Posted: Sun December 15, 2013 10:11PM; Updated: Sun December 15, 2013 11:26PM
Lee Jenkins
Lee Jenkins>MY SPORTSMAN

Denver Broncos' Peyton Manning named SI's Sportsman of the Year

Sportsman: Peyton Manning (Cont.)

Sportsman: Peyton Mannning (Cont.)

Sportsman: Peyton Manning (Cont.)

Sportsman: Peyton Manning (Cont.)

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This story appears in the Dec. 23, 2013, issue of Sports Illustrated. Buy the digital version of the magazine here.

All the apple-cheeked babies, captured for eternity in Creamsicle onesies three sizes too big, are nearly grown. They are high school valedictorians and college athletes, Eagle Scouts and black belts, yearbook editors and engineering majors. They are in the National Honor Society. They lead Bible study. They raise money for cancer research. They lifeguard in the summer. They work part-time at Cracker Barrel. One directs short films. One blew the trumpet in a high school band at President Barack Obama's second inaugural parade. One earned a marketing award for helping develop a project to sell reusable popcorn containers at football games. One is a linebacker and a defensive end recruited by half the SEC, one is a three handicap, one runs a 5K in 18:20, and one hit an unforgettable grand slam in the ninth. One became the first girl in an all-male wrestling club, as well as the first deaf member of that club. She then captured the state championship in her weight class. Most hail from Tennessee, but you can find them as far away as lacrosse fields on Long Island. Some know each other. They were born in the same hospitals, attended the same schools, played on the same teams. Beyond that, they don't have much in common -- besides, of course, their first name.

It is an unusual name, or at least it used to be. According to the Social Security Administration, which started tracking the popularity of names in 1960, Peyton had never cracked the top 100 in Tennessee. But in 1994 the state's flagship university welcomed a freshman quarterback from New Orleans named after his uncle Peyton, a Mississippi farmer who grew cotton and soybeans, raised cattle and loved sports. When Peyton Manning enrolled at Tennessee, he took an orientation seminar with freshman football players, overseen by associate athletic director Carmen Tegano. The players were instructed to take notes. Afterward, Tegano collected their spiral notebooks and perused what they wrote. Manning had filled 30 pages. That night, Tegano told his wife, "If God is willing and I live long enough, I'll either work for that kid or I'll vote for him." A year later Manning directed Tennessee to its first win against Alabama in 10 years, and roughly 10 months after that Southern hospitals noted the first outbreak of Peytons. Call them Bama Boomers. "It was an epidemic," says Manning's older brother, Cooper, who was forced to quit football at Ole Miss because of a spinal injury. From 1996 through '98, a total of 68 Peytons were born at the University of Tennessee Medical Center alone, compared with 10 the decade before. By 1997, according to babynames.com, Peyton was the 51st-most-popular- newborn boy name in the state.

Families showed up to Volunteers practices, orange-clad infants in tow, and thrust them into Manning's reluctant arms for photos. "What am I supposed to say?" he asked his father, Archie, the iconic Ole Miss quarterback. "I don't know," his dad replied. "I only had dogs and cats named after me." Twins in Knoxville were named Peyton and Manning. A boy outside Nashville was named Peyton Cooper as a reminder that "there's nothing guaranteed in life." Doctors in Kentucky lobbied a woman in labor to call her son Tim, after Wildcats quarterback Tim Couch. "It will be a much more prosperous name," they told her. "He'll be so much more successful." They grudgingly delivered yet another Peyton. The unorthodox spelling caused confusion. Dr. Tara Burnette, a neonatologist at the UT Medical Center, once saw payton written on a note card attached to a baby's incubator in the NICU. "You misspelled the name," she told the nurse on duty. "No, the nurse insisted. "The mom spelled it for us." Burnette shook her head. "That baby is a Peyton," she said. Twenty-four hours later, the card had been changed.

There is no more personal display of fan devotion than naming one's progeny after an athlete, but the gesture carries inordinate risk, especially when the player is only a sophomore in college. Who knows what controversy lies ahead? Names become synonymous with scandals. Think of the Lances and McGwires running around. You can always buy a new jersey or hang a new Fathead, but rewriting a birth certificate is more difficult. "Sure, he could have been a dud," says Kim Dukes. "But I kind of knew, deep down inside, that he'd be special." Dukes was diagnosed with Hodgkins lymphoma as a sophomore in Knoxville, underwent chemotherapy, and was informed by doctors that the treatment had left her incapable of bearing children. She had Peyton Dukes anyway. "He's not a quarterback -- he's not even a football player," Kim says. "But we raised him to be a good, honest person, and that's the most important thing he shares with his namesake."

