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Sunday Drive: Peyton Manning

He brought the city a Super Bowl championship, gives millions to charity, and has secured his spot in the hall of fame. But even after a thrilling decade, Peyton Manning is just warming up.

Editor’s Note: This profile of Peyton Manning originally ran in September 2008.

 
Before anything gets going, before word one, Peyton Manning wants a little chicken. “Let’s grab something,” he says, fresh from lifting, arms swollen stiff, sweat rolling off his brow. He starts down the blue, blue hallways of the training facility, hands out gentle howdies and hellos to everyone he passes, peers in every doorway, around every corner for another pal. But Peyton is hungry.
 
He wants to grub. So he is always two steps ahead, hurrying a little, drawing things forward. “The best part is,” he says, turning into the cafeteria with its 30-yard landing-strip buffet, “we don’t have to go anywhere.”
 
When Manning drops food on his plate—a little salad, two chicken breasts, a pile of vegetables—it is in a sort of loose, architectural arrangement, the way some men throw tools in a box, so it looks like he knows where everything is supposed to be. He is not artfully plating anything, though he is not without his crafting, either. He clearly knows the daily combination. This is his spot. “Have anything you want,” he says. He points down the table, past the steamed vegetables and salad bowls, to the steaming casseroles, the cubes of cakes. “The stuff down there is good,” he says, “which is why I don’t go there."
 
Before he sits, he gives a nod to the young players gathered at a table by the door. They watch him casually enough that they might be mistaken for not watching him at all, for being unaware of his presence. Please. Each of them sets his eyes on Manning during the course of his meal; each of them gets a nice long look. When asked, Manning ticks off their names, with one, two, three sidelong glances to be sure he has it right. Seven names and not one a roster player last year. Manning knows them all. He ends by saying, “bunch of good kids.” Then he pauses. He’s still feeling that word out when it comes to his teammates—kids. But they are just that, and he is what he is, 32, one of the oldest starting quarterbacks in the National Football League, on the second-youngest team. So he corrects himself. “Guys.” Then he grows quiet, hunkers down. He’s a man now, an old man, really, in the abbreviated timeline of an NFL adulthood, and he’s just coming to terms with that.
 
“Anthony Gonzales came in here last year and he said he always enjoyed watching me on ESPN Classic,” he says, laughing. “But I got to thinking about it. He was 14 when I was a 22-year-old rookie.” It doesn’t irk him; he is reflective about these new gaps that have started to appear: “There aren’t many jobs where a 32-year-old gets to work closely with 22-year-olds as teammates and partners.”
 
If he is aware of their stares, it doesn’t show. It’s easy to forgive him being a bit inured to the attention. Manning is now 10 years gone from that very seat, from the anxiety and inexperience of being a rookie, from any hint of doubt about his own capabilities. We all are.
 
A decade—306 touchdown passes, more than 41,000 passing yards, the best 10-year career launch in NFL history. Ten years, 30 game-winning drives. Ten years to outstrip Johnny Unitas of nearly every career passing mark in franchise history. His place in the larger pantheon of NFL greats, cemented by the Colts’ Super Bowl win two seasons ago, is inarguable. Fourth all-time in career touchdown passes, ninth in career passing yards, eighth in career completions. His name sits squarely on the list within and amongst the greats—Favre, Marino, Elway, Tarkenton. It looks so natural that it’s tempting to think he may have always been plugged in on the shortlist. His father, for all his own best efforts with the Saints, really wasn’t there ever. And his brother, Eli, God bless him and his gritty pocket sense, his wobbly, over-lofted sideline routes, never will be. After a decade, Peyton has, in many ways, already arrived at his place in history.
 
And yet, he wasn’t always there. He started right here in Indianapolis, a rookie, drafted in a heady ether of expectation, 10 years ago, at once a long time ago and at the same time, not so very long at all.
 
 
Besides being a convenient means to demarcate bad haircuts and lousy pop songs, decades are the epochs of contemporary American life. We commodify them blandly, think of them fondly, or cringe at the clothes we wore. But taken as a pure expression of time, 10 years is an august measure, requiring some reflection. For some, 10 years on a job might seem like a pretty good start. For an NFL quarterback, 10 years is more than they might reasonably expect.
 
