There was a telling moment Tuesday night, just as the news broke that Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts would be parting ways. Shortly afterward, a bevy of reporters descended upon an SUV carrying Manning and Colts owner Jim Irsay, who had just stepped off a flight coming from south Florida together.
“Hey guys, we’re not really going to say anything now,” a grave-looking Irsay said as he rolled down the window. Manning, sitting next to him, smiled and waved.
“We’ll talk tomorrow,” he drawled kindly, displaying the gawky charisma that has made him the one of the most marketable sports personalities in America. “We’re good. We’re gonna do it the right way tomorrow.”
They were saying basically the same thing, but Manning’s “no comment” was worlds friendlier than Irsay’s. If you didn’t understand English, you might think he was inviting the reporters to hang out and watch TV.
The incident illustrated just how much Irsay and the Colts are giving up in cutting Manning, beyond a quarterback and a player so instrumental in making decisions on offense that he may as well have been a coach. They’re giving up the face of an entire franchise, a public-relations genius, and most prominent citizen of the city of Indianapolis. It will be difficult for any subsequent player to become the face of the franchise in quite the way that Manning has.
It’s easy to forget what the Indianapolis Colts looked like before the Peyton Manning era. Jim Irsay’s team, inherited from his father, Robert, used to be best known for betraying the city of Baltimore. In 1984, Robert Irsay moved the Baltimore Colts to Indianapolis in the middle of the night, leaving local Baltimore fans devastated.
In the 14 years between that controversial move and the first overall selection of Manning in the 1998 NFL draft, the Colts weren’t much to write home about. The team only had five winning seasons, none of them with over 10 victories. Their best finish in that span was a loss to the Steelers in the 1995 AFC Championship. The year before Manning came to town, the Colts went 3-13.
They went 3-13 his rookie year, too, but 1999 brought a complete reversal, at 13-3. The Colts dominated during Manning’s tenure, making regular trips to the playoffs and consistently threatening to win Super Bowls (appearing twice and winning once, in 2007).
Manning also did wonders for the city of Indianapolis itself. After he raised millions for the local St. Vincent’s Children’s hospital, it was renamed the “Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital” in 2007. The most marketable player in the NFL, Manning was instrumental in bringing the brand new Lucas Oil Stadium to the city, and the 2012 Super Bowl bid that resulted.
"There is no Super Bowl held here without Peyton," Indiana state museum curator Dale Ogden told the ESPN.com sub-site Grantland in February "There is no Lucas Oil Stadium without Peyton. Without Peyton, the Colts would probably be in L.A. right now."
The Colts, too, recognize what Manning has meant to the organization and the city. At his joint press conference with his former quarterback on Wednesday, a choked up Irsay announced that Manning’s jersey number, 18, would be retired.
The questions that followed from the local press were mostly about Peyton, with very few directed at Irsay and the Colts: reporters asked if he was throwing well, if he would still be a presence in Indianapolis, and if he was at peace with the decision. Already, attention was tracking Manning, shifting away from Indianapolis.
But gracious to the end, Manning put Indianapolis first.
“I’m not leaving Indianapolis,” Manning stressed, “and I’ll always be a Colt.”