On Sunday, Indianapolis will offer one last roar for the greatest athlete in the city's history
INDIANAPOLIS -- Kill the fatted calf. The all-pro-digal son returns.
OK, Peyton Manning is no prodigal. The 12-time Pro Bowl pick didn't choose to leave Indianapolis, and he didn't squander his money, as in the parable. In fact, he helped raise so much money for a children's hospital here that it's named for him.
But the calf half of the metaphor is apt. The phrase comes from biblical times, and it means to break out the very best for the most special of special occasions — in this case, as in that one, the return home of a favorite son.
Colts in March 2012 amid uncertainty over his surgically repaired neck, isn't back for good, of course. No. 18 plies his trade in a new home now, for the Denver Broncos. This season, at 37, he is on pace for the best year any NFL quarterback has ever had.
And Sunday night on NBC, when the 6-0 Broncos play the 4-2 Colts in the Dome that Peyton Built, the good people of Indianapolis will offer one last roar for the greatest athlete in their city's history, before they go back to rooting for the guy they hope will be even better someday.
Colts quarterback Andrew Luck is a bit like the other son in the parable. Here he is, toiling in the fields, or on one, while all the fuss is for the guy who went away. Even so, Luck says he understands why Manning is so meaningful here — for what he did in uniform and in the community and for providing a sort of road map for the new kid in town.
"I'm sure there will be some great cheers, as is deserved, at the beginning of the game," Luck says of the crowd, "but I expect them to be 100% on the Colts' side."
He'll have to settle for 99.99%. Ralph Reiff, director of sports medicine and sports performance at St. Vincent Hospital, says he will be rooting unabashedly for his old friend. As Reiff puts it, "I want to see Peyton do what Peyton does."
Reiff has never before wanted to see another team win against his hometown Colts. How do his family and friends feel about such temporary treachery? "They won't know," he says, "until you write it."
The Colts plan a video pregame ceremony in Manning's honor. Bill Polian, the former general manager who built the Colts of the Manning era, says a formal program isn't even necessary for fans to profess their love.
"Peyton is by far the most popular Colt player" of the franchise's Indianapolis era, Polian tells USA TODAY Sports. "And they don't need anyone to tell them, 'Let's stand and applaud.' They're going to welcome him back with open arms. And they'll root for the Colts and Andrew, and they should. But they're not going to forget ever what Peyton did for them and for the city, state and the sport in Indiana."
Vivid Seats, a secondary market ticket purveyor, says the average price for Sunday's game is $338, more than double the $150.25 average price for the Colts' other four remaining home games. Reiff says Colts fans circled the date as soon as the schedule was set last spring, and he suspects Manning did the same, even if he'd never say so.
Jeff Saturday is the retired Colts center who snapped the ball to Manning from 1999 to 2011, which is to say few know him better. But even he can't imagine what it will be like for Manning to be enveloped by all that naked emotion just before kickoff.
Saturday, who works for the Colts as an ambassador to their fans, says he will be on the field before the game. "I'm sure we'll say hello, just a nod and a handshake," Saturday says. "He's got a job to do."
And no one in NFL history has done that job better through six games of a season. Manning has completed 74.2% of his passes for 2,179 yards and 22 touchdowns with two interceptions. In the complex system that is the NFL passer ratings, Manning stands at No. 1 with a rating of 128.8, 20 points higher than any other regular starter.
"Peyton is playing at a ridiculously high level," Saturday says.
Owner causes stir
Manning told The Denver Post in January that his great memories of Indianapolis are forever. "But I've stored them all away, like in a time capsule," he said.
The capsule is stuffed to overflowing with almost 55,000 yards, nearly 400 TD passes, four MVP awards and one Super Bowl ring.
Colts owner Jim Irsay thinks it should have been more than one. He caused quite a stir this week when he told USA TODAY Sports that Manning's "Star Wars" numbers are nice, but rings are better.
Broncos coach John Fox said on SiriusXM Radio that Manning is too classy to respond, so Fox returned fire for him, calling the comments "a bit of a cheap shot." Irsay tweeted that all he really meant was the organization did not give Manning enough support to win more.
"The Return" was always going to be awkward, but this back and forth has made it more so. The Indianapolis Star asked if Manning had any ill will toward his old team. He didn't say no.
"To answer a question like that doesn't serve me well," Manning told The Star. "I feel like the question is based on the (Irsay) comments, so it's just easier not to answer anything along those lines."
There aren't many precedents for this version of "The Return." When Michael Jordan came back to Chicago to play the Bulls as a Washington Wizard, he was well past his prime. When Brett Favre returned to Green Bay to play the Packers as a Minnesota Viking, he'd had an interim stop with the New York Jets. Polian thinks the one that might come closest is pitcher Pedro Martinez's return to Boston as a New York Met.
Manning comes back to Indy with a fifth MVP award looking likely behind a lightning offense and a real chance to win, ahem, his second Super Bowl.
"I'd be thankful for that one Super Bowl ring," Fox said pointedly of Irsay, "because a lot of people don't have one."
John Elway has two. He won them for the Broncos late in his Hall of Fame career. Now, as the executive who brought Manning to Denver, he'd like Manning to pull an Elway and win another Super Bowl, or two, late in his Hall of Fame career.
Few suggest that the Colts did not have good reason to let Manning go. He'd had multiple surgical procedures on his neck, and no one knew for sure if he could play again, let alone light the world afire as he's doing now. And then, talk about luck, Andrew Luck was there to be had, another franchise quarterback at the top of the draft, just like Manning was all those years before.
"They seem to be bad at the right years," Elway says.
'Closure for him, and for us'
Indianapolis styles itself as the Crossroads of America, but that can mean it's just a place on the way to somewhere else. Reiff thinks Manning gave the region and its citizens a pride of place and sense of self.
"I've thought a lot about this," he says. "I don't want to overstate it, but it's hard not to. I truly believe Peyton has influenced the business and athletic culture of central Indiana. People here just admire the way he goes about the business of his life. There are lessons in it about how to work and how to prepare" — and how to care.
The Peyton Manning Children's Hospital at St. Vincent's was named for him in 2007. Vincent Caponi, a top executive in the state's Catholic health system, says Manning has helped to raise more than $7 million for the children's hospital, thanks in part to an annual gala. Manning gives of his time, too, often making unpublicized visits to patients, Caponi says.
Manning was asked at a news conference this week if he had a message for the fans in Indianapolis. He said not really because he has never stopped communicating with them.
Caponi will be among those who communicate right back at him with cheers Sunday. "We never had a chance to say goodbye," Caponi says. "I think this will be some closure for him, and for us."
The place to go for fatted calf in Indy is St. Elmo, the famous steakhouse. Craig Huse, its co-proprietor, did not return calls. Too many news media outlets wanted to talk to him this week about The Return, so he texted instead.
"We are overexposed on this story already, starting to feel like Princess Diana's butler," Huse wrote.
Then he added a last line that echoes the decidedly mixed feelings of so many Indianans.
"I'll be rooting for Peyton to throw five TDs, but have the Colts win."