Former Vol Peyton Manning kicks off the NFL season tonight with the Denver Broncos.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The dining room at Augusta National Golf Club should be the type of place where even the most recognizable of American sports royalty can blend in, enjoy a steak or some good old-fashioned Southern comfort food and a cocktail after a round of golf.
It's a buttoned-up place, where members and guests aren't typically fazed by the wealth or celebrity of their fellow diners.
In his half-dozen or so previous visits as a guest to Augusta, Denver Broncos coach John Fox has delighted in the golf and the dinner conversation, but he never saw anything like the scene in May, when he sat down to eat with his companions, who happened to be two of the best quarterbacks in NFL history.
As Peyton Manning and John Elway ate and drank and talked and laughed, they were approached, several times, by people wanting to pose for photographs.
"Usually people at Augusta, and especially in the meal room, are, what would be the word — curbed? Ray Floyd could be there. Jack Nicklaus could be there," Fox said. "Between the two of them, people actually took pictures. I've never seen that before."
Manning, Elway and Fox escaped Denver for a guys' weekend, invited to Augusta by a friend of Fox. They shared a cabin and played three rounds of golf over two days. It was a social trip, sure, but also a rare chance for Elway and Manning to spend long hours together, talking Broncos football and trying like hell to beat each other on the golf course.
"What I learned is he is inherently competitive. There's a certain seriousness that I take to my golf game, that I like to play with. And so when you play with a guy that has the same type of thing, that makes it that much more enjoyable, because it means something," Elway told USA TODAY Sports. "Instead of just telling jokes and laughing all the way around, you have the competitive side with two people who want to play well. There's a serious edge. We have fun doing it, but there's an edge."
Elway left Augusta with bragging rights — winning two rounds to Manning's one — but Manning has at least one trump card back in Colorado. Elway, despite playing thousands of rounds of golf on courses across the state, has never sunk a hole-in-one here. Manning did it in his first round as a member at the Castle Pines course in Castle Rock this year.
The NFL careers of Elway and Manning overlapped by one season, in 1998. But Elway's Super Bowl champion Broncos and Manning's 3-13 Indianapolis Colts didn't face each other. Their football lives didn't intersect until last year, when Elway — in his second year as the Broncos' top football executive — lured Manning to Denver to restart his Hall of Fame career after he had been sidelined by neck surgeries and then released by the Colts.
The union has created one of the most interesting dynamics in professional sports, with a pair of pre-eminent quarterbacks teaming up, one on the field and one in the front office, with the lone goal of winning a Super Bowl.
"It's pretty unique and pretty special. You're talking about two of the greatest players to ever play the game and at the premier position," said former Broncos safety John Lynch, a longtime friend of Elway. "That's what was so cool about this process was that you've got these two guys working together to try to achieve something."
Inside the Broncos training facility, seeing Manning in the locker room and Elway in his office upstairs has become so commonplace that most players and coaches have become almost immune to the historical significance of the pairing.
Together they have 30 years' experience as a starting quarterback (Elway retired after his 16th year, while Manning is starting his 15th healthy year), five league MVP awards, 21 Pro Bowl selections, seven Super Bowl appearances, three Super Bowl wins and two Super Bowl MVP trophies.
Elway was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2004. Manning will surely get his bust and yellow jacket five years after he retires, whenever that might be. Manning, 37, is entering the second year of a five-year contract.
"Peyton thinks the world of John," Cooper Manning, Peyton's older brother, told USA TODAY Sports. "He was a huge fan of John's growing up, and he admires what he's done."
The admiration is mutual. Elway recalled watching Manning play in college at Tennessee but became a true Manning fan after his playing career was over. Though Elway was trusted at times with calling his own plays from the line of scrimmage, he watched in awe of how Manning could control a game like no quarterback had before.
"He transformed it from a huddle offense to a line of scrimmage offense. He kind of changed the audible system from getting out of a bad play to getting into the best play," Elway said. "The thing that is understated about him, I think, is his accuracy. Very accurate with the football, and that goes unnoticed because of all the other things he does."
