The Denver Broncos have been in existence since 1960, and they have never seen a training camp like this. Hours before the first practice opened, before the sun came up, there was a line of fans around the Broncos' Dove Valley facility, waiting to get in and see Peyton Manning at work. In the end, 4,371 fans attended the practice -- a team record for a non-stadium workout, and over 1,000 more than the previous mark, set at the first practice of the 2010 season.
The crowd roared when the object of their affection took the field, they went nuts when he started gesticulating as he does to change the play at the line, and they were beyond happy to see a version of Manning who could put zip, touch and accuracy on throws to all parts of the field. Things were far from definitive in this non-contact event, and there's still a pitch count on what Manning will do in practice, but so far, so good. And if you thought the Denver faithful went bonkers over Tim Tebow last year, wait until you see Manning Mania in full effect.
"I don't think we'd ever have to incorporate fake crowd noise if we wanted to simulate playing on the road," Manning said after practice. "It was a great crowd; they were enthusiastic. I've always thought that when it's hot out here, the fans can get you through a tough two-a-day practice, so I know the receivers and the linemen appreciate the crowd. I thought it was a lot of fun being out there with them today."
More importantly, after the three shoulder procedures and long-term rehab efforts, how does the wing feel? Things certainly looked good, and Manning appeared to be cautiously optimistic. "During training camp, we're getting a great test going against our defense, so you try to establish a little bit of your identity. I need this work in training camp, and this is the first day. I'm going to try to get better every day, keep making progress. I still have rehab to do, which I will continue to do throughout training camp and throughout the season. It felt good to be out there today in a training camp practice, where the intensity was there. I look forward to the next steps, to putting pads on, playing preseason games. We're getting more comfortable, but we still have work to do."
Part of that work involves Manning getting on the same page with young receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, though game tape indicates that it will be worth the effort. It's quite possible that in these two players, Manning has a receiver duo with as much talent as anything he's seen since Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne were in their prospective primes. The youngsters aren't quite there yet, but the potential is obvious.
"I'm getting to know Demaryius," Manning said of his new "A" receiver. "You guys have seen him prior to now, but I'm just seeing him, and you see that just like me, there are different phases. There's a mini-camp/OTA sort of tempo and development, and then there's training camp and the preseason, regular season and then, you hope playoffs. I'm looking forward to getting to know all these guys throughout the different phases of a season, and obviously trying to do my part throughout the different phases. Demaryius is going to play a key role for us this year. I thought he came back in great shape. Those guys run a lot during practice, and I appreciate their effort and their intensity."
That's in the long term - for now, and after missing time in his first NFL season since he came into the NFL in 1998, Manning was just as excited as the crowd was to see himself out there.
"Did I miss playing? What do you think? I have missed it, and I've never taken it for granted to be out there playing," Manning said. "I had been playing for 13 years straight and never missed a game since I've been playing quarterback in the seventh grade. That's a lot of consecutive games, a lot of Fridays or Saturdays or Sundays to be playing a game, so I'm glad to be back in more of a normal routine, in a practice routine, and I still feel like we have work to do before those preseason games get here. Those games will be important, however long we play. We've got a second practice this afternoon, and that's really all I'm thinking about at this point.
"I look forward to training camp, because that means football season's getting closer. This is important work for us, [and it's] certainly important for me. The two-a-days, and getting multiple plays run against our defense is important for me, it's another step for me, and everybody's working on a lot of things when you try to get everything the way you want it before the regular season starts. Every day is important, and we need to take advantage of every day."
Never was that more apparent than last week, when the Aurora, Colo., theater shooting brought the preciousness of life home to all in the area. Manning was among those Broncos players eager to get in touch with the survivors.
"I've been really proud to be a part of this team, seeing the support the players on our team have given, going to visit some of the families and the victims," he said. "All our thoughts and prayers are with those families. I'm not sure what a hospital visit can do, but it can take somebody's mind off what a tough time they're going through, and that's well worth it. I think our team has done a good job being supportive and doing our role.
"Everybody's thoughts and prayers are with the victims, and as for priorities, we're all just football players, so I think our guys have their priorities in the right order. I've had private phone calls, and I've been proud that our guys have been able to visit and make donations to some of these funds. That shows we're committed to our community; we don't just want to play football here. It seems like a lot of guys live here and stay here year-round.
"When you play in the NFL, you don't just play for the team, you play for the community, and I think that's important."
The community agrees, and will likely continue do so in record numbers all the way thorough this preseason.