DENVER – After the exorcism was done and a spot in the Super Bowl for the Denver Broncos won, Archie Manning began telling a story.
This was from back in the early days of the Peyton Manning recovery process, back about two years ago when his neck surgery was still fresh and his arm still weak and no one knew if he'd ever play in the NFL again, let alone one day torch Bill Belichick's Patriots for 400 yards and two touchdowns in the AFC championship game.
This was when it all seemed so far away, when it was all so humbling. So Peyton Manning made a request that he'd made, oh, maybe a thousand times before. Maybe more.
He called his dad.
"He was recruiting me to go throw with me," Archie Manning said Sunday after Denver's 26-16 victory.
Archie was once a great NFL quarterback. That was a long time ago, he noted. On the day Peyton called and said he wanted him to be a receiver, Archie was 62 years old and in no position, he figured, to snag passes from a pro QB.
"I said, 'I can't catch," Archie continued. "He said, 'You've got to. I just have to go throw.' "
So this is how the comeback started. It is also how the original climb to football greatness started.
A dad. A son. A game of catch. A dream of it all, somehow, someway, leading to the Super Bowl.
Back when Peyton was just a kid, the passes back and forth would occur in the yard of the Mannings' home in the Garden District of New Orleans. By the time Peyton reached junior high, they'd go off to a bigger field. Archie eventually declared himself too old to run all the routes in full, so they invented a game called "Tail In" where he'd just make the final steps of a curl or an out, and Peyton would fire ball after ball after ball at him.
"You couldn't count how many throws we had through the years," Archie said.
Peyton was no longer a little kid with big dreams, though. He was 35, an 11-time Pro Bowler, a four-time MVP, a Super Bowl champ.
Yet everything else was the same. He was en route to getting cut from the Indianapolis Colts, and he wanted back in the league, back to his potential, back to afternoons like these, when he leads an offense up and down the field seemingly at will.
Mostly, he just wanted to throw passes with his father. Maybe Archie was the most conveniently available receiver. Or maybe there was a comfort level in bringing it all back home.
Peyton reserved the indoor facility at his old high school in New Orleans, Isidore Newman, and he didn't take no for an answer. Archie relented, but quickly called a trainer he knew and told him to come over and bring his son – "somebody has to catch these balls and it's not me."
Archie got to the field first, and Peyton was waiting and ready. "Tails In" was recreated all these years later. Peyton threw maybe 15, 20, passes to Archie, just like the old days. It turned out Peyton Manning's arm was still so weak that his dad was good enough.
Archie tried to focus on the positive: "He threw OK," he recalled.
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It doesn't mean there wasn't concern this was a doomed exercise. Everyone in the Manning family felt it. Younger brother Eli long ago learned to never write Peyton off, but … "I had some doubts. I had some worries, for sure." Older brother Cooper just wasn't sure it was possible to get all the way back.
Even Peyton said he was flying blind. "Nobody could give me a real timetable or prediction as far as physical recovery," he said, before noting there was still the challenge of finding a new team capable of making a run at a championship … and then meshing with his new teammates … and then the basic luck and pluck required.
Archie just watched his son buckle down and work – eventually the trainer and a more suitably youthful receiver arrived that day – and tried to remain positive.
"I just didn't know," Archie said. "Yeah, when you're his age, what he went through, playing the quarterback position in this league, we just tried to stay positive with him. He handled it so well. He had a good frame of mind, working and trying, but if it didn't work, he was at peace so that was comforting to me and [wife] Olivia."
Eventually, it all came together. Peyton's arm grew stronger. Passing sessions began to include former teammates. They moved mostly to Duke University, where Peyton's old offensive coordinator, David Cutcliffe, is the head coach. Peyton wound up signing with Denver. Jacob Tamme, Manning's old target in Indy who followed him here, recalls endless sessions at local Colorado high schools.
It was a battle, though. It was a haul. Even after Peyton returned to the NFL last year, he still needed time for the physical development to continue. He was good, but the season ended with the familiar pain of playoff failure.
This year, Peyton was better. He set all sorts of passing records and will almost assuredly win his fifth MVP.
Yet, he still had to get past old rivals Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.
It's routine for members of the Manning family to play in huge football games – high school, college, pro. This will be the family's fifth Super Bowl – and a potential fourth title. Eli has two. Yet, this one is particularly special. Everyone knew what Peyton overcame to get here. Everyone knew what those Patriots represented on the other sideline. Everyone knew, as Cooper put it, "the clock's ticking a little bit."
So Archie and Olivia were there, of course, although Dad missed half the action because he superstitiously paced the hallways outside the family's luxury box, listening to the radio call. Cooper flew in with his children and tried to claim he was only "standard nervous." Eli cut short a hunting trip in Mississippi to arrive without telling Peyton he was even coming.
They all had to be here, whether it ended in celebration or crushing defeat. They all knew this wasn't just another game.
What unfolded was an exorcism of sorts, Manning destroying Belichick's defense and outplaying Brady. This was Peyton beating the guys who always beat him, this time at their own game, in a big game.
"He played great," Brady said.
Peyton made the perfect calls. He made the tough throws. He completed 32 of 43 passes. The offense was forced to punt on its opening drive and then never needed to again – scoring on every possession until it ended the game in victory formation.
It was a long road coming.
"It's hard to get to the Super Bowl," Peyton said "It's hard to win it, but I'm telling you, it's hard to get there."
Back in a hallway of Sports Authority Field, the rest of the Mannings were rummaging about, waiting for Peyton so they could go to dinner and toast this triumph properly.
Cooper said he'd texted his younger brother on Saturday to remind him to just relax.
"Pretend you're a 10-year-old playing in the front yard and have fun with it," Cooper said. "It's Peyton. He still has a young kid in the front yard."
Archie acknowledged the circular nature of the journey, how the game's best quarterback saw his strength sapped and his skill stripped and reverted to that 10-year-old. He was a son who went looking for his original receiver and the comfort amidst the confusion that maybe only his dad could provide.
"A lot of memories from that time – whether he was going to play anymore," Archie said. "That kind of makes it special."
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