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Bringing It Home
MICHAEL SILVER
February 12, 2007
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
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February 12, 2007

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

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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."

That owner Jimmy Irsay--whose late father, Bob, abruptly uprooted the Colts and moved them from Baltimore to Indy--held up the Lombardi Trophy at game's end was a testament to this team's grit, perseverance and togetherness. "We're so tight-knit," Irsay said between celebratory hugs in the locker room. "Our bonds have been forged through some real-life tragedies, and those things make you stronger."

The suicide of Dungy's 18-year-old son, James, in December 2005 started the Colts on an emotional, character-testing journey. The shocking home playoff loss in January '06 to the eventual Super Bowl champion Steelers was followed by, among other events, the free-agent departure of All-Pro running back Edgerrin James, a popular veteran who signed with the Arizona Cardinals (and who sent Manning a pregame text message wishing him luck on Sunday); the death of Pro Bowl wideout Reggie Wayne's older brother, Rashad, in an automobile accident in September; and a late-season stretch (following a 9--0 start) in which Indy lost three of four games, including a 44--17 drubbing by the Jacksonville Jaguars in which the maligned run defense gave up an astounding 375 yards. Seeded third in the AFC after a 12--4 regular season, the Colts surprisingly shut down both the Kansas City Chiefs and the Baltimore Ravens on the ground. Manning then rallied Indy from a 21--3 deficit to pull out a dramatic 38--34 win over the Colts' longtime nemesis, the New England Patriots, in the AFC Championship Game.

As the football world anticipated Manning's crowning achievement, the prickly passer refused to play along. While many of the Colts spent part of Super Bowl week enjoying the South Beach scene, Manning, after taking 20 players to dinner in Fort Lauderdale following the team's arrival on Jan. 29, was holed up at the Colts' hotel. "I'm having the best time of my life, honestly," Manning's wife, Ashley, said last Saturday while socializing with family members at South Beach's swank Shore Club hotel. "But Peyton could care less about going out. He's doing it his way, and that's the way he wants it."

In an effort to replicate his routine in Indy, where he watches game film in his basement, Manning had the team provide a similar setup on the Marriott Harbor Beach resort's third floor, two below the off-limits level. He even listened to the same music on bus rides to and from practice that he did during car trips throughout the playoffs: a mix CD given to him by Ashley for Christmas. But instead of copying tunes like Bruce Springsteen's Glory Days to an iPod, Manning went retro. "Ashley bought me one of those Discman things for, like, eight bucks," he said. " Reggie Wayne and [linebacker] Cato June couldn't believe someone still made those anymore. They were taking pictures of it because they thought it was so funny. But hey, I kept to the routine."

Not every Colts player found humor in Manning's intensity. The no-visitors policy had some teammates complaining about the franchise's "Peyton Rules." And after Dungy and offensive coordinator Tom Moore asked for Manning's input in planning the Wednesday practice session, one player groused that the team should be renamed the Indianapolis Peytons.

If the Peytons were a tad tight heading into their meeting with the Bears, the start of the game did nothing to alleviate the stress. Chicago rookie Devin Hester, the former University of Miami star who had scored six special teams touchdowns during the regular season, took the opening kickoff, danced up the middle, burst to his right and struck like a Hurricane. His 92-yard dash was the first-ever score on the opening play of a Super Bowl and put the Colts in an immediate 7--0 hole. Dungy, who in his speech to his players the previous night had warned that they'd have to overcome "a storm" at some point during the game, shook his head and thought, I wish I weren't that prophetic.

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