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April 02, 2012
The behind-the-scenes story of how the most prized free agent in NFL history hit the recruiting trail—and how he ended up a Denver Bronco
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April 02, 2012

Peyton Manning's Long Game

The behind-the-scenes story of how the most prized free agent in NFL history hit the recruiting trail—and how he ended up a Denver Bronco

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Except Elway wasn't selling. When the Hall of Fame quarterback sat with Manning alone at the club, Elway saw a person "in shock" over being cut and imagined what it would have been like if the Broncos, for whom he played his entire career, had released him after 13 or 14 seasons. "There's got to be a dagger in your gut right now," Elway told Manning. "Take your time. Be thorough. Make the right decision, whether it's us or someone else."

"I put myself in Peyton's shoes," Elway told SI on Sunday night. "No pressure. Don't give the hard sell. Let the organization speak for itself. I told him that as much as I wanted him to play for the Broncos, I knew it would be stupid if we forced him and it wasn't a good fit. That's how I'd feel."

Midway through the evening Elway received a text telling him the Redskins had just pulled off a huge trade with St. Louis for the second pick in the draft, presumably to take prized Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III. Elway told Manning, "Whoa—Washington just traded for the second pick. Looks like they'll get RG3."

"What!?" Manning said, stunned.

From that reaction, Elway knew that the Redskins had been on Manning's list.

Manning slept at Stokley's house in suburban Castle Rock that night, and the next morning, Saturday, March 10, the two headed to a nearby field to get a throwing session in. When they found it in use by a lacrosse team, they switched to Plan B, a community park with a 40-yard-square field. As passers-by approached during the workout, Stokley would yell, "Jogger!" or "Cyclist!" and he and Manning would hide the football until the person passed.

That afternoon Manning had another appointment scheduled—with Redskins coach Mike Shanahan and his son Kyle, Washington's offensive coordinator. Though it made little sense after the Rams deal, the Shanahans wanted to keep the date, and Manning did. They discussed football for three hours at Shanahan's expansive house in Denver. Talk about strange connections. Shanahan had been Elway's coach for those two Super Bowls and was fired by the Broncos after the 2008 season. Now Elway ran the Broncos. As Shanahan talked with Manning, a text message popped up on the coach's phone. It was from Elway. "Hey, Mike, put in a good word for us with Peyton." All Shanahan could do was laugh.

One more surprise: Manning got a call informing him that Seahawks coach Pete Carroll had flown, unannounced, with Seattle G.M. John Schneider to the airport in Englewood. Carroll would do whatever Manning wanted—talk for a while in Denver or on the plane to Arizona, his next visit, or fly him to Seattle for a lengthier discussion.

Peyton Manning does not like surprises. He said no thanks. Carroll flew home.

When Manning flew to Phoenix on Saturday night to meet with the Cardinals, his every move was again being tracked. Knowing now that he could be tailed wherever he went, Manning thought of a way to confuse his media pursuers. Where can I fly where there's no chance I'll play next year and where nobody will figure I'd go to meet a team? he wondered. And it occurred to him: Indianapolis! He told the Dolphins to meet him on Monday at the Indianapolis airport. In peace.

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