Excerpts from one of several long articles on Peyton Manning — read more at http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/sportsman/news/20131215/Peyton-Manning-Sportsman-2013#all
A son of the genteel South, Manning learned early on the power of the handwritten note, unsurpassed by text or tweet. He still remembers the college coaches who wrote him during his recruitment (like Florida State’s Bobby Bowden) as opposed to the ones who resorted to thoughtless form letters. He would lick his thumb and rub it against the signatures to determine whether they were real. When Manning left for college, Archie wrote him before every fall semester.
Throughout his career Manning has written coaches and players who retire, as well as widows of coaches and players who pass away. He writes subjects of documentaries he’s seen and victims of tragedies he’s heard about. He writes his children every six months, even though they are years away from deciphering his cursive. Ashley buys his stationery, cream-colored cards with Peyton W. Manning in block letters at the top. He adds an arrow when a message continues to the back. “I don’t know if that’s proper or not,” he says. It’s hard to find any coach, teammate or staffer who hasn’t received a note from Manning. “I got one when my dad passed,” says Stokley, “and another when Peyton stayed at my house.” “I got one when I retired,” says former Colts video director Marty Heckscher. “It almost brought me to tears.” “I got one when the Colts let me go,” says Torine, the former strength coach. “It meant more than any paycheck.”
All the support that Manning sent to others came flooding back in the year he missed: calls from friends such as Fox broadcaster Joe Buck, who nearly lost his voice because of a nerve ailment in his left vocal cord, but also from rivals like Brady and Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “We’ve been playing a long time in the same era, and there aren’t too many people who can relate to what I go through on a daily basis and what he goes through, besides each other,” Brady says. “There’s mutual appreciation. I’ve always looked up to him and admired him.” Manning considered the impact those well-wishers made and was reminded of the influence he could have.
On his first day as a Bronco, he sought out staffers Adam Newman and Josh Bruning. “I’m going to need you to help me with my mail,” he said. Every Tuesday, Newman and Bruning read the roughly 300 pieces addressed to Manning in a given week, determining which ones he will want to see. Autograph requests go in one pile. Double-dippers are discarded. Heartfelt letters are marked read in red pen. Manning reviews them over lunch in the office Newman and Bruning share. The notes that move him, or that entertain him, he takes home. He has installed a hospital tray next to his bed — “My wife finds it very attractive,” he says — so he can work there without craning his neck. He uses the tray to watch video on his iPad, an upgrade from the Beta. But he often pulls out the stationery instead and writes.
To Charlie Johnson, a 63-year-old in Indiana nervous about neck-fusion surgery: “My neck pain went away immediately after my surgery. I believe you will be able to resume your normal activities rather quickly. I took it slow on doctors’ orders, but I felt better right away. I can’t give you a definite time frame. I would encourage you to be patient to avoid any setbacks. But you should be back lifting soon. Good luck and health.”
To Jack Benson, an eight-year-old in California with cancer: “I just wanted you to know that you are in my thoughts and prayers. Your cousin, Skip Hanke, wrote to me and told me of the tough fight you are having. You have a lot of people pulling for you. I am glad to know you are a Bronco fan! Keep fighting, stay positive, and say your prayers.”
To Clint Taylor, a high school quarterback in Texas who broke his leg: “I just wanted to encourage you to keep working hard and keep the faith. I have read your blog and I can tell you that your positive attitude and your strong work ethic will take you a long way. Keep it up.”
To Chris Harris, widow of David Harris, a pastor in Arkansas who was killed in a car accident along with his granddaughter Maci: “I am sorry for your loss. Please know that you are in my thoughts and prayers. ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted’ (Matthew 5:4). I learned that Pastor Harris was an avid Colts fan and had an autographed picture of me in his office. I read an article about Pastor Harris, and I can tell he was very special. Maci sounded very special as well. I am proud that he was a fan of mine. May God’s peace be with you.”
To Shannon West, who married Bill Sydlowski in New Jersey this summer: “Best wishes to you on your wedding day. I wish you eternal happiness. Your dad says that you are a fan of mine (he said commercials, maybe football too?). I appreciate your support. I can tell that he is very proud of you. All my best to you and Bill.”