Though Uncle Peyton died a bachelor, his name will live forever. Archie remembers reading an article, in the early 2000s, in an education newspaper about a first-grade teacher with nine Peytons in her class. In 2007 the Knoxville News-Sentinel put out a query for Peytons and received more than 160 responses. "You hope your children are going to do great things no matter what you name them," says Dana Lara. "Going into it, you do think maybe this will give them a leg up by association." Peyton Lara is now a senior at West High and an aspiring nuclear engineer with a 4.46 grade point average.

GALLERY: Rare photos of Peyton Manning

A name doesn't ensure anything. Peyton Dukes cares more about arts than sports. Peyton Prowse's favorite player is Manning's younger brother, Giants quarterback Eli. Elaina Peyton Engel took her 5.0 GPA at Hereford (Md.) High to Alabama. "C'mon, Dad," she said. "Even Peyton Manning didn't go where his father wanted." But commitment is a thread -- whether orange or crimson -- that links the Peytons. "To have the name of someone who has accomplished so much," says Peyton Robinette, a biology major with a black belt in taekwondo who is attending Tennessee on the prestigious Volunteer Scholarship, "means I can be special."

Sportsman of the Year: Peyton Manning
Source: SI
Sports Illustrated's 2013 Sportsman of the Year is Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning.

*****

For two decades Peyton Manning has methodically elevated the standards of everybody from NFL quarterbacks to video-room interns to offspring named in his honor -- one film session, one spiral notebook, one dummy audible at a time. The mother of an eighth-grade classmate once told Manning's mom, Olivia, "Peyton really has to study for his A's. My child just goes in and takes the test." The remark, while rude, was revealing. Manning always did the work, and as a result he never disappointed the families who put so much faith in him. He is still the striver who scored a modest 1030 on his SAT yet graduated with the highest GPA that year in Tennessee's College of Communication and Information.

At the combine in Indianapolis leading up to the 1998 draft, strength coaches from the 49ers, Raiders and Bills took Manning's measurements. When they finished, he asked how his body fat compared with other players', and reminded them to note that one of his knees was swollen. The trainers stifled laughs. "He's the first pick in the draft," one muttered under his breath. "Why does he give a s---?" Then Washington State quarterback Ryan Leaf, Manning's competition for the top spot, stepped on the scale. He triumphantly flexed both biceps even though he was 30 pounds overweight. "That was the difference," says Jon Torine, who was then a Buffalo strength coach before joining the Colts. "When Peyton Manning dies, this is what they ought to write on his gravestone: it all mattered to me."

Even as early as his college playing days, Peyton Manning has always been his toughest critic.
Even as early as his college playing days, Peyton Manning has always been his toughest critic.
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Chosen by Indianapolis, Manning turned the quarterbacks meeting room into his personal office. He installed a film projector with a Beta dock in the basement of his house. He watched every practice. On Saturdays after walk-through, he cleared the equipment room and shut the door so he could select his 12 game balls in peace. First, he washed his hands. Then he hurled one ball after another at the equipment manager, barking "game" if it made the cut, "pregame" if it didn't. "Why can't the seams be perfect?" he asked. He'd have sewn them himself if he could.

He owns only one Super Bowl trophy, which constitutes some kind of moral failing in this all-or-nothing age, but he remains the reigning champion of the everyday. The laser rocket arm -- Manning's description in that famous Sprint commercial -- is more like a cap gun now. Yet he is currently piloting the best team in the AFC and the most bountiful offense in the NFL while threatening single-season passing records for yards and touchdowns. Still, that's not why Manning is Sportsman of the Year for 2013. To explain the choice, we defer to Peyton Robinette's valedictorian speech, delivered at the Rockwood High gymnasium outside Knoxville in June. "I urge you all to always remember the experiences you've had," Robinette told his fellow graduates. "But be ready to write your sequel. Be prepared to face consequences. Be prepared for adversity. Be prepared for change."

Manning was the son of a New Orleans celebrity and a Mississippi homecoming queen, raised in the historic Garden District and educated at illustrious Isidore Newman School. He was the No. 1 recruit in the country and the No. 1 pick in the draft. The first time he walked onto the Colts' practice field, offensive coordinator Tom Moore told starting quarterback Kelly Holcomb, "You come over here and stand next to me now." In 23 years of organized football, Manning missed one snap. Sure, he was laid bare a few times in Gainesville and Foxboro, and he occasionally told family members it would be easier to go 9-7 and just miss the playoffs than risk more January heartbreak. But compared with the beaten and concussed, he was beyond privileged. He had 13-3 on autopilot, along with 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns, a first-round bye and home field throughout. His career was fantasy football.

