INDIANAPOLIS – Ashley Manning knew. So, did twins Marshall and Mosley. They were able keep the news from dear old dad.
Then the high school coach was brought into the circle, followed by the major influences from college and the pros.
A few days after the confidential information flowed from Canton, Ohio to Ashley Manning, her husband got the official message.
“It was a cool moment. It was a football moment,’’ Peyton Manning said.
Saturday evening, one of the most predictable moments in recent memory became a reality. Manning is part of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2021.
His bronze bust along with his legacy – a league-record five MVPs, the only quarterback to direct two teams to Super Bowl victories, the player most responsible for putting Indy and its Colts on the NFL map – will forever have a cozy spot in Canton.
Manning’s addition to the NFL’s exclusive neighborhood never was in doubt. He was a slam-dunk selection in his first year of eligibility.
“I’m honored and humbled and have great respect for the people that have played the game,’’ Manning told FOX59.
During a lengthy interview, Manning never spoke of leading the Colts to a win over the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI or duplicating that feat by being under center as Denver whipped Carolina in Super Bowl 50. His mind didn’t flash back to rallying the Colts from a 21-3 second-quarter deficit to a 38-34 victory over the hated New England Patriots in the 2006 AFC Championship game or that magical night-turned-early morning Oct. 6, 2003 when the Colts, down 35-14 with 6 minutes remaining, did the near-impossible and chased down the reigning Super Bowl champion Buccaneers 38-35 in overtime.
He spoke of the friendships and relationships that were built along the way.
“I’ll always cherish all those people,’’ Manning said. “If somebody forces you to talk about a game or something, I’ll go there. But especially five years removed (from playing), that’s not what I go around thinking about or talking about.
“I think about the people.’’
Which brings us back to Ashley, Manning’s wife and companion since college.
She took the call from the Hall of Fame Jan. 27, a Wednesday. She hatched a plan that would make a special moment that much more special.
Manning was scheduled to do some advance work on “Peyton’s Places,’’ his ESPN series, Friday at the Broncos’ Empower Field at Mile High. As the video crew was going about its business, there was movement and noise in the background.
“My antennas were up, don’t get me wrong,’’ Manning said. “I had to be there and was doing my recordings, but you can just tell when something’s going on behind you.’’
He turned to the crew, most of whom clearly were distracted.
What are you guys looking at?
That’s when Manning knew, really knew, the secret Ashley and their 9-year-old twins had kept for two days.
Walking out of the tunnel were David Cutcliffe and Phillip Fulmer, two of his main influences from the University of Tennessee. There was Jim Caldwell and Tony Dungy, flown to Denver on the private Jet of Colts owner Jim Irsay. They had helped him maximize his potential with the Colts; a Super Bowl title after the ’06 season and a return to the title game in ‘09. And Gary Kubiak, his head coach when the Broncos won the Super Bowl after the 2015 season.
Next, Manning’s attention was directed to the stadium Jumbotron.
Video tributes flowed. From Tony Reginelli, his coach at Isidore Newman School. From Jim Mora, his first coach with the Colts, and Tom Moore, his long-time coordinator. And from John Fox, his initial coach in Denver.
As soon as the tributes ended, Dungy approached Manning.
We’ve got one more person who has something to say to you.
“I turned around and there was Dave Baker,’’ Manning said. “I like hanging around with him because he’s got a bigger head than I do, which is hard to find.’’
Baker, Hall of Fame president, was the main attraction. Once he officially welcomed Manning into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Marshall and Mosley ran to their dad.
“They were excited,’’ dad said. “Ashley told them about it on Wednesday and the fact they didn’t leak it to me was pretty surprising. I can’t tell them what somebody else’s Christmas present is without them cracking on that.
“The fact they kept this quiet from me was pretty impressive.’’
Remember, this was a people moment.
“I didn’t act like I was surprised that Dave was here,’’ Manning said.
He had seen Baker surprise several other inductees who were on the job, most recently Bill Cowher and Jimmy Johnson.
It was everyone else being on hand or participating via the video tribute that made it truly special.
“I was surprised all those coaches were there,’’ Manning said. “That really meant a lot to me and kind of took me down memory lane.
“I really appreciate Ashley making it such a special football moment. She quarterbacked the whole thing, and it was amazing she got it done in two days. It was special being with those coaches who were such an important part of my journey.’’
The Pro Football Hall of Fame initially asked whether Baker could do his normal knock-on-the-door announcement at the Manning’s house. Ashley declined and came up with Plan B.
