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March 8, 2012

MARK BENNETT: Manning leaves great memories for Colts fans

The emotion behind the words was obvious.

Even unflappable Peyton Manning choked up as he said goodbye to his comfort zone — the job of quarterback and leader of the Indianapolis Colts. “I’ll always be a Colt. I always will be. That’ll never change,” Manning declared.

His promise is understandable. Despite being released Wednesday by the NFL franchise that he helped regain legitimacy, Manning leaves with great memories. He thanked everyone for those moments through 14 seasons, and he deserves the same in return. The Indianapolis branch of his Memory Lane is long and scenic — the Super Bowl championship, four Most Valuable Player Awards, a dogged work ethic exhibited through 227 consecutive starts, two AFC championships, 150 victories, and eight division titles.

How could we, or Peyton himself, forget all that occurred when he wore No. 18 from 1998 through 2010?

Perhaps nobody can. Notice, though, that Memory Lane looked like an I-70 road construction project in 2011.

Manning and the rest of Indiana probably will want to forget that season, the ignominious end of his otherwise illustrious era. That season taught us all that, when it comes to our careers, “times change,” as Manning also said during his farewell news conference Wednesday.

He left the Colts because, simply, his health — with a healing neck injury and 35 years of wear and tear — is too uncertain for the Colts to pay him a guaranteed $28 million bonus that would have been due today. The club had no idea how much, how well or how long he could play on a start-from-scratch roster that will soon include his heir apparent, top draft pick Andrew Luck. Manning said he had no idea which team would snatch him up as a free agent, but the presumption is that some flexible franchise will see him as a final piece of their Super Bowl puzzle.

Peyton Manning in a Seahawks, Redskins or Dolphins uniform? Unimaginable.

And yet, it’s going to happen. Manning has only known one full-time job, as QB of the Colts, but now he and his employer are parting ways and heading into “uncharted waters” of life. “Times change,” indeed.

That said, I frankly hope that Peyton’s best days are ahead of him, especially once his playing days end. I’m sure Isidore Newman Prep School in New Orleans, and the University of Tennessee still hold special places in his heart. Class and team reunions probably satisfy any of his desires for reminiscing. With time, the same will be true of his glory days with the Colts. The 2007 championship squad will reunite in 2017, 2027, 2032 and so on. Fans will cheer, maybe shed a tear, and tell the youngsters in the crowd, “You should’ve seen Peyton Manning play.”

But Peyton is 35 years old. Just 35 years old. Though he may “always be a Colt,” a Tennessee Volunteer, an Isidore Newman Greenie (yup, that’s their nickname), he shouldn’t have to show off his NFL war wounds or live with, as Bruce Springsteen once put it, “boring stories of glory days.”

The man who coached Manning to the Super Bowl, Tony Dungy, certainly etched “a legacy” with the Colts, too. He set an incredible example of solid character and strong, quiet leadership that earned the respect of his players, opponents and anyone else watching. Yet Dungy’s most important work, as an active advocate for responsible fatherhood, came after he’d retired from coaching.

A week ago, I crossed paths with a retired coach and friend. He’d just gotten a chance to reunite with a trio of players from the most high-profile seasons of his coaching career. It sounded as if they had a blast, joking around, catching up and remembering old times. But it wasn’t their athletic heroics that dominated his thoughts. Instead, he said, “Mark, what impressed me most about them is the kind of men they’ve become. They’re good family men — good husbands, good fathers.”

Peyton Manning might win another Super Bowl with some other team. Or he might fade into the NFL sunset on his way to the Hall of Fame. Maybe he’ll coach. Maybe he won’t.

Let’s hope he’s making other plans, too, and that even better times lie ahead for him, and that he follows the high road wherever life takes him.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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