Then he woke up. It was Sept. 11, 2011, and he was lying in a hotel bed in Marina del Rey, Calif. He had just undergone his fourth neck operation in two years, to remove a herniated disk from his spinal cord that all but killed the nerve running down his fabled right arm. The Colts were playing the Texans, starting somebody else at quarterback for the first time in 13 years. They lost 34-7. Nothing was perfect anymore. "It was hard to watch," Manning recalls. "I was disappointed, I was down, because I wasn't able to do what I love and I didn't know where I was headed. I didn't know if I'd ever be able to perform again. I had those thoughts. They were real." The nerve was so ravaged in the summer of '11 that he couldn't push himself out of bed. He couldn't lift a three-pound dumbbell. When he tried to play catch with Tennessee alum and former Rockies first baseman Todd Helton at Coors Field, he one-hopped him from eight yards away. "He walked different," Helton says. "He carried himself different. He had a hard time turning around to look at you."

VIDEO: Archie Manning 'proud' of Peyton's journey

Manning went to his family's annual passing academy in southern Louisiana, but he barely picked up a ball. "Why can't you throw me one pass?" a crestfallen high school receiver asked. "I just can't," Manning muttered. "Eli will throw you one." He wouldn't even throw when only maintenance workers were around. He couldn't stand the thought of anybody witnessing his wounded ducks. "He's not very good at disguising how he feels," Cooper says. "You can hear it in the first hello and the last goodbye. I saw him vulnerable for the first time. And then I saw him get emotionally around the idea that, Hey, this may be too much to battle back from." In high school Manning would stroll into his parents' bedroom at 10:30 p.m. and sprawl across the foot of their bed to discuss his college choices. Before the final operation he flew back to New Orleans and lay across the foot of the bed again. "I'll listen to the doctors," he told them. "If they say after this that I still can't play, then it's been a good trip." The fourth surgery was fourth down.

He was shockingly at peace. "Who am I to complain?" Manning asked himself. "Who am I to say, Why is this happening to me? I had 20 years of unbelievable luck. All these other players had careers cut short. Cooper didn't even get to start his career." Peyton's wife, Ashley, had just given birth to their first children, twins Marshall and Mosley. Home movies suddenly seemed more appealing than Patriots tape. "I've studied enough for a couple of careers," Manning says. "My brain could use a little rest." Ashley, who has been with Manning since they were in college but has stayed far from public view, was the one to offer the gentle nudge he needed. "You've got to try," she said.

So began a sequel that would make Peyton Robinette proud.

*****

A GRAY SUV rolls across suburban Denver, through the shadow of the Flatirons, past the aspen trees and alfalfa farms. The best quarterback in the world, yet again, sits in the backseat. He is wearing a half-zip beige sweater over a white button-down shirt, fresh off an appearance at the Alexander Dawson School in Lafayette, where a kindergartner raised his hand during an all-school assembly and asked Manning how he plays football. Standing in the middle of the gym, facing 450 students in the bleachers, Manning paused for a moment. There was so much he could tell the boy. Archie rarely discussed strategy at home, but he did share one crucial lesson: "You've got to know what you're doing out there because then you can get rid of the ball, and when you get rid of the ball, you don't get hit."

Archie didn't always heed that advice, but his son did. Peyton approaches the line of scrimmage and takes a snapshot of the defensive alignment, then scans an extensive mental catalog to recall where he has seen the alignment before and what it wrought. Manning cannot predict what the defenders are going to do, but he can predict what they're not going to do. "What will happen here?" he asks himself, hands framing his face, as if he's peering through an imaginary camera. "I'm not sure, but I do know the linebacker over on the outside is not going to blitz. I can tell you that will not happen. I'm trying to narrow things down." He selects the play, and orders the protection, with the best chance to counter the alignment. "And he does it in 10 seconds," Moore marvels.

But the kindergartner doesn't need to hear all that, at least not yet. "I try to throw the ball really quickly," Manning responded, in his distinctive country-Cajun mash-up, "before those big, ugly defensive linemen come tackle me." There it is, kids, the elementary version of how a 37-year-old who couldn't uncork a 10‑yard out in 2011 and was cut in '12 now directs the NFL's most prolific offense while leading the league in almost every meaningful passing category. He's tossed touchdowns in 37 straight games. He's outgained 19 whole teams. According to Broncos quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp, he forced one throw in the first half of the season.

