SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Todd Helton's football career at the University of Tennessee consisted of 75 passes and a knee sprain on Sept. 24, 1994, that sent him to the bench and forced the Volunteers to try a raw freshman at quarterback. His name was Peyton Manning. Helton never saw another snap.
Injuries brought Helton and Manning together at dawn of their careers and did so again this offseason as those careers fought to hold off their twilights. There they were, two men in their 30s, Helton having made more than $100 million playing baseball, Manning having done the same on the gridiron, throwing a football around like they had almost 20 years earlier. Of all the people to get a close-up view of the secretive workouts that preceded the most frenzied free agency football has ever seen, the Colorado Rockies' first baseman stood front and center – and left with sore hands.
"I kept telling him how impressed I was, how far he had come since he came out after he had surgery," Helton said Monday, when Manning ended his courtship by joining his old friend in Denver and agreeing to play this season for the Broncos. "He was throwing the ball as good as I've ever seen. I'm an untrained eye, but I knew it hurt when I caught it."
Now, Helton is a close friend of Manning's, so his scouting report comes with a shaker of salt. It doesn't in any way dampen the electricity that coursed throughout the Rockies' clubhouse like every water cooler around Denver. The news spread fast during batting practice at Salt River Fields before the Rockies' game against the Los Angeles Angels, and just in case anybody didn't hear, one player pregame yelled: "No more Tebow!"
Sorry, Tim Tebow, but the Rockies are on Team Peyton.
"Tebow is a great player," outfielder Carlos Gonzalez said, "but I'm from Venezuela and not even a football fan and I know they got one of the best quarterbacks in history."
"I have nothing against Tebow," outfielder Dexter Fowler concurred, "but I'm definitely a Peyton Manning guy."
For one, Manning spent more time around the Rockies than Tebow. Because of his friendship with Helton, he has shown up unannounced in recent years before Rockies games. Last July, Gonzalez walked into the dugout, saw Manning and said to himself: "I think I know this guy." A month later, when the Rockies were in St. Louis, Fowler glanced at Helton's locker only to see someone with three extra inches and one fewer goatee.
"He's sitting in Todd's chair," Fowler said, "and you're like, 'What? Oh, yeah, that's Peyton Manning.' "
When Helton heard the Broncos would make a run at Manning, he didn't call or text or try to put on a full-court press. He figured, actually, Manning would end up with the Tennessee Titans, whose owner, Bud Adams, offered Manning everything but the shirt off his back – which, had Manning quarterbacked the Titans, he probably would've ceded as well. Or maybe the Miami Dolphins, whose city has a way of luring high-profile free agents in basketball and baseball.
"It did surprise me," Helton said, though he added: "I can picture him in a Broncos uniform. I know that it's a Bronco town and they get somebody to root for. He's going to come in and play well. I'm excited to see it. …
"Why wouldn't you want to come to Denver? Seems like a great place to be to me."
Everyone was thrilled with Manning's impending arrival, it seemed, but Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. He had become Denver's most popular athlete before Tebow's deification last season … except it wasn't that. He got to meet Tebow a few times and found him to be a really pleasant person, too … though it wasn't that, either. And as someone with eight years remaining on his current deal, Tulowitzki is happy for anything that benefits Denver, and he admitted Manning "is going to help out their team a lot."
Well, forgive him for playing Tulo Downer on a day of joy for the rest of Denver. He had a good reason.
"I'm a Dolphins fan."
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