Still ruddy with youth, Manning looks at the last 10 years with that wide-set, somehow sinless gaze, and the temptation is to believe it’s still the first leg of a long race. He’s got time, right? But Manning understands the mathematics. He’s had one full decade. He won’t get another.
 
"I tell people that I’m a 32-year-old in a 28-year-old’s body,” he says. “I like to think that extends things, but I’m clearly in the second half of my career. And I always said I wanted to play 16 years. That was my goal from day one. You know, my dad played 14, Elway played 16, Marino 17. Those are the guys I shoot for.” He holds still when he says this, contemplating the statement on some internal scale, just another vector of his persona. He is fond of measuring, analyzing, calculating outcomes while the people around him labor to get him centered on their camera phone. Manning is acute in his thinking. He remembers names, faces, dates; his recall is exact. He remembers his first interception like it happened last night. “Terrell Buckley, slant route,” he says. “He jumped it. As a matter of fact, I remember all three interceptions from that game,” he says, going all hang-dog then, the way he does. “My memory is like that.”
 
The man’s mind does not rest. Nor does his body. He has spent the morning throwing to rookie tight ends on the practice fields, taking notes, watching a little video, running intervals, and then lifting. Same thing this year as last, same thing next year as the one after that. One hopes.
 
The swift lessons of 10 years gone by are evident to him now. “Ten years ago, that first season,” he says, voice rolling like a marble in an empty coffee can, “the game was so fast for me. Too fast, I thought. I remember Steve Young coming up to me, saying ‘Peyton, the game will slow down.’ I thought, ‘Hurry up and slow down, please hurry up and slow down.’”
 
There it is. The phrase one searches for with Peyton Manning just past mid-career. Hurry up and slow down. Once the mantra of a rookie quarterback, now it’s the cry of an entire city to its star quarterback.
 
And while no one wants Manning to move more slowly, we’d all be happier if he could just stretch time a little. If he could hurry up and slow down the clock. He has performed bigger miracles already, on himself, on the team, and on the city.
 

Manning grinds each bite with a circular muscularity, something less than chomping, something more than simple chewing. He maintains eye contact, listens thoughtfully, shakes off praise. That politeness—the cornerstone of his brilliantly self-deprecating, thoroughly self-aware television presence in commercials, on Saturday Night Live, and at press conferences—defines every human transaction for him. And while he has promised a little time to talk about his decade in Indianapolis and the changes he has witnessed in himself and the city, he never seems rushed, never watches the clock. He doesn’t seem to have any other place he wants to be.
 
“When I came here,” Manning says, “there really wasn’t a lot of football tradition. I had been expecting Johnny Unitas, Raymond Berry, and Gino Marchetti to visit us at practice. But, you know, they hated us. We had made a little run with Harbaugh. Dickerson and Faulk were great backs. But you know, I was coming from the SEC, from Knoxville. There were 100,000 people at our home games. There was a lot of history, and I knew it all. There wasn’t a lot of past to lean on here. In a lot of ways, we were challenged to make our own history. And I have no problem with the course of that history so far.”
 
It’s still summer, and there is little urgency in the Colts’ complex. The building has all the tension of a sleepy suburban public library. Presence, at this time of year, is the premium commitment, one marked by low tones, by a wave and a nod from the enduring all-pro. Manning doesn’t leave—not the city, not the complex, not easily. He makes a short-hop commute from his northside home every morning, like some box-of-donuts sales associate slagging hours in service to the company. He is as humble about the job, about the price of obligation, as he is appreciative of where he is at any moment.
 
“This is my home,” he says, “and we wanted it that way from the start.” He regularly plays local golf courses in the offseason—Crooked Stick, Meridian Hills, Bear Slide, Trophy Club—with lineman Jeff Saturday and tight end Dallas Clark. He keeps a downtown condominium for the hours after the games on Sunday.
 