Fans are understandably wary of athletes aging in reverse, but Manning lacks the arm strength he had in his prime. He still can't run. His upper body is so lean that six months ago he texted Broncos trainers a beefcake shot from his college days with the message, "At one point I did look good." The mind, which enables the rapid-fire release, is the only part that hasn't lost power.

When Manning was a rookie, the Colts installed a no-huddle package called Lightning, which they deployed when they trailed. One day, around 2000, Moore asked Manning, "Why are we waiting to be down 10-0? Why don't we start in Lightning?" That question changed football. At first, Moore would call two plays from the sideline and let Manning pick one. Then Moore gave Manning four plays and let him switch from runs to passes. Finally he let him call entire games. "It's always been a cerebral position, but Peyton made it more cerebral," says former Broncos quarterback and current executive vice president John Elway. "He was the first one to get in the hurry-up, figure out the coverage at the line, find the right play against the coverage and call everything himself. He really started the no-huddle. Now everybody does it." From Pop Warner on, quarterbacks are asked to think faster because Manning showed what was possible. "He set the standard," says the Patriots' Tom Brady. Manning still runs Lightning in Denver, as well as a superspeed variation called Bolt.

Manning emerged a different quarterback and different man after his neck surgey sidelined him in 2011.
Manning emerged a different quarterback and different man after neck surgery sidelined him in 2011.
David E. Klutho/SI

The injury made him a different quarterback. Manning relies more on his legs to generate velocity, like a pitcher pushing off the rubber, and focuses more on his footwork, an area Knapp believes he let lapse. Manning can no longer fling post patterns between two safeties. He must be precise with his delivery, stepping toward his target, one stride if he's firing to the first read, two if it's the second and so on. He checks down more liberally and unleashes more feverishly. "To quote Hank Stram," Manning says, "I matriculate down the field."

The injury also made him a different person. He used to fidget when people told him they were praying for him. "I'm fine," he'd say. "You don't have to do that." Now he thanks them for their prayers. He doesn't stay up until 1 a.m. watching one-on-ones anymore. He and Ashley play with the twins, put them to bed, eat dinner and pour a glass of wine. He is usually asleep around 10. He lets his backup, Brock Osweiler, take some of his snaps in practice. Manning is often portrayed as a signal-calling automaton, jogging robotically to the sideline while teammates celebrate touchdowns, but he has turned sentimental. He tears up at movies he's seen before.

On the trip to New Orleans two years ago, Manning asked his mother to take him on a driving tour of old friends' houses. At the end, he asked to stop at his own childhood home, six blocks from his parents' current uptown residence. He knocked on the front door and told the new owner, "Hi, I'm Peyton Manning and I'd like to see my room." Recently, he sold his house in Indianapolis, and Ashley flew back for the closing. She walked the halls narrating a video shot with her phone. In the basement she said, "Here's where Peyton spent a lot of nights helping the Colts win a lot of games." He chokes on the words as he repeats them.

He never thought he would leave that place.

*****

The fourth surgery, a single-level anterior fusion, immediately alleviated the pain but did not regenerate the nerve. "People with nerve injuries told me, 'You could wake up tomorrow and be fine,' " Manning says. "It was encouraging, but it left you pretty disappointed every day around one." He tried to view his rehab as a game, which didn't work, because he never knew how much time was on the clock. Colts trainers, accustomed to an indestructible quarterback, hid their concern. "He couldn't throw a ball," says Torine. "I was scared for him, scared for everything. To be up and down and happy and pissed and sad and anxious is all part of the process he went through."

Manning flew to Durham, N.C., in November 2011 and moved in with Duke coach David Cutcliffe, his offensive coordinator at Tennessee. "I'd never seen him throw in person where it wasn't perfection," Cutcliffe says. "He was so out of whack, I had to ask him to quit throwing. He was on the way to hurting himself. We're all products of what our nerves allow us to do. He had to rebuild his mechanics from the ground up. He had to relearn everything." They worked in the Blue Devils' locker room, watching old Indy tapes, Manning trying to impersonate Manning. "When I was on, I was shocked when the ball didn't go exactly where I wanted," Manning says. "It got to the point where I was shocked when it did go where I wanted." Driving back to Cutcliffe's house one evening, he asked, "Should I even be doing this?"

