Ask anyone. Peyton Manning has to be on the Mount Rushmore of professional quarterbacks. No doubt. The sculptor wouldn’t even have to scale down his head to fit.
Forehead jokes aside, Manning can’t be left off the list when discussing the greatest QBs to ever toss a pigskin. His resume speaks for itself.
I had the privilege of growing up with Manning tossing touchdown passes in my backyard. The Indianapolis Colts drafted Manning with the first overall pick in 1998 — sometimes being a crappy football team pays off. I was 9 when he took his first snap with the Colts, and for the next 13 seasons, he torched opposing defenses. Then four more in Denver.
The Colts welcomed Manning back to Indianapolis over the weekend for the most exciting fall weekend in the city since he left in 2012. Manning was treated like the football god he is, with a ceremony recognizing his achievements with the Colts before unveiling a statue outside Lucas Oil Stadium and a jersey retirement during the Colts game Sunday.
Even Vice President Mike Pence felt unworthy to be in the presence of such greatness.
Manning was the first Colt from the Indianapolis era to have his number retired, and having a handful of his old teammates back on the turf for the celebration brought back piles of memories.
I’ve been critical of Manning in the past. He only won one Super Bowl in Indianapolis — a terrific feat, but below expectations in my honest opinion. Maybe those expectations were unfairly demanding from a schmuck who watches games from his La-Z-Boy, but the way he played football made those expectations seem more than reasonable.
After a 3-13 rookie season that included 28 interceptions (compared to 26 touchdown passes), Manning nailed his feet to the turf. He was there to stay.
He flipped that rookie season to a 13-3 season in year two. He cut those interceptions by 13 and became a Pro Bowl selection.
There was a 4,413-yard season the following year. Two 450-completion seasons, a record-breaking 49-touchdown season in 2004 and then a 55-TD season with the Broncos in 2013. An overall record of 186-79, 71,940 yards, 539 touchdowns, more than 20 NFL records and two Super Bowl titles.
But for me, those stats just scratch the surface.
I remember the Thanksgiving game against the Lions where Manning threw six touchdown passes. Then there was the pass against the Tennessee Titans, an utter bomb to Marvin Harrison down the middle of the field, a smidge out of reach. Actually, right on the money. Harrison dove and hauled in the pass one-handed.
The Manning-to-Harrison combo might be the most dominant ever — 114 touchdowns together, a record Manning doesn’t think will ever be broken. For reference, Steve Young threw 92 to Jerry Rice.
Harrison’s one-handed grab against New England; Manning’s fake-spike touchdown run that was so good the refs blew it dead thinking he actually spiked it; ripping Donald Brown for running the wrong play; the two-minute drills; the confusingly good play-action passes with Edgerrin James.
Manning had it all. He was prolific on the field and charismatic off it. He ruled Saturday Night Live and served us Papa Johns and Tennessee-orange Gatorade.
He made a home in Indianapolis and the aptly-named Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital, which he called one of his greatest career achievements. He gave his all to a city — and later Denver, as well — and we probably weren’t all that worthy.
I took Manning for granted. A potential career-ending injury forced the Colts to part ways with the quarterback to make room for Andrew Luck, and while it bummed me out, it didn’t really bother me.
I love Luck, and I believe it was the proper business decision. But seeing Manning back in Indy with his teammates, seeing the fans reaction to it and all the highlights, it made me miss that laser-rocket arm. I miss the baffling offensive prowess, the audibles and touchdowns; I miss the generosity and sincerity.
Who knows where exactly Manning sits on the QB Mount Rushmore? Who cares? He’s on it, and he deserves it. Sunday was Peyton’s day in the NFL. Hopefully for football fans, like it did for me, it brought back plenty of memories and a newfound appreciation for a truly one-of-a-kind human being.