I was the last Colts fan in the stadium that cold Saturday night in January. I was numb - and not because of the weather outside.
The Colts had just blown the game in one of the most amazing of ways. There was Peyton Manning leading his team down the field to set up an Adam Vinatieri 50-yard go-ahead field goal with less than a minute left. Nobody had ever lost in that situation before. But those teams before didn't have a poor kickoff. They didn't have an utterly inexplicable Jim Caldwell timeout. They didn't have blown defensive plays. As time expired on that night, the Jets hit a chip shot field goal to win the game and end the Colts' season. And all I could do was sit there.
The thousands of dumbfounded Colts fans slowly poured out of a stadium that felt as deflated as the RCA Dome was when they destroyed it. But all I could do was sit there. As the stadium was nearly empty, directly across the field from where I was sitting a bunch of Jets fans gathered and began their "J-E-T-S JETS JETS JETS" chant. I couldn't stand it. I turned to my dad, who knew just to wait for me, and we quietly began the walk back to our car.
It would be eight more months until the Colts took the field again, looking once again to win another Super Bowl. Peyton Manning was the soon-to-be 35-year-old quarterback. The Colts had to win then. If only I had known. If only I would have known what was to come at that time, perhaps it would have been different. Looking back, I see how ignorant and selfish I had become. I had taken Peyton for granted. Everyone had. But on that January night, unbeknownst to anybody watching, that was the last time Peyton Manning would ever wear the blue and white.
Looking at it now, the numbers are mind-boggling. Jim Irsay described it right by saying they were "Star Wars stats." 54,828 passing yards. 399 touchdowns (416 if you include rushing scores). 141 wins. 49 game winning drives. 11 ten-win seasons. 11 playoff appearances. 9 playoff wins. 2 Super Bowl appearances and 1 Super Bowl ring. 11 Pro Bowls. A 5 time first-team All-Pro. 4 NFL MVP awards. The run of dominance of the Peyton Manning era Colts was unprecedented in NFL history, and it likely won't happen again anytime soon.
You've heard in recent days where the Colts would be without Manning. There would be no Lombardi Trophy, no Lucas Oil Stadium, no Super Bowl in 2012, and quite possibly no NFL team in the city. The Colts before Manning arrived were much like the Cubs in baseball, only without much of the fan following - consistently at the bottom of the league, save for a good year every so often.
There were some good memories and some good players in the pre-Peyton years. But no one the city could really connect to, and nobody that brought enough consistent success for it to matter.
And then, following another dismal season, 3-13 in 1997, a goofy kid with a huge forehead showed up, complete with his southern drawl and southern hospitality. He was the Colts' quarterback. Before long, he became more than that. He became our quarterback.
Over the years, as people leveled senseless criticism after criticism at him, it became personal. That's my quarterback, and I'm going to defend him no matter what. In return, he continued working to be the best. He put in countless hours at his craft, perfecting it and taking it to a level that no one had ever seen or will see again. He was the one leading this modern-passing game focus, putting up the big numbers even before it was popular. His antics at the line of scrimmage are legendary. Colts fans loved it - you'd have a nearly impossible time finding a stadium quieter than the RCA Dome was when Peyton Manning was on the field. He really turned the game into an art form. His football mind rivaled any football mind in history. Players have said that they think Peyton knew the defense better than the defensive players did. Every game was a chess match, with each play being another move for the chess-master. Cris Collinsworth said recently that he often hears from defensive players that Manning "is playing chess while most of us are playing checkers."
Peyton Manning is the best player ever to play in Indianapolis, and quite possibly the greatest player to play in NFL history. He's a first ballot Hall of Famer. The national media will all tell you that. They all get that. But if that's all you focus on, you're missing it completely. You're missing the true greatness of Peyton Manning. The national media won't tell you this part, because, well, most of them don't really understand it.