Manning stayed at Duke, on and off, for more than three months, and the nerve started firing again. "You hear and read about people who overcome things they shouldn't," Cutcliffe says. "I saw it with my own eyes." They eventually moved from the locker room to the indoor facility. Manning ran 10 plays at a Duke spring practice wearing a Colts helmet. He invited several former Indianapolis teammates -- center Jeff Saturday, tight end Dallas Clark, receivers Brandon Stokley and Austin Collie -- and on March 3, 2012, they simulated every detail of the 2010 AFC championship game against the Jets. "It was a little over the top," says Stokley, recounting the Gatorade breaks on the sideline when the invisible Colts defense was on the field. "But that's how he operates. You could tell he was on his way."

Four days later the Colts -- who had the first pick in the draft and were eyeing Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck -- cut him. "I think it broke his heart," Archie says. "I think he understood the reality [was], It's time for me to go. And then I think he reconsidered and said, 'No, I'm supposed to play my whole career here.' So he went back and told them, 'I'll help Andrew, and we'll make it work. I want to stay.' " He couldn't bear to be Johnny Unitas in San Diego, Joe Namath in L.A. The Colts, however, had already moved on. Manning could not have been more gracious in the tearful press conference that followed, referring to owner Jim Irsay as "my friend," but when he arrived at Broncos headquarters the next day for a free-agent visit, Elway saw another side. "He was in shock," Elway says. "Everybody kept telling him he was going to get released, and he didn't believe them until it happened. He wanted to prove they made the wrong decision. He wouldn't say that, because he's not that type of guy, but that's the message I got. When great competitors get scorned, they come back with a vengeance. We signed a Hall of Famer with a chip on his shoulder."

Manning, ailing since the lockout, had floated from one training staff to another. He'd been treated at Duke and Tennessee, with the Colts and even the Rockies. Finally he had a home, with the Broncos. They weren't as worried about his arm as the rest of his body. "He was really detrained," says Luke Richesson, Denver's strength and conditioning coach. "We broke him down like a car -- take the motor out, get the alignment straight, then focus on the horsepower." His alignment was his coordination. The Broncos limited Manning to 40 throws at practice instead of the typical 80. In two-a-days they let him throw during only one session. They focused on exercises to restore his body control, including one called "dead bug," in which Manning lay on a roller, simultaneously extending his left arm and right leg, then his right arm and left leg, with weights attached to his wrists and ankles. "The first time, he couldn't hold it," says head trainer Steve (Greek) Antonopulos. "Remember, this was a neurological injury. It affected everything." Manning's physical therapy continued through the season, but Denver still went 13-3. Most players lose strength over a 16‑game schedule, yet in the week before the Broncos faced the Ravens in the divisional round, Manning set personal bests for squats, dumbbell presses and medicine-ball throws. Thirteen-year-old Emily Cutcliffe, following Manning's resurgence from afar, asked her father, "Dad, this is incredible, isn't it?"

Leading receiver Demaryius Thomas says Manning's self-motivation and drive impacts his Broncos teammates.
Leading receiver Demaryius Thomas says Manning's self-motivation and drive impacts his Broncos teammates.
Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Growing up, Manning yearned to be a senior. He asked his dad what senior year was like at Ole Miss, and he bypassed the draft as a junior at Tennessee to find out for himself. In Denver, Manning is a senior once again, and the underclassmen are in awe. "You want to be better because it's Peyton Manning," says the Broncos' leading receiver, Demaryius Thomas. "I know I'm a better player because he's here." "That's the secret of football with Peyton Manning," adds tight end Jacob Tamme. "How much he demands of himself seeps into everybody else." They watch him charge onto the field with a knee brace, matching high-ankle sprains and a glove protecting a right hand that still sometimes feels numb. He fights off a limp. The mind is so dominant, it's easy to miss the heart.

*****

In the backseat of the SUV, a stack of letters rests at Manning's feet: from a mother whose son was injured in a motorcycle accident and is learning to walk again, from a 90-year-old woman who picks college games against her friend but needs a new opponent because her friend just died, from a man who can't move his neck and doesn't know what to do. Every professional athlete receives reams of tear-stained letters, but they sound different when Manning reads them now. "I didn't have a serious illness," he says. "My life was never in danger. But I feel like I can write to these families, or talk to them, with more of a connection than I had before."

A son of the genteel South, Manning learned early on the power of the handwritten note, unsurpassed by text or tweet. He still remembers the college coaches who wrote him during his recruitment (like Florida State's Bobby Bowden) as opposed to the ones who resorted to thoughtless form letters. He would lick his thumb and rub it against the signatures to determine whether they were real. When Manning left for college, Archie wrote him before every fall semester.