Though their own playing styles were markedly different, Elway knew he wanted a quarterback such as Manning around with which to rebuild the Broncos. When Manning became perhaps the most coveted NFL free agent of all time in 2012, Elway made the first move to sign him.
"If you're John Elway, you can't ask for more out of a quarterback than having a Peyton Manning. And him being a quarterback, John has the pressure on him to make sure he's got a good quarterback," Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach told USA TODAY Sports. "That's one thing you can't argue about. Denver has it as good as it gets in Peyton."
After Manning was released by Indianapolis, his first free agent visit was to Denver, and it included a lengthy dinner at Cherry Hills Golf Club with Fox and Brandon Stokley, Manning's old friend. Elway also invited Lynch to stop by and say hello — and have Lynch put in a good word about the Broncos and about moving a family to Denver.
When Lynch arrived, he found Manning and Elway locked in a deep conversation. Lynch kept waiting for the quarterbacks to take a break.
"They kept talking and talking. And finally I was like, 'I've got to go to bed.' It was one of those type of things. I think right from the start, they hit it off," Lynch said. "What a unique situation for Peyton. I think being able to rely on someone like John, who has been through the same pressures of being the top-level NFL quarterbacks, one of the greats, and also dealing with who they are as people. I played football and played at a high level, but I can't relate to what it's like to be Peyton Manning, and John very much can. He's a tremendous resource."
CONFIDANT, NOT COACH
The Broncos cycled through 10 starting quarterbacks between Elway and Manning. Guys such as Brian Griese (drafted in 1998 to be Elway's successor), Jake Plummer (who led the Broncos to the AFC Championship Game in 2005), first-round draft pick Jay Cutler (one Pro Bowl but no playoff appearances in three seasons with Denver) and, yes, Tim Tebow, the man Elway dumped for Manning.
Each had the burden of playing in Elway's shadow but without his direct support. Elway wasn't necessarily estranged from the franchise, but he was pursuing other business and athletic endeavors, including his empire of car dealerships, running an Arena Football League team and playing a lot of golf, all while remaining Colorado's most famous and popular sports figure.
Even now, Elway's legend looms large inside Dove Valley — with a pair of Super Bowl trophies on display in the lobby and a floor-to-ceiling picture of Elway hoisting the Lombardi hanging on the wall just outside of the main team meeting room. That can be daunting for any player, let alone a quarterback.
"It's almost like you're walking around in a place that he built," said quarterback Brock Osweiler, Manning's second-year backup.
Osweiler, one of two quarterbacks drafted by Elway since 2012, arrived in Denver expecting on-field tutoring from Elway and was surprised at first when Elway never sat in on meetings or offered input during practices. But that is by design. Among Elway's first decisions when he was hired to run the Broncos front office was he would stay out of the coaching, even with the quarterbacks.
"A lot of people think I coach these guys. I don't. I don't have that kind of time," Elway said. "(Quarterbacks coach) Greg Knapp and those guys are technically much better than I am as a coach. I'm more of the encourager."
If Elway has an opinion about what he saw during a practice or a game, he brings it to offensive coordinator Adam Gase or Knapp.
When Elway and Manning talk football, it's typically when Elway is the one with a question. He'll often ask Manning what Manning saw on a specific play or how something transpired on the field.
It's a language only quarterbacks can share.
"Only other quarterbacks know what a quarterback feels and sees out there and what it's like after certain plays or certain throws. I think you do have great camaraderie and have a lot in common," Manning said.
That's why their weekend together in Augusta this spring was so special.
As they walked the fairways, they could talk, quarterback to quarterback, Bronco to Bronco.
"He likes to know what we're thinking," Elway said. "I always enjoy being around Peyton because we have in-depth conversations. And that kind of goes back to the common denominator. To be able to have those kinds of in-depth conversations in such a great place, with great people. It was all perfect."