“I like to keep a downtown presence. I may go up to the condo to watch Eli’s game, or visit my family. Or I might gather the team. I grew up in New Orleans, a great city, and I want the young guys to get to know downtown Indianapolis. I always liked the fact that the Dome is so close, and the new stadium is only a nine-iron away,” he says. “At the end of the day, that’s where my office is. I wouldn’t trade playing here for anywhere.” He means the city now as much as the team. “I’ve watched this place transform. You look around downtown and you sense how much the Colts’ kicking butt has to do with the city’s growth. I’m proud of that. I know Coach Dungy is, and Mr. Irsay, most of all.”
 
 
Maybe the real test of living in—of attachment to—a city lies in the description of a day: What are the rituals, the routines, the errands? You gotta have your dry cleaner, your coffee shop, your market. These are the lynchpins of city life. Could a guy of Manning’s visibility actually enjoy the lesser pleasures of the everyday? Manning cringes a little at the question. “I don’t get to go to the grocery anymore,” he says. “I haven’t been to the grocery in … It’s probably been 10 years.” That is, in a decade—the entirety of his time here. Manning considers it an occupational hazard of being Indy’s most visible celebrity. “There are times when Ashley and some friends will want to go out, and I’ll just think about it and say, ‘You know, why don’t you guys go without me,’” he says. “I want to be out, but it can be hard. We have our places where we can get a corner table, where they’ll tuck us away. I don’t want to hide—I like people. But it’s not that big a loss for me to stay in once in a while.”
 
His secrets are, unsurprisingly, pedestrian. “I like repetition,” he says. “I like knowing where I am. I have places where they aren’t surprised to see me. I have my own little Wendy’s, and I’ve signed every napkin and receipt they have, so now when they just hear me start my order—‘Two chicken sandwiches with everything, no mayo, a baked potato’—without seeing me, they’ll say, ‘Hey, Peyton. That will be $9.42. Drive around.’”
 
Not exactly the experience of an urban warrior, but sitting with him in the muffled confines of the Colts facility, you can see that he’s comfortable mostly because things are in his control there. He can step away from the interview at any time; he can beg out of his next obligation; he can start down the labyrinthine halls and leave a visitor behind. Yet, he doesn’t. He exhibits the patience of a man sitting on his front porch. Peyton Manning dwells with you. “That Hoosier hospitality thing, I get that. People here want to talk to you,” he says. “They welcome you; they take their time. It feels like the South. That’s the kind of place I want to live.”
 
But at the Colts facility, the woods of Eagle Creek Park leer at you through floor-to-ceiling windows. Architecturally, the building turns its back on the entrance, sheltering the practice fields from view in an attempt to hide practice secrets. In many ways, it’s like there is no outside.
 
Peyton Manning won’t come out anyway. Can’t. He won’t meet you for a pastrami sandwich at Shapiro’s, or a burger at the Workingman’s Friend. Ten years ago, the young rookie might have been up for some discoveries. But a decade later, he can’t afford it—not the loss of time, the lack of personal space, the dissolution of his privacy—and who, in their right mind, could blame him? He has his rules. “To my mind the only time it’s inappropriate to approach me is at the hospital—because who wants to be there? Or at church.” Anywhere at all, Manning is as visible as a traffic flare. “It’s my height that does it,” he says. “People ask if I need a disguise these days, and the truth is I think the best disguise would be for me to wear a No. 18 Peyton Manning jersey. People would say: He looks like Peyton, but surely Peyton wouldn’t wear his own jersey out in the world.” Peyton Manning disguised as Peyton Manning. It is the stuff of experimental German cinema, but it is also part of the broader change he has made, or undergone, over the past 10 years, one in which his public self is frittered away on a thousand daily trivial encounters.
 
So he stays in. This entrenchment is no loss for him, he says, and he does it on his own terms. He can always get a table at St. Elmo or Harry & Izzy’s (where he is part owner), and in some ways that is the limit of his city. Still, he says: “I like going out. And I learned from my dad that people are only speaking to you because they like you. They don’t want to harm you. So I am willing to talk. More than most guys. But there are times when friends will want to go out, and I’ll just send Ashley with them because I don’t have the energy. That happens more and more as the years go by."
 