Throughout his career Manning has written coaches and players who retire, as well as widows of coaches and players who pass away. He writes subjects of documentaries he's seen and victims of tragedies he's heard about. He writes his children every six months, even though they are years away from deciphering his cursive. Ashley buys his stationery, cream-colored cards with Peyton W. Manning in block letters at the top. He adds an arrow when a message continues to the back. "I don't know if that's proper or not," he says. It's hard to find any coach, teammate or staffer who hasn't received a note from Manning. "I got one when my dad passed," says Stokley, "and another when Peyton stayed at my house." "I got one when I retired," says former Colts video director Marty Heckscher. "It almost brought me to tears." "I got one when the Colts let me go," says Torine, the former strength coach. "It meant more than any paycheck."

All the support that Manning sent to others came flooding back in the year he missed: calls from friends such as Fox broadcaster Joe Buck, who nearly lost his voice because of a nerve ailment in his left vocal cord, but also from rivals like Brady and Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "We've been playing a long time in the same era, and there aren't too many people who can relate to what I go through on a daily basis and what he goes through, besides each other," Brady says. "There's mutual appreciation. I've always looked up to him and admired him." Manning considered the impact those well-wishers made and was reminded of the influence he could have.

On his first day as a Bronco, he sought out staffers Adam Newman and Josh Bruning. "I'm going to need you to help me with my mail," he said. Every Tuesday, Newman and Bruning read the roughly 300 pieces addressed to Manning in a given week, determining which ones he will want to see. Autograph requests go in one pile. Double-dippers are discarded. Heartfelt letters are marked read in red pen. Manning reviews them over lunch in the office Newman and Bruning share. The notes that move him, or that entertain him, he takes home. He has installed a hospital tray next to his bed -- "My wife finds it very attractive," he says -- so he can work there without craning his neck. He uses the tray to watch video on his iPad, an upgrade from the Beta. But he often pulls out the stationery instead and writes.

To Charlie Johnson, a 63-year-old in Indiana nervous about neck-fusion surgery: "My neck pain went away immediately after my surgery. I believe you will be able to resume your normal activities rather quickly. I took it slow on doctors' orders, but I felt better right away. I can't give you a definite time frame. I would encourage you to be patient to avoid any setbacks. But you should be back lifting soon. Good luck and health."

To Jack Benson, an eight-year-old in California with cancer: "I just wanted you to know that you are in my thoughts and prayers. Your cousin, Skip Hanke, wrote to me and told me of the tough fight you are having. You have a lot of people pulling for you. I am glad to know you are a Bronco fan! Keep fighting, stay positive, and say your prayers."

To Clint Taylor, a high school quarterback in Texas who broke his leg: "I just wanted to encourage you to keep working hard and keep the faith. I have read your blog and I can tell you that your positive attitude and your strong work ethic will take you a long way. Keep it up."

To Chris Harris, widow of David Harris, a pastor in Arkansas who was killed in a car accident along with his granddaughter Maci: "I am sorry for your loss. Please know that you are in my thoughts and prayers. 'Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted' (Matthew 5:4). I learned that Pastor Harris was an avid Colts fan and had an autographed picture of me in his office. I read an article about Pastor Harris, and I can tell he was very special. Maci sounded very special as well. I am proud that he was a fan of mine. May God's peace be with you."

To Shannon West, who married Bill Sydlowski in New Jersey this summer: "Best wishes to you on your wedding day. I wish you eternal happiness. Your dad says that you are a fan of mine (he said commercials, maybe football too?). I appreciate your support. I can tell that he is very proud of you. All my best to you and Bill."

Manning keeps a list of those he has contacted, with descriptions of the correspondence on the back of the their envelopes. "Letter from a woman whose best friend had cancer and is a big fan. . . . Husband has MS and they are naming their first born Peyton. . . . Sick man. Call ASAP." Sometimes, instead of a note, he picks up the phone on the 25‑minute drive home after practice. "I cold-call them," he says. "I block my number, and they don't answer, so then you have to call back at night. They think it's a prank call, but after that, you just take a moment and listen. I've always done that, but it is a little different this year." Many of the voices on the other end are struggling with neck injuries. "I have to be careful about giving medical advice," Manning says, "but these people are hurting and I was able to overcome the same thing. I tell them, 'These are my symptoms. These are the doctors I saw.' " He asks Antonopulos, the Broncos' trainer, for guidance. "If someone is from Texas, he will give me a doctor in Dallas."

