Bringing It Home
Trusting in each other and in the guiding hand of their history-making coach, Peyton Manning and the Colts came together in the South Florida rain to vanquish the Bears and lay claim to greatness
Posted: Tuesday September 11, 2007 3:20PM; Updated: Tuesday September 11, 2007 4:38PM
This story was originally published in the Feb. 12, 2007 issue of Sports Illustrated.
In pursuit of a victory that would recast his reputation, his heart racing with agitation, Peyton Manning called the boldest and most controversial audible of his career. Twelve days before he was to face the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI, Manning stood up in a meeting room at the Indianapolis Colts' training facility and delivered an unpopular decree to his teammates, who had gathered to talk logistics before their weeklong trip to South Florida. Colts president Bill Polian, one of the NFL's most autocratic executives, had announced that there would be restrictions on visitors to the team's hotel in Fort Lauderdale but that players would be free to spend time with family members and other guests in the confines of their own rooms. Unnerved, Manning essentially threw out Polian's play for one more to his liking. "I don't think we should let anyone up in the rooms," Manning told the stunned group of players and coaches.
"This is a business trip, and I don't want any distractions. I don't want any crying kids next to me while I'm trying to study." That Manning would get his way was a foregone conclusion--Indy has been Peyton's Place since his arrival as the No. 1 pick in the 1998 draft--but grumblings of dissent still filled the room. "We were heated," recalls veteran cornerback Nick Harper. "People were saying, 'We're grown-ass men. We've got wives and kids, and we'll make those decisions for ourselves.' But, you know, it turned out all right."
Hyperfocused to his heart's desire, Manning was at his Super Sunday best in leading the Colts to a 29--17 victory before 74,512 fans at Dolphin Stadium. In earning MVP honors and shedding his can't-win-the-big-one tag--as did Indy coach Tony Dungy, who defeated his close friend and former assistant Lovie Smith in a matchup of the first two African-American head coaches in Super Bowl history--Manning overcame a sketchy start and seized control of a sloppy game in a driving rainstorm. Yet the seven-time All-Pro needed plenty of help to claim the Colts' first championship since their move to Indianapolis in 1984, and relying on his teammates to provide it was another sign of his maturation. A year after appearing to criticize his offensive linemen following a painful playoff defeat to the Pittsburgh Steelers--"I'm trying to be a good teammate here," he said to reporters while discussing pass-protection problems--Manning now understands, as he said late Sunday night in a nearly empty locker room, "that everybody's got to do his part, and you have to trust them all to do that."
You might say that after years of racking up superlative statistics, Manning has found it takes 53 to tango--though that would evoke images of the embarrassing video from his performance in a New Orleans middle school play that surfaced after he referred to it in a media-day interview, and which cracked up his teammates as they watched it on an ESPN broadcast during a meal at the team's hotel.
On Sunday night fans were dancing in the streets of Indy thanks to players such as rookie halfback Joseph Addai (143 rushing and receiving yards), his backup Dominic Rhodes (21 carries, 113 yards) and second-team cornerback Kelvin Hayden, whose 56-yard interception return for a touchdown with 11:59 remaining provided the game's final points. By then Manning had solved Chicago's formidable defense with a barrage of underneath passes and timely run calls while Indy's far less heralded D had repelled quarterback Rex Grossman and limited the Bears to just a field goal after the 4:34 mark of the first quarter. "Everyone thinks this is about Peyton's legacy," Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney said afterward, "but listen--this is a 53-man team. Peyton doesn't do everything by himself, and at the end of the day defense wins championships. That still holds up."