INDIANAPOLIS – They had to beat Peyton Manning out of their lives even if it meant beating him up on the field.
Eleven years is a lifetime in the NFL. Eleven years tells you things about another man that nobody else can know. And so those 11 years they dressed and showered as Colts taught Indianapolis pass rusher Robert Mathis one very important thing about Peyton Manning.
[Photos: Peyton Manning returns to Indianapolis]
"No quarterback likes to be hit," he told Yahoo Sports early Monday morning after the Colts' 39-33 victory over Manning's Broncos. "Especially him."
In the house that Peyton Manning built, the Indianapolis Colts came after the face that made this franchise. They thundered through the Broncos line, lunging, jumping, grabbing – anything to get their hands on a piece of the player who made this a football town. They tackled him. They batted his passes. They knocked him to the ground.
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Their blows left red marks on Manning's face, even if he wouldn't show them how much it hurt. He waited until stepping off the field and into the tunnel beneath the stands before allowing a wince to slide across his face. He limped slightly on the blue rubber surface that led from the field to the strange visitor's locker room he recently admitted to not knowing. He looked weary, surprised, defeated.
It was hardly the victorious jog he used to take down the tunnel on the other side of the stadium, the one that took him to the giant room with spacious lockers that was all but made for him. Long after Sunday turned to Monday he slumped into a plastic chair before a small blue metal locker and slowly peeled off his uniform.
Manning later admitted to being worn out from the week that was all about his return. He said the 90-second tribute to him the Colts played before the game was not a distraction, and yet he looked exhausted from the emotion of going back to a city that was his for so long.
All week, the older players like Mathis, Antoine Bethea and Reggie Wayne had talked about winning this game. They had been besieged with Manning questions. They were tired of it. Yes, he was a friend. But they had also moved on. They had built a new tradition here, around a new franchise quarterback. In the house that Peyton Manning built, Peyton Manning was old news.
"Absolutely," linebacker Erik Walden said when asked if the older players wanted to win this game more than another.
"You think of a lot of ways that [Manning] has done a lot for this franchise, but we have a great quarterback in No. 12," Walden continued.
For much of Sunday, No. 12 (Andrew Luck) was better than No. 18 (Manning). Manning had more yards at the end – 386 to Luck's 228 – but that's because he was playing from at least two touchdowns behind. The Colts players said their plan was to make the Broncos one-dimensional. So they took away Denver's running game and dared one of the greatest quarterbacks the game has known to beat them through the air.
Maybe if they hadn't have beaten him up so much early in the night Manning would have defeated them. He pushed the Broncos down the field repeatedly in the fourth quarter, teasing with big end-of-the game drives from years past. He nearly brought them all the way back – perhaps he would have if running back Ronnie Hillman hadn't fumbled and defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson hadn't kept picking up personal foul penalties.
In the end, Manning couldn't do enough. He tried to talk about all the positives of the day – the visit with his former receiver Marvin Harrison and running back Edgerrin James who had been invited back, the video, the standing ovation – but he was also overwhelmed.
"I'm probably more tired this week," he said.
When asked about the feud that simmered again with Colts owner Jim Irsay, Manning said: "I can move past that. I can't speak for others. I don't see it being a lasting thing."
But then neither is he in Indianapolis. It probably took Sunday night for everyone to see that. He didn't look at home in this building that is in many ways his. The team across the field is young, aggressive and built around defense. It doesn't play a beautiful explosive offense like his teams did for years. It grinds its way to victories rather than overwhelming opponents.
Sunday was no exception.
Never was that more clear than after the game. Manning showered, dressed quickly in a suit then pulled out a small three-sided mirror that he placed on the top shelf of the blue metal locker and tied his tie in the reflection. Then he pulled on a sports coat and walked toward a news conference he appeared to dread.
"It's kind of hard to prepare for because it's a unique situation," Manning said of the week. "But I certainly prepared hard during the week and prepared hard to play the game as far as my study and preparation was the same. I had some advice from folks to take that moment and appreciate that little tribute there, but I don't feel it was a distraction by any means."
Then he was out the door. Unlike so many games here in the past, he didn't linger in the halls talking to his parents or old friends. Instead, he walked quickly with a police guard, past a small group of Broncos fans, down a long driveway and into the bay where the buses waited to take his new team to the airport and far away from the place he thought he would always call home.
Just not anymore.