INDIANAPOLIS – There still was work to be done as the 1998 NFL Draft loomed. There were college tapes to break down for a 10th, 15th, 20th time, sources to revisit and internal meetings that would consider every single aspect of a massive decision.
But the direction of the Indianapolis Colts and starting point for a Hall of Fame career might have crystalized in late-March or early-April 1998 during a business meeting at the Surf Club in Miami Beach. It was a classic establishment frequented by Bob and Harriett Irsay, and the ideal spot for their son to gain a better appreciation for someone who might hold the key to his team’s future.
Jim Irsay was facing a franchise-shaping decision and that required a face-to-face sit-down with Peyton Manning.
“That was the time I spent several hours with him,’’ Irsay said. “I was really blown away by the type of person he was and that he knew what it took to be a great NFL quarterback.’’
General manager Bill Polian oversaw an extensive evaluation process that analyzed every throw made by Manning during his decorated career at Tennessee as well as the other prospect deemed worthy of the 1st overall pick in the April draft – Washington State’s Ryan Leaf. The team’s scouting department assessed each player’s arm strength and critiqued his movement in the pocket and decision-making skills.
Irsay needed to look inside Manning.
“What does a guy have?’’ he said. “We know a guy’s arm strength, but where is it between his ears, and what’s in his heart? How much does he really want it, and how much work will he put into it?
“With Peyton, there was no question he was a bit of football royalty in the quarterback circles and lineage with Archie. I knew Archie because I knew Bert (Jones, a Colts QB taken 2nd overall in 1973), who was like an older brother to me. Bert knew Peyton since he was a little kid.’’
Still, Irsay wanted that closer look. He got it – and more – at the Miami Beach Surf Club. Everything he had heard about Manning was reinforced during the defining afternoon.
“It was something that really wasn’t a surprise,’’ Irsay said. “No question the clincher was those piercing green eyes looking at you and saying, ‘I’ll win for you.’
“It was like John Wayne or Marlon Brando. It was one of those moments that just steals your soul. It just stirs your spirit.’’
There would be subsequent internal meetings to make certain everyone was in agreement. Irsay kept an open mind, but there’s no question which direction he was leaning.
I’ll win for you.
“It was one of those moments that was truly special,’’ Irsay said, “and you get a glimpse of what could be and just how intense he was and how much he had planned his whole life to take this opportunity over and to work to be great.
“His intensity and confidence were special.’’
The relationship officially began April 18, 1998. Manning’s 14-year journey with the Colts included two trips to the Super Bowl, the franchise’s first world championship in more than three decades, a nine-year stretch during which 10-6 was the worst record and 12-4 seemed humdrum, a record four MVP awards and the transformation of Indy from a basketball/racing city to one that made football – from high school to the pros – relevant.
Manning’s presence and influence were undeniable factors in the construction of Lucas Oil Stadium, which opened in 2008. He left the team in March 2012 after missing the previous season with neck issues. A looming $28 million roster bonus, questions about his ability to fully regain his health and serious salary-cap issues made a continuation virtually impossible.
“Extremely, extremely painful . . . very emotional,’’ Irsay admitted. “But it worked out great for both sides.’’
Manning resumed his career in Denver – two more Super Bowl appearances, another world title and another MVP in four seasons before retiring after the 2015 season – but he forever would be a part of the fabric of the Colts. His statue is situated on the northside of Lucas Oil.
The exclamation mark on Manning’s 18-year career likely comes Saturday evening when the Pro Football Hall of Fame reveals its Class of 2021 during the Honors Show on CBS. Nothing is official, but Manning is considered a lock to be enshrined in his first year of eligibility.
“A no-brainer,’’ Polian said.
“There’s no question, right?’’ Irsay added.
Better than Bernie
During the final days leading up to the ’98 draft, Irsay and Polian would huddle and make certain they were absolutely certain.
At one point, Irsay recalled an agitated Polian asking a pointed question. It addressed the possibility that Manning’s career ceiling in the NFL might not be as high as everyone hoped/projected. Again, you just never know, regardless the player’s pedigree and collegiate success.
