As the Peyton Manning saga draws on with his inevitable and impending release from the Indianapolis Colts, the teammates who Manning helped (and who helped him) to and through so many notable accomplishments were left stunned and saddened by the finality of an event that everyone pretty much knew was going to happen. No matter how well you prepare for it, when the hammer finally comes down, losing the most important player in the history of a franchise is a serious blow -- personally and professionally.
For center Jeff Saturday, it's a time for reflection on an unexpected life in football. The longtime Colts tough guy was the exact opposite of Manning from a prospect perspective -- while Manning was the first overall player selected in the 1998 NFL draft and came from football royalty, Saturday had to scratch and claw to get a foothold in the league at all. The man who might have been closer to Manning on the field than anybody else for all those years talked on Tuesday's "Total Access" show on the NFL Network about the meaning of Manning for him.
"It's sad for me, just from a personal standpoint," he said. "You go to work with the same guy for that many years, you win as many games as we won together, and do the things we've been able to do ... turning a basketball city into a football city ... it's tough. Anytime things end like this and come to a close, it's tough. I'm excited for him; I know he's got a great future ahead of him. From that standpoint, this is football and this is what happens."
Defensive end Dwight Freeney saw this move as another brick in the wall -- after a season in which the Colts were proven to be the worst team in the league in Manning's absence, everyone from team president Bill Polian to the personal trainer helping Manning with his rehab was cut from the masthead. Clearly, the Colts are in rebuilding mode from the studs to the roof.
"It's a little bit of being shocked, and also the other side of feeling like it was going to happen," Freeney told the NFL Network on Tuesday. "With all of the moves that happened this year after the season was over with — the GM being fired, all of the coaching staff [being let go] and all of that — I kind of figured something was going to happen. Peyton is like family to us, family to me — he's been there 10 years with me. It's been great, but we also understand this is the National Football League and these things do happen."
Linebacker Gary Brackett agreed that the Colts will seem rather hollow without No. 18 in the fold, even if the team does what everybody expects and takes Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck with the first overall pick. Luck is seen as a sure thing at the next level, but nobody knows better than the guys who played with Manning -- you're not a sure thing in the NFL until you prove it on the field.
"His numbers speak for themselves," Brackett told the NFL Network. "You talk about us being the winningest team in any decade of football — he's a large part of that. The 12 consecutive winning seasons, the Super Bowl. For me, getting here in 2003, the stands were [full of people wearing] suits and Green Bay jerseys; probably now, there are 80 percent Colts jerseys, and largely his jerseys. He was a guy that really changed the landscape of Indianapolis, and really changed the landscape of football."
One thing on which Freeney, Brackett and Saturday all agree: If there's any way for Manning to play football again, despite the multiple neck surgeries and the nerve impingements that resulted from them, he'll do it. Few people burn to play a sport like Peyton Manning does to play football.
"I don't know exactly where he is in his rehab, but there's no doubt in my mind that the guy's going to keep winning games, just like he has in the past," Saturday said. "I'm not a doctor, but as a football player, I know he's ready to play."
"Definitely he is," Freeney said, when asked if Manning is worth the risk to a new team. "The leadership qualities: just the qualities throughout the locker room, off the field, the knowledge of the game. Eighty percent of Peyton is better than a lot of 100 percents out there, and people will see that. The question really is can he play the whole entire season? Does one hit all of a sudden bring him back [to where he is now]? I don't know, but I'm definitely wishing him the best and I know whatever team decides to take a chance on him, they'll be pleased."
"I haven't seen him work out other than the tape on YouTube — that's the most I've seen of him," Brackett said of the 27 seconds of Internet footage showing Manning throwing bombs at Duke University. "I've been hearing from different teammates and guys that have run routes with them that he's looking good. But I never thought that he wouldn't just knowing the type of work ethic he has, the type of mentality that he has. If anyone could come back from an injury like this, it's definitely someone like Peyton. True to his word, he's back and looks like he's going to be ready to play next season.
"You're talking about a man who prepares for another team by watching arguably their last 10 years of football," Brackett concluded. "He is a man with a great wealth of information of football — players, coordinators. Just his desire to go out there and prove that he can still play this game at a high level.
"It's like Kobe Bryant -- those guys aren't really motivated by anything else other than winning."
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