He was even more impressive off the field than he was on it. Finding a superstar athlete whose resume is squeaky-clean and who is tremendously kind, thoughtful, and respectful is about as common as winning the lottery. Yet that was who Peyton was - well, either that or he was the best at hiding it in history. He's the type of guy you want your kids to emulate. He would come into the media room after a late game still in his gear, because he knew reporters had deadlines. In the midst of all the storylines surrounding his release, he took the time to write FOX's Chris Myers after the death of his son in a tragic car accident. There were more letters too, to retired players and the like, congratulating them on their NFL career. He called Indy reporters to say thanks and goodbye after he was released. He even had a children's hospital re-named after him because of all Manning had done for it. He would always take the time to sign with fans - he embraced Indianapolis and made it his home. There's a whole website dedicated to "Peyton Manning encounters." That's impressive. He was never that super distant celebrity athlete who didn't care. He cared, and he loved Indy. He was a part of it. He was one of us. He wasn't just the greatest athlete Indy had seen - he was Indy's hero. My hero.
"He is coming back to a hero's welcome Sunday in Indianapolis, and it's not all because of the things he did on the football field. He touched lives there, changed them for the better, left a massive footprint on our soil."
I'll never forget those many, many memories made. The "Monday Night Miracle" at Tampa Bay in 2003. The 49th touchdown pass in 2004. The AFC Championship game in 2007 - the greatest game of the Manning era. The Super Bowl that same year. There are so many more. And I'll never forget the influence he had on Indianapolis. On Me. Nobody understands just how much this city loved Peyton, and he returned the favor. This was his home. He loved Indianapolis.
People around the country saw his parting line as a nice statement. For those of us who truly understood, we realized he was talking directly to us: "Thank you very much from the bottom of my heart. I truly have enjoyed being your quarterback. Thank you."
He was our quarterback, and we never really even got a chance to say goodbye. We didn't know that playoff loss to the Jets was his last game as a Colt. Nobody did. That 2011 season was filled with all sorts of questions and bad football, but above all it was filled with sadness. It was over. On March 7, 2012, it was made official. We shed tears right along with Peyton. He was one of us. And just like that, he was gone.
Last week during the Sunday Night Football game, NBC aired a promotional video for the Colts vs. Broncos game. It featured the song "I'm Coming Home" by J. Cole. Its lyrics go like this:
"I'm coming home
"I'm coming home
"tell the World I'm coming home
"Let the rain wash away all the pain of yesterday
"I know my kingdom awaits and they've forgiven my mistakes
"I'm coming home, I'm coming home
"tell the World I'm coming
"Back where I belong"
Nothing more accurately describes this Sunday. Indy's hero is coming home. He's coming back to where he belongs.
I'll be sitting there, in the "House that Peyton Built," proudly wearing my blue number 18 jersey for the first time since that day so ingrained in my memory forever - March 7, 2012. I'll be wearing it proudly and cheering on Peyton as loud as I possibly can when he runs out on the field. When they show the video tribute for him. I've been there for some of the others - David Thornton, Edgerrin James, etc. But those won't even come close to this. I'll have a chance to cheer on Peyton one last time. In a way, I'll have a chance to finally say goodbye, even though he will forever be a Colt. When the game starts, I'll be cheering on the Colts as loud as I can. I sincerely hope that Andrew Luck throws 6 touchdowns, that Robert Mathis records 5 sacks and that the Colts defense picks off Peyton 4 times. But through it all, I'll be wearing my blue 18. It will never go out of style, and it's no slight at Luck or the current Colts. I've fully bought in and I'm fully excited. But for this one game, I'll be wearing an old Colts jersey. I struggled with the decision of what to wear for much of this past week, but really, I found out that there was no decision at all - it was going to be the blue 18 all along. It's a way for me to say thanks. It's a way for me to honor my favorite player ever. The next time that jersey will be worn is on the day he is inducted in the hall of fame, when once again everybody in Colts nation will be cheering Peyton on.
Really, wearing the blue 18 is the least I can do. I'll never have a player I love more than Peyton Manning. He's my quarterback. He's my hero. He's one of us. He's Peyton F. Manning. And on Sunday, he's coming home, right back where he belongs.