*****

It is an overcast Friday morning in Indianapolis, the Colts beat the Titans the night before in Nashville, and the equipment managers are spinning 30 loads of laundry on three hours' sleep. "It doesn't smell as bad when you win," says Jon Scott, who has been scrubbing grass stains since the team's Baltimore days. He met Manning in 1998, when the hotshot prospect visited the Colts' headquarters. On the way out, Manning said, "Hey, Jon, it was nice to meet you." The Mannings may be American royalty, but they relate best to workers. "My mom drove a station wagon, my dad drove an Oldsmobile," Cooper says. "We were around fame but we weren't entrenched in it. We weren't going to Europe on private planes. We did what everybody else did." Archie told the boys that the most important people on any football team were the trainers and equipment managers. When Saints trainer Dean Kleinschmidt was married, Archie was the best man. When Archie was traded to Houston, assistant equipment manager Glennon (Silky) Powell cried as he walked him to his car.

The Colts' equipment managers -- Scott, Brian Seabrooks and Sean (Frog) Sullivan -- caught more of Manning's passes than Reggie Wayne or Marvin Harrison. They reviewed the rough cuts of his commercials. They ate with him late at night in the facility when everyone else was gone. After Manning got tripped up in a game against the Texans one year, costing the Colts a touchdown, he asked Sullivan and Seabrooks to lie on the practice field the next day and try to trip him again. Manning once let Seabrooks watch film with him. "He ran the same play back and forth for 30 minutes," Seabrooks recalls. "By the time he got to the end of it, I was asleep. I never found out if it was a run or a pass." Seabrooks also flew with Manning to the Pro Bowl in Honolulu the day after the Colts beat the Bears in the 2007 Super Bowl, and he dozed off again as Manning narrated the entire game.

"He's your everyday, sit-down, have-a-cold-beer kind of guy who just happens to be the best quarterback in the past 25 years," says Sullivan. Speaking of beer, when the Colts trained at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Ind., video director Marty Heckscher stocked a cooler in the corner of the gym where he edited tapes. Manning sat with him, and over a Budweiser he mentioned that his first beer had been a can of Milwaukee's Best. The next year the cooler contained a six-pack of Milwaukee's Best tall boys. "He connects with everybody," Heckscher says, "but he's also demanding, and you don't want to let him down."

Manning has committed himself to giving back to communities in Louisiana, Tennessee, Indiana and Colorado through his Peyback Foundation.
Manning has committed himself to giving back to communities in Louisiana, Tennessee, Indiana and Colorado through his Peyback Foundation.
John Leyba/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Outside of Manning's family, support staffers might know him better than anybody. They know that he studies opposing defensive coordinators, and their history against him, as much as opposing teams. They know that he likes a baseball cap handed to him the moment he walks off the field after third down, and collected the moment it's time to walk back on. They know that he doesn't wear a chinstrap in pregame warmups, so it has to be attached when he retreats to the locker room. The equipment managers laugh about staffers having to be reassigned from chinstrap and baseball-cap duty. "Oh, he's demanding," says Heckscher. "There were times I got an intern to shoot a walk-through, and it's boring as hell, and the intern starts daydreaming and misses a snap. Most people don't notice. Peyton walks in an hour later and says, 'Things moving too fast for you guys out there today?' " Likewise, if Sullivan and Seabrooks flubbed a couple of passes, Manning would crack, "How about we mix in some catches with these drops?"

He barred his beloved equipment guys from the goodbye press conference, for fear he'd break down even faster than he did. But when it was over, he requested that they drive him to the airport, Sullivan behind the wheel of a Toyota Sequoia, Seabrooks riding shotgun, Scott and Manning in the backseat. "There were a lot of tears," Scott says. "I gave him a handwritten note because that's what he gives everybody else. He thought it was a joke. I just wrote the record of my first 15 years with the Colts and my record after he came." Without Manning there might not even be an NFL team in Indianapolis, and there would certainly be no Lucas Oil Stadium and no downtown renaissance. Scott glances at a picture of Lucas Oil, lit up for the 2012 Super Bowl, hanging in the Colts' facility. "It wouldn't have been here without that guy," he says.

