [feeling of being forgotten]. And Carson's a good guy and a hard worker and obviously a very talented player."
Manning's advice to Palmer was simple: What you should be doing right now is looking out for Number 9.
"You get a lot of different types of advice on those injuries -- from what I hear," Manning says. "Hopefully I won't have to find out firsthand. I told Carson, 'Get to the best doctor; go to the best place for you.' I wished him luck on his rehab and told him to take his time on it."
As big a fan as Palmer is of Manning, he hasn't taken that latter suggestion to heart. Though he's not doing anything reckless, Palmer is pushing as hard as he can to be ready for the Bengals' Sept. 10 season opener against the Chiefs in Kansas City.
Whenever Palmer makes it back onto the field, it will be a huge psychological boost for the Bengals, a rising franchise with designs on supplanting the division-rival Steelers as the NFL's top team. Most Cincinnati players feel they'd have beaten Pittsburgh at Paul Brown Stadium that day had Palmer not taken that hit from defensive end Kimo Von Oelhoffen. "Oh, I'd have a ring, I do believe," wideout Chad Johnson says.
Johnson admits that the sight of Palmer being carted off the field emotionally affected him and his teammates, saying, "It puts a damper on everything, especially when it's your quarterback -- he makes everything go."