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All the buzz this season surrounding Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning has been about his brilliant recovery from four neck surgeries over the past two years. But to learn why, at 36, he's on pace to throw for the most yards (4,830) in his 14-year career, you have to go back before the operations, to a conversation he had with Trace Armstrong, a former Pro Bowl defensive end who played for the Bears, Dolphins and Raiders. Armstrong had just retired, and the subject was investments. Real estate? Bonds? Restaurants? Armstrong, known among his peers as a forward thinker, didn't have much advice on those. "The greatest investment you can make," he said, "is in your body. The opportunity to extend your career is huge."
Huge for Manning is $58 million—$18 million this year on a new Denver contract, plus $40 million guaranteed in 2013 and '14 if his neck passes muster with Broncos doctors following the season. Which, with the way he is playing, has to be considered very likely. Contributing to Manning's resurgence has been intense neck rehab and a new concentration on his diet. Broncos nutritionist Bryan Snyder directs Manning's cook on what to prepare for him on which days (Thursday is pasta night), and accompanies Manning on walks through the team cafeteria. "It's, 'You can have one piece of that, two pieces of this,'" Manning says, "like you would with a child." Through the first half of his 14th season, Snyder's parental supervision is working.
But most important in Peyton's resurgence has been his maniacal body upkeep with two Denver musculature gurus. Last season in Indianapolis, while Manning was fruitlessly racing to prepare his body to play following September neck-fusion surgery, he would pay every week to fly in Greg Roskopf, a Denver-based specialist in cutting-edge Muscle Activation Techniques—finding muscles that have been traumatized or strained and strengthening other muscles to compensate—who had become popular with veterans such as former Broncos safety John Lynch, a friend of Manning's. "There were weeks my arm was dead, and [Roskopf] was instrumental in rebooting my body," says Lynch. (Later, Lynch would be influential in getting Manning to sign with Denver, reminding the QB "what a tremendous luxury" it would be to play where Roskopf was located.)
Today the Broncos still employ Roskopf and Michael Leahy, a Colorado Springs--based specialist in another branch of muscular science, Active Release therapy, to see players weekly—but Manning piles on more. On Mondays he has a 75-minute deep-tissue massage and a 30-minute stretch; on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays he sees Roskopf for painful but effective treatments at his office; and then on game days he spends 20 to 30 minutes with Leahy for more work.
"There are gurus all over," says Manning. "Tom Brady's got a guru. If you get to this age and you're trying to keep playing, you need help. Everybody has a masseuse, but most guys do more now. Last year, when I flew Roskopf to Indianapolis, I was paying him what he'd make all day for his appointments in Denver. But if he helps me extend my career by two years, with two more years of salary, it's well worth it."
Manning's right that he's not alone. "I get Active Release therapy every Wednesday," says 35-year-old Chargers linebacker Takeo Spikes, "to go along with massage and chiropractic on Monday and Friday. Soft-tissue care has been huge for my career."
If that all seems like a little much, don't knock it. For Spikes, who hasn't missed a game since November 2009, and for Manning, who looks more and more like Peyton in his prime, the maddening attention to detail is paying dividends.