“Coming to our house and acting like you’re having a family dinner with cameras in your home, that’s not really our style,’’ Manning said. “You know, ‘Ed McMahon’s here. You’ve just won a million dollars!’ And the camera just happened to be there.’’
Plan B proved more than adequate.
After the announcement
The event at the Broncos’ stadium was special, but just the start. In short order, Manning began reaching out to others involved in the journey to Canton. Never mind all members of the Class of 2021 were asked to keep the news to themselves.
“They tell you not to tell anybody, right? For two weeks,’’ Manning said. “That’s kind of awkward.’’
He called his parents, Archie and Olivia. He talked with brothers Cooper and Eli, and Ashley’s mother. He contacted Irsay, who gave Manning’s Hall of Fame career a starting point as the 1st overall pick in the 1998 draft, and Bill Polian, the team’s first-year general manager.
Manning called coaches who weren’t able to attend Ashley’s announcement event – Reginelli, Mora, Fox, Moore – for a more personal chat.
And he called Marvin Harrison and Edgerrin James, members of the Classes of 2016 and 2020, respectively.
“They were the first two players I called because they’re both already in,’’ he said.
Over and over, Manning focused on others and the shared experiences. Practices, locker rooms, games, post-game moments.
“I’m just grateful to the people who have been a part of it,’’ he said. “I can’t imagine if you went through this alone and you didn’t have Ashley to support you, if you didn’t have your parents and brothers.’’
Manning thought of all the practices, games and summer camps endured by Olivia.
“Talk about someone who’s truly live a football life as a wife and a mother,’’ he said. “Just thankful for her.
“Obviously having my dad and Eli, who have been part of the family business, if you will. It was a real blessing having two guys you could bounce ideas off of that had been in the arena.’’
The Colts’ sustained success in the 2000s clearly was the result of elite talent – Manning, Harrison, James, Reggie Wayne, Tarik Glenn, Jeff Saturday, Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, Bob Sanders and so many others – but also was a product of a special environment.
“We used to cherish those victories in Indianapolis,’’ Manning said. “Saturday and (Ryan Lilja) always had cigars and we’d go smoke a cigar outside the bus on the tarmac right by the plane, which is refueling, which is totally illegal.’’
As the days passed, Manning made it a point to contact so many others: Saturday, Wayne, Dallas Clark, Anthony Gonzales, Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker. There was a long talk with Baldwin Montgomery, one of his closest friends and a four-year teammate at Isidore Newman.
Earlier this week, Manning contacted Colts’ coach Frank Reich and set up a Zoom conference call with individuals still with team from the various support departments: Jon Scott, Brian Seabrooks, Sean Sullivan, Dave Hammer, Erin Barill, Mike Mays, John Starliper, Jeff Brown, Kyle Davis, Richard Howell, David Thornton, Steve Randall. Reich was with Manning for six seasons, two as his position coach.
A similar conference call was made to the University of Tennessee and Denver Broncos.
“When you stop playing, these past five years you have time to reflect,’’ Manning said. “I stay in contact with Jon Scott and the UT equipment guys and the Colts’ and Broncos’ equipment guys. Caldwell and I text. Dungy, Clyde (Christenson), Bruce (Arians), Tom.
“Those relationships don’t go away when you stop playing and I’m thankful for that.’’
August in Canton
If COVID-19 restrictions have eased, enshrinement ceremonies for the Classes of 2020 and 2021 will be held in Canton in August. Manning’s event is on the books for Aug. 8. The previous day, James and the Class of 2020 will be enshrined.
Not surprisingly, Manning has selected Archie to present him.
“I asked my dad to present me and he humbly accepted,’’ Manning said. “He’s honored about that. He’s had the greatest influence on my football life, without a doubt.
“Who knows what August will look like, but hopefully we’ll find some kind of normalcy.’’
However, there’s nothing normal about a player’s pro football career delivering him to Canton, even when for so long so many insisted that would be the final destination.
“So many other people have been telling me this for five years, for the past 10 years almost,’’ Manning said. “I just never bought into it, never assumed. I have too much respect for so many other people and players who are either in or not in.
“I felt like I left it all out there. I prepared as hard as I possibly could and played as hard as I possibly could. You’d like to have this game back or a play back here or there, but I never left the field saying, ‘I could have done more to get ready.’ That’s all you can really do.
“That gives you peace of mind after each game.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.