News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion Columns

February 1, 2014

MARK BENNETT: Remembering the less glitzy days on Manning’s road to the Super Bowl

TERRE HAUTE — A blur of memories.

They’ll flicker fast and furious tonight, like a spinning Rolodex, when Peyton Manning runs onto the MetLife Stadium turf in Jersey City, as a Denver Bronco, playing for a Super Bowl ring against the Seattle Seahawks. Most Hauteans will experience flashbacks, too. That’s understandable. We watched Manning as an Indianapolis Colt during the team’s summer training camps at Rose-Hulman.

Those morning and afternoon practices in July and August amounted to the NFL Unplugged.

No dazzling graphics on a TV screen. No JB, Shannon, Dan, Boomer and Coach Cowher back in the studio. No melodramatic pregame interviews, cheerleaders or sideline reporters. No instant replays. No challenge flags. Just lots of repetition. Manning throwing the same 12-yard pass again and again to Marvin Harrison or Reggie Wayne, Marcus Pollard, Ken Dilger or Dallas Clark.

Edgerrin James (assuming he’d reported to camp already) juking through his blockers. Mike Vanderjagt flipping passes to Hunter Smith between kicks. Nervous rookies and free agents hustling through drills, hoping coaches notice.

Tony Dungy, chin in hand, studying the movements, talking in a classroom voice. Before that, Jim Mora looming behind the huddles, sedately, unless a foolish wide receiver made the mistake of sitting on his helmet during a less-than-stellar practice. (Trust me, the screeching words wideout Jerome Pathon heard from Coach Mora that day were not, “Playoffs? Playoffs?”)

Yes, those July and August days were as tedious as they were interesting. The heat felt as if the surface of the sun was near Seelyville. The humidity? Some people pay big bucks to sweat that much without moving.

And once or twice each summer, the gracious hosts at Rose would crank up the Cook Stadium lights, allowing the Colts to practice at night and thousands of eager fans to ring the field on the quiet, wooded campus. It was then, for a few brief moments, everyone in this secluded crowd — those of us who endured all the daily repetitions, and those for whom the evening workouts were a special treat — witnessed glimpses of the season ahead. Harrison would glide deep downfield, glance over his shoulder, reach up and clutch a line-drive spiral from Manning.

The quarterback, stern-faced one second and smiling the next, was the common denominator through those years when Terre Haute was the Colts’ summer home from 1999 to 2009 and the team won one Super Bowl and lost another. Coaches, running backs, receivers, linemen and defenders came and went. They’re all part of that scrambled-eggs pool of memories. For me, at least.

In that setting, with all due respect to Manning’s remarkable playing legacy, he never seemed like the super-human being depicted on the CBS highlight clips and advertisements. The mind-boggling compensation he earned, at times, manifested itself in surreal ways. One afternoon in 2004, as I spoke with Manning in a somewhat rare one-on-one, post-practice interview on the Cook Stadium track, nearby an ESPN crew assembled a portable set on the field so Mike Ditka — Da Coach — could have an on-camera chat with Peyton. As we talked, Manning admitted his teammates ribbed him about his new $98-million contract.

“Everybody gives me a hard time about that,” he said, grinning. “If you get cold showers in the lockerroom, they say it’s my fault.”

Aside from those quirky instances, he just seemed like a gifted, hard-working football player preparing alongside lots of talented teammates.

In 92-degree temperatures, everybody gets gassed — Peyton, Marvin, the Colts PR staffers, the Rose groundskeeper, the sportswriters on the sidelines, and the guy with his grandkids in the bleachers. (The players more so than the rest of us, of course.) The only difference is, when practice ended, 350 men, women and children were standing in line, anxiously awaiting Manning’s autograph. He invariably obliged.

Through it all, Manning kept an incredible Ernie Banks “let’s-play-two” attitude about the rather mundane workouts in that outdoor sauna. The Colts needed those two-a-days, and so did he, Manning would say. They all perspired massively, but none more so than Manning.

Dungy once said of his quarterback with a Namath-caliber throwing arm and a Rose-Hulman-caliber IQ, “Peyton Manning has rare talent, but he chooses to push himself like he doesn’t.”

Any of us who watched all those 7-on-7 drills and pass-route repetitions summer after summer can’t be surprised that he’s recovered from four neck surgeries, turned a decent NFL team into a juggernaut and reached the Super Bowl for a third time. Along with his abilities, Manning simply kept showing up for work. Remember that tonight, Colts fans.

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

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