ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – To everyone else, this week is Peyton Manning's return to Indianapolis.
To Manning, he never really left.
He plays for a different team now in Denver, but Indianapolis is still a huge part of his life. It always will be.
He was asked about playing the Colts on "Sunday Night Football" this week and what message he had for the fans. The question seemed to surprise him.
He talked about meetings he has with Colts fans when he gets back to Indianapolis, or seeing No. 18 Colts jerseys at Broncos games. Manning keeps in contact with many of his old teammates. He still gets plenty of mail from Indiana, and replies to a lot of it. He has a strong connection with the children's hospital in Indianapolis, considering it bears his name. He still holds fundraisers for the hospital.
It's pretty clear that's still home.
"There's always a connection there," Manning said. "To have to deliver a message means I've been gone. I don't think I really have."
That connection is why Sunday is so unique. There haven't been many more feel-good splits in sports history. Manning moved on to Denver after 13 seasons as the Colts' starter, and over the last two seasons he reestablished himself as the NFL's best quarterback. His Broncos are 6-0 and perhaps the best team in the NFL. The Colts drafted quarterback Andrew Luck, made the playoffs last season and appear headed back to the postseason. Everyone is happy. The reunion will be full of hugs and emotions and nostalgia.
Manning is writing one of the best second chapters of a career in sports history, and he and the state of Colorado have embraced each other, but it will be impossible to think about Manning's career without first thinking about him as a Colt.
"Obviously, he did so many great things on the football field and they had such a great winning culture here for the past decade or so," Luck said in a conference call. "But what he did off the field is incredible, as well, with the children's hospital and everything you learn about his involvement with the community. I think he definitely had a great impact both on and off the field in this city, and really a great role model for a young quarterback."
Manning said repeatedly he doesn't know how he will feel on Sunday. There's a pregame tribute planned, and there will certainly be an ovation or two for the player who put Indianapolis football on the map. Old teammates Marvin Harrison and Edgerrin James are reportedly coming in for the game, as if there needed to be more emotional moments for Manning, who has experienced similar games going against his brother Eli.
"To predict how you’re going to feel, I just don’t know," Manning said.
"Someone asked me, 'Is this like playing against Eli?' I said, 'I know Robert Mathis hits harder than Eli.' "
Manning didn't want to talk about playing the Colts after last Sunday's game, but he spoke at length about what Indianapolis meant to him and about his new team as well. There were 14 cameras and a few dozen reporters huddled around him after practice as he spoke, so it's obviously not a normal week. But Manning, who is as serious about football as anyone in the league, seems sincere when he says he wants this to be a normal game against a good Colts team. He still has goals he wants to reach, and he doesn't want to lose focus for a key AFC game.
He said he owes it to the rest of the Broncos to have his usual preparation this week, not just enjoy the Colts fans' adulation for his first game back.
"If all I had to do was walk in there and wave and sign some autographs and kiss a few babies and smile, it would be easy," Manning said.
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