Manning keeps a list of those he has contacted, with descriptions of the correspondence on the back of the their envelopes. “Letter from a woman whose best friend had cancer and is a big fan. . . . Husband has MS and they are naming their first born Peyton. . . . Sick man. Call ASAP.” Sometimes, instead of a note, he picks up the phone on the 25‑minute drive home after practice. “I cold-call them,” he says. “I block my number, and they don’t answer, so then you have to call back at night. They think it’s a prank call, but after that, you just take a moment and listen. I’ve always done that, but it is a little different this year.” Many of the voices on the other end are struggling with neck injuries. “I have to be careful about giving medical advice,” Manning says, “but these people are hurting and I was able to overcome the same thing. I tell them, ‘These are my symptoms. These are the doctors I saw.’ ” He asks Antonopulos, the Broncos’ trainer, for guidance. “If someone is from Texas, he will give me a doctor in Dallas.”
It is an overcast Friday morning in Indianapolis, the Colts beat the Titans the night before in Nashville, and the equipment managers are spinning 30 loads of laundry on three hours’ sleep. “It doesn’t smell as bad when you win,” says Jon Scott, who has been scrubbing grass stains since the team’s Baltimore days. He met Manning in 1998, when the hotshot prospect visited the Colts’ headquarters. On the way out, Manning said, “Hey, Jon, it was nice to meet you.” The Mannings may be American royalty, but they relate best to workers. “My mom drove a station wagon, my dad drove an Oldsmobile,” Cooper says. “We were around fame but we weren’t entrenched in it. We weren’t going to Europe on private planes. We did what everybody else did.” Archie told the boys that the most important people on any football team were the trainers and equipment managers. When Saints trainer Dean Kleinschmidt was married, Archie was the best man. When Archie was traded to Houston, assistant equipment manager Glennon (Silky) Powell cried as he walked him to his car.
Outside of Manning’s family, support staffers might know him better than anybody. They know that he studies opposing defensive coordinators, and their history against him, as much as opposing teams. They know that he likes a baseball cap handed to him the moment he walks off the field after third down, and collected the moment it’s time to walk back on. They know that he doesn’t wear a chinstrap in pregame warmups, so it has to be attached when he retreats to the locker room. The equipment managers laugh about staffers having to be reassigned from chinstrap and baseball-cap duty. “Oh, he’s demanding,” says Heckscher. “There were times I got an intern to shoot a walk-through, and it’s boring as hell, and the intern starts daydreaming and misses a snap. Most people don’t notice. Peyton walks in an hour later and says, ‘Things moving too fast for you guys out there today?’ ” Likewise, if Sullivan and Seabrooks flubbed a couple of passes, Manning would crack, “How about we mix in some catches with these drops?”
He barred his beloved equipment guys from the goodbye press conference, for fear he’d break down even faster than he did. But when it was over, he requested that they drive him to the airport, Sullivan behind the wheel of a Toyota Sequoia, Seabrooks riding shotgun, Scott and Manning in the backseat. “There were a lot of tears,” Scott says. “I gave him a handwritten note because that’s what he gives everybody else. He thought it was a joke. I just wrote the record of my first 15 years with the Colts and my record after he came.” Without Manning there might not even be an NFL team in Indianapolis, and there would certainly be no Lucas Oil Stadium and no downtown renaissance. Scott glances at a picture of Lucas Oil, lit up for the 2012 Super Bowl, hanging in the Colts’ facility. “It wouldn’t have been here without that guy,” he says.
They returned from the airport and cleaned out his office, pausing to send him a picture of the whiteboard, filled with his scribbles. Manning still calls the Colts’ equipment room every few weeks and asks to go on speakerphone. He texted Indianapolis staffers a video of the first preseason out pattern he completed for the Broncos. He mailed Christmas cards, with donations enclosed. Given the angry politics of modern sports, it is nearly impossible for an iconic athlete to remain on good terms with a city left behind. But Manning has accomplished what Brett Favre could not. After signing with Denver he called Vince Caponi, executive chairman of the board for St. Vincent Health, which oversees 22 hospitals in Indiana, including the Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis. People were asking Caponi if he’d rename it after Luck. “I want you to know I’m committed to St. Vincent,” Manning said. “That won’t waver.” His Peyback Foundation still hands out 800 bags of groceries in Indy for Thanksgiving, as well as 800 in Denver.
When Manning started the foundation, in 1999, he was advised to address one specific area of need. “But I like to say yes more than I say no,” he explains. Peyback has awarded $5.5 million in grants to nonprofit organizations benefiting underprivileged children in Louisiana, Tennessee, Indiana and, now, Colorado. Most of the donations are relatively modest, around $10,000, but they are earmarked for roughly 90 organizations per year. Some want to buy school uniforms. Some want to launch afternoon programs. Some want to build gardens and grow vegetables. Online applications are due Feb. 1 and are graded by a board. Manning and his wife pick the winners.