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The long-assumed is now the assured. Peyton Manning will be enshrined and immortalized in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The Indianapolis Colts icon and NFL legend was officially selected Saturday night as one of five Modern Era inductees of the Class of 2021.
Among others elected were Packers and Raiders defensive back Charles Woodson and Lions receiver Calvin Johnson.
While Manning’s official call came Saturday night, he’s known for quite some time this day was in the offing. The day he found out for sure, well, like a poorly disguised blitz, Manning saw it coming.
It was Jan. 29, and the five-time NFL MVP and two-time Super Bowl champion was standing on the field inside the Denver Broncos stadium, shooting a somewhat impromptu segment for his show on ESPN.
The last-minute nature of this particular recording, combined with his knowledge of when the PFHOF vote took place, had Manning on alert.
“The antennas were up,” Manning laughed, recalling the story with a few members of the Indianapolis media this week.
Though in some ways he knew what was coming, he was still pleasantly surprised by what happened next.
In the middle of recording, five familiar figures walked up from behind Manning. As they approached, Manning realized they were David Cutcliffe and Philip Fulmer, Manning’s offensive coordinator and head coach at Tennessee; Tony Dungy and Jim Caldwell, two of Manning’s coaches with the Colts; and Gary Kubiak, his final coach with the Denver Broncos.
The five of them, in turn, addressed Manning before Dungy asked him to turn his attention to the Jumbotron. There he watched pre-recorded tributes from his high school coach, Tony Reginelli, former Colts coaches Jim Mora and Tom Moore, as well as ex-Broncos coach John Fox.
His football life was being laid before him by the very people who helped him pave the way to legendary heights.
When the tributes ended, Dungy redirected Manning’s attention to another man who had ambled onto the field: David Baker, president and executive director of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Baker shared with him the news they had congregated to celebrate: Manning, Baker said, was to be immortalized in Canton, Ohio.
“Being there with all those coaches, and those video messages, that really meant a lot,” Manning said. “It was just a neat moment. I can’t tell you how much I appreciated those people coming out. … It was pretty symbolic, the way it happened with these coaches, the amount of hours I spent with Cutcliffe and Jim Caldwell and quarterbacks coaches, the film sessions with Tom. … It truly was a timeline of my football life since 1991.
“What it was, was a reminder of how many people have been a part of it and how thankful I am for those friendships and relationships. … It really was a cool way to find out.”
Manning has his wife, Ashley, to thank for that. The initial plan, Manning was later told, was to have cameras come to their house and “interrupt” dinner.
“That was going to be so natural and authentic,” Manning said with his trademark sarcasm. “Dinner with cameras all perfectly in place, then Ed McMahon comes and knocks on the door and tells you, ‘You won a million dollars!'”
“So Ashley said, ‘Yeah, I don’t think we’re going to do that.’ That doesn’t sound really like us. Instead, we’ll make this a football moment. So she was the one who kind of organized the whole thing, or quarterbacked it, if you will.”
In the weeks leading up to Saturday, while Manning tried to respect the PFHOF’s wishes of keeping his hall call a secret, he could not. There were too many other people who played a critical role in him securing this ultimate of honors, and he was eager to thank them all.
So Manning started calling them. The first, of course, came that night. He called his parents and asked his dad, his hero, to present him at the ceremony this August (if there is one). Then he called his brothers, Eli and Cooper, followed by some coaches who couldn’t be there on the field that night to celebrate with him. He later rang some former Colts teammates.
Next, he set up Zoom calls with the Colts, Broncos and Volunteers, to thank anyone still on the staffs from his playing days.
All the calls, all the conversations sent Manning on joyful strolls down memory lane. The best part, Manning said, was that the conversations weren’t focused on any of the 539 touchdowns he threw or the 71,940 yards (both third-most all-time) or other stats, but on the friendships football had allowed him to forge.
“This football journey wouldn’t be any fun if you did it alone,” Manning said. “No one to celebrate with, nobody to be disappointed with. Family, friends, teammates, that’s really what I’ve thought about through all of this.”