“He’d say, ‘Let’s say he’s Bernie Kosar. Could you live with Bernie Kosar?,’’’ Irsay said with a laugh.
The Cleveland Browns selected Kosar with the 1st overall pick in the 1985 supplemental draft. He never took the Browns to the Super Bowl, but helped them earn four playoff berths, including reaching the AFC championship game in each of his first two seasons.
“I said, ‘Bill, if he’s Bernie Kosar, yes I can live with that,’’’ Irsay said. “Bernie was an excellent player and with the right team around him he could get (to the Super Bowl) and win it most likely.
“We both felt there was a good chance Peyton was going to be much better than that. I don’t think we realized just what an impact he’d have. Not just as the complete quarterback/football player, but really as an international star.’’
Irsay paused, then continued as he considered Manning’s place in NFL history.
“In the 100-year history of the league, you can debate where he falls,’’ he said. “You’d have to put him in the top-10. You can argue what part of the top-10.
“But anyone would have to put him in the top-10. He was just so special. He raised all the boats in the harbor with his talent, his work ethic and his intelligence.’’
That’s why Irsay steadfastly believes Manning belongs in a special section at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. He’s always joked there needs to be a separate room on the second floor – the Presidential suite – reserved for the truly elite players.
“It’s special to just get in the building,’’ Irsay said, “but those guys that reside on the second floor, they’re almost not human because of some of the things they’ve accomplished.
“They’re the best of the best of the best.’’
You just never know
It’s risky to predict Hall of Fame status for any player early in his career.
“I don’t think you can ever see that,’’ Polian said.
Polian pointed to a comment from New York Giants general manager Dave Gettleman.
“He said it best when he drafted Saquon Barkley,’’ he said. “He said when you pick a player that high (2nd overall) in the draft, you’re hoping you have a chance to pick a guy who may eventually get a Gold Jacket.
“But you never know. You can’t predict that. You’re hopeful, that’s all. There are so many hurdles to cross, so much luck you have to have, so many circumstances that come into it.’’
Tom Moore, Manning’s long-time offensive coordinator, disagreed.
“You knew it from the get-go that some day he was going to be in the Hall of Fame,’’ he said. “Guys like that don’t come around very often.’’
It’s uncertain when Irsay saw Canton as a realistic final destination for Manning, but he always considered Manning a “rare’’ player.
“He was so off the charts when it came to all those intangibles,’’ Irsay said. “And when it came to the tangibles, he was better than what he was given credit for. He was someone that got the most out of his talents, and that’s the thing you’re always looking for and are excited about with great athletes. When you talk about the Peyton Mannings and the Michael Jordans and then they get the most out of their talents, that’s where you get guys that are very, very rare.’’
As Manning was navigating his career, his respect for the game itself was obvious. That was never more evident than when John Unitas, one of his NFL heroes, passed away Sept. 11, 2002.
Manning wanted to wear Unitas’ signature black hightops in a game to honor Unitas. The league, however, threatened him with a hefty fine, insisting it would be in violation of the NFL’s uniform policy.
“I wanted him to do it,’’ Archie said. “He didn’t do it because he was afraid it was going to bring so much negative attention to what he was doing instead of the game.
“What an honor that would have been. Wish he would have done it.’’
“Peyton’s respect for the game is unmatched,’’ Irsay said. “He left the game better than when he came in. He advanced the game, literally advanced the game with his commitment to excellence and his style and his knowledge of history.
“He’s made the game that much better with the blood, sweat and tears that he committed to football. Not many people can that (in their sport) . . . Peyton Manning, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods.’’
Irsay and Manning remain close.
“Oh man, yeah,’’ Irsay said. “We communicate almost weekly. I don’t have a relationship as close with any other player as I do with Peyton.
“He has such respect for the journey we went on together. When he came here, I was 38 years old and he was 22. We grew up together. It’s hard to describe how close we are. He is so much a part of the horseshoe.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.