They returned from the airport and cleaned out his office, pausing to send him a picture of the whiteboard, filled with his scribbles. Manning still calls the Colts' equipment room every few weeks and asks to go on speakerphone. He texted Indianapolis staffers a video of the first preseason out pattern he completed for the Broncos. He mailed Christmas cards, with donations enclosed. Given the angry politics of modern sports, it is nearly impossible for an iconic athlete to remain on good terms with a city left behind. But Manning has accomplished what Brett Favre could not. After signing with Denver he called Vince Caponi, executive chairman of the board for St. Vincent Health, which oversees 22 hospitals in Indiana, including the Peyton Manning Children's Hospital in Indianapolis. People were asking Caponi if he'd rename it after Luck. "I want you to know I'm committed to St. Vincent," Manning said. "That won't waver." His Peyback Foundation still hands out 800 bags of groceries in Indy for Thanksgiving, as well as 800 in Denver.

When Manning started the foundation, in 1999, he was advised to address one specific area of need. "But I like to say yes more than I say no," he explains. Peyback has awarded $5.5 million in grants to nonprofit organizations benefiting underprivileged children in Louisiana, Tennessee, Indiana and, now, Colorado. Most of the donations are relatively modest, around $10,000, but they are earmarked for roughly 90 organizations per year. Some want to buy school uniforms. Some want to launch afternoon programs. Some want to build gardens and grow vegetables. Online applications are due Feb. 1 and are graded by a board. Manning and his wife pick the winners.

Sportsmanship wasn't always his specialty. When Manning was five and his coach pitch team lost every game by about 20 runs, the coach would invariably tell the boys it was a tie. "He thinks we're stupid," Manning griped to his parents. "It was not a tie." When he was eight and Archie coached his youth basketball team, they sparred because Archie drafted his friends' sons even though many of them couldn't shoot. Archie vowed never to coach him again. When Peyton was 12 he had a new basketball coach with a curious substitution pattern. After one loss, the coach told the team, "The reason we didn't win the game is because you weren't ready to play." Manning pointed a finger in his face. "No," he protested, "the reason we didn't win the game is because you don't know what you're doing." Archie drove him to the coach's house that night, in tears, to apologize.

Contrast that image with the scene in the visiting locker room at Sports Authority Field after the Broncos' 38-35 playoff loss to the Ravens in double overtime. Manning, coping with another round of January heartbreak, waited to congratulate retiring linebacker Ray Lewis. He held little Marshall's hand, setting the example that his dad set for him.

Peyton Williams hobbles through the front door of his grandfather's house in Lewisburg, Tenn., a town of 10,000 nestled amid rolling hills along the Duck River in the middle of the state. The leaves, Volunteer orange, have fallen from the sugar-maple trees. The Marshall County High football field, just down the road, has already been converted to a baseball diamond. Williams grew up in Lewisburg, flipping tractor tires in the backyard to build strength and hunting turkey in his spare time. He enrolled in the Cornersville Youth Football League when he was seven, and two years ago he played at Chase Field in Phoenix as an eighth-grade All-America. He is 6-feet and 211 pounds, and he squats 425.

Only a sophomore, Williams has received letters from Tennessee, Nebraska, Florida State, Mississippi State, Arkansas, USC, North Carolina and Louisville. He's taken unofficial visits to Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Ole Miss. His dream is to play linebacker or defensive end in the SEC. Though stats are hard to come by in Lewisburg, coaches told Williams he had 14 sacks and 48 tackles in nine games this season. He blocked two punts against Cascade. He had a strip-sack on a fourth down against Page. But in the regular-season finale, against Giles County, Williams was blocking on the kickoff team when his return man reversed field. Williams tried to change direction, but his left knee couldn't keep up. The ACL gave out.

Roger Williams used to run a convenience store off Interstate 65, at exit 32. Now, he works at the GM plant in Spring Hill. Sixteen years ago he named his son after Peyton Williams Manning. By then, the name was common around here. Marshall County has three Peytons on the roster. One of Roger's friends unofficially renamed his street Peyton Manning Drive.

Peyton Williams is a Tennessee fan, down to his orange sneakers. He has been to two NFL games, both Colts at Titans. He plays as Manning's teams on Madden. But he is not as zealous as his dad. He doesn't study his namesake every Sunday. He wears number 49 instead of 18. And yet he is a Peyton, which means he is inextricably linked. In a week, he will undergo surgery, followed by months of painstaking physical therapy, followed by inevitable anxiety and doubt. Sitting at the head of his grandfather's dining room table, he eyes the bulky brace on his left knee and wipes the brown bangs from his forehead. Like most teenage boys, he doesn't speak much, but the words carry weight. "When you think that Peyton Manning wasn't able to throw a 10-yard pass, you realize that he really could have quit," Williams says. "It's on you to do the therapy. It's on you to do the work. You decide how you turn out."

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