The chicken is gone. Manning’s plate is clean. He leans back now and folds his hands across his belt line. The sweat is gone, along with the edge of hunger in his voice. In his repose, the 32-year-old looks like a kid. The years drop away, and we’re back in the excitement and uncertainty of the ’90s—the lousy records, the flagging attendance, the lack of respect from teams around the league. “One big change,” Manning says, “is the stadium. Over the past 10 years the Dome became a hard place to play—so much noise, by far the hardest place to play in our division. That 12th-man thing is real. People are afraid to come here now."
 
Manning doesn’t fret that the home-field advantage will dry up in the new stadium. He doesn’t think The Luke will change that, though some of his rituals may be altered. “I always stay at a hotel downtown the night before a game. I sit up, study, and kind of close everything out. I’ll still do that. In the mornings, I used to get dropped at the Dome, then I’d walk down by myself to where the security and police were drinking coffee. I’d look in and talk to them for awhile,” he says. “That was one little routine I had. I don’t know where they’ll be in the new stadium. But I’ll still get there six hours early. At that time of day, I don’t have to worry about anyone interrupting me. It’s pretty much my own place for a couple of hours.” If he’s worried about lower noise levels in the new, larger stadium, it doesn’t show. “We’re just going to have to work on it,” he says. “It may be tough to keep the noise up, especially when they open the roof. But we need noise. It’s the biggest thing that happened over these years—to have a 12th man that everyone fears in Indianapolis. They’ll figure it out. They’ll form a plan.”
 
What is his plan? Where will the next 10 years take him? Where does he think he’s headed, besides a private jet to Canton at the end of it all?
 
“You know, my dad was always a part of the place we lived,” he says. “He was a symbol to people in New Orleans, and he felt a kind of responsibility in that. He wanted me to take that sort of commitment to Tennessee, when I went to college, and he told me to bring it with me when I came to Indianapolis.” That commitment is evident in Manning’s charity efforts such as the PeyBack Foundation, which has channeled almost $3 million into youth organizations in Indiana, as well as in Tennessee and Louisiana. During the spring of 2008 alone, the Foundation passed out $606,000, most of it in Indiana, for summer camps, after-school and mentoring programs, and other youth-based organizations. It’s a footprint more indelible on the landscape than any stadium. “I do love city life,” Manning explains. “I like the way cities grow and change. But I’m not interested in building things with this money. I don’t need to see my name on any buildings. I see my name enough. The idea is to reach kids when they’re at the hardest points in their lives, when they have tough decisions to make. I want to get the right people in there with them. I want the money to go right to the programs. For me, that’s a good way to matter to a community—things you can’t necessarily see in the bricks of the place.”
 
As for the seasons ahead, Manning eyes only the one directly in front of him. “I’m just trying to be the best player I can in 2008,” he says. “I don’t look past that. I don’t know what’s going to happen in 2009. Hopefully I’m back here, hopefully I’m 100 percent healthy. I can’t say for sure who the head coach will be, who the surrounding players will be, what our schedule will be, even. We have an obligation to do the work, and the work isn’t two years away. It’s now.”
 
“You know, I sort of give guys a hard time in the locker room,” he says. “And these are guys who are teammates and good friends of mine. I’m not using any names here, but they’ll be saying, ‘I’m working on this business for after football.’ And I kinda look at them and think, ‘Ya know, you’re not doing your current job all that well. I’d like to see a little more execution up in here.” He laughs now, and looks somehow freed by having made someone else laugh.
 
He glances to the door. He is being called away into the recesses. He holds up a finger. A minute or two more. “You know, it’s been 10 years since the ’98 draft, and someone was showing me the interview from the press conference after I signed my rookie contract. And there was a question in there—it’s a bad question the media always asks. Somebody asked me: 'What are you going to do with all this money?' And I said, 'I’m gonna earn it.'"
 
He stands then, and reaches for a handshake. “That was the plan then, and that’s the plan now,” he says, backstepping toward the next obligation, fading into the blue once more. He’s going slow, but he has to hurry. “I’m telling you,” he says, “we’re gonna earn it.”
 

Photo by John Bragg.

This article originally appeared in the September 2008 issue.