10:19 PM CDT, October 17, 2013
INDIANAPOLIS — The Circle City is suddenly the Full Circle City.
Peyton Manning is coming home Sunday to play the Indianapolis Colts for the first time, leaving this a town torn.
A common sentiment here, where Manning won a Super Bowl and an unprecedented four NFL most-valuable-player awards, is a desire to see him throw five touchdown passes for the Denver Broncos — and lose.
Manning is still beloved here and, although he has sold his sprawling home in the suburbs, has kept his condominium in a quaint brick building downtown. Indianapolis has a very blue-and-white perspective on the world, so it's bizarre to see the orange No. 18 Broncos jerseys prominently displayed in a sporting goods store in the Circle Centre Mall.
"There's a lot of people who think that Lucas Oil Stadium wouldn't have been built without Peyton, and without Lucas Oil there is no Super Bowl, there's no doubt about that," Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard said. "He meant so much to the city."
There aren't many examples of superstar quarterbacks coming back to their old cities to face their former teams. Brett Favre went back to Green Bay when he was playing for the Vikings. Joe Montana played San Francisco when he was with the Chiefs, but that was in Kansas City.
For his part, Manning doesn't know what to expect, and he's not interested in guessing.
"I think I'd be wrong to try to predict or guess," he said. "It's certainly a unique game. Somebody asked me earlier, 'Is it the same as playing against [younger brother] Eli?' And I said, 'I guarantee Robert Mathis hits a heck of a lot harder than Eli does.'"
The city is not replete with shrines to Manning or prominently displayed mementos at every turn. Since his tearful farewell news conference 11/2 years ago, when his neck injuries left his football future uncertain, Manning has moved on and so has Indianapolis. He's on his way to a record-breaking season for the 6-0 Broncos, and the Colts are hanging tough at 4-2 with quarterback Andrew Luck constructing his own impressive legacy.
There was even a hint of irritation from some players in the Colts' locker room this week, players who want to treat this as just another game on the schedule. Of course, the Colts have generated some of that hubbub by inviting back former Manning teammates Marvin Harrison and Edgerrin James.
"With all the cameras and stuff, all the pub and the media, yeah, it's going to be different," receiver Reggie Wayne said. "I don't see this many people unless it's a playoff game.… I'm just ready to play, ready to get it over with. It's like Ringling Brothers."
That's not bad for business. Chris Gahl, vice president of Visit Indy, said hotels are at 99% occupancy for Sunday night, far more filled than they would be for a typical Sunday night game, an effect Gahl has coined the "Peyton Ripple."
"If this was a normal Sunday night game," Gahl said, "sure, it would be sold out, and sure, we would have national media and a bump in tourism, but not to the degree that we're seeing now with a virtual sellout of a hotel core. That is not typical of a Sunday night football game in Indianapolis."
There is a low-key element to Manning's return too, one some people attribute to the famed Hoosier hospitality, as if fans don't want to insult Luck by doing back flips over Manning's homecoming.
"I'd definitely like to see Manning have a big game, but a Colts victory coming out of it would be fine with me," said Myles Smith, whose family owns and operates a corn maze in Waterloo, Ind., that depicts Luck throwing a football.
The maze is massive — 12 acres, to match Luck's jersey number — and takes some people as long as three hours to navigate. The Smiths got the design approval of the Colts and Luck before starting, and did it in response to the Colorado farmer who made a similar one of Manning. (And no, the Luck maze isn't blue corn.)
"We have had people come up and say, 'You should have done a Peyton Manning maze,'" Smith said. "We're still Peyton Manning fans. If it's anyone else but the Colts playing, we'll root for Peyton. But we wanted to show Andrew our support."
Longtime Colts defenders might get a tinge of that confusing feeling when they first position themselves across the line of scrimmage from Manning, who for years wore a red jersey at practice, meaning he was not to be touched. But they are not conflicted at all about their intentions.
Said safety Antoine Bethea: "I'm pretty sure we are going to love to get our chances to get P on the ground a few times."
Clearly, that's the key to beating the Broncos. Through six games, Manning is on pace to break single-season passing records for touchdowns (he has 22; the record by Tom Brady is 50) and average quarterback rating (128.8).
Then again, Manning's statistics caused a mini-controversy this week. Denver Coach John Fox jumped to his quarterback's defense after Colts owner Jim Irsay publicly expressed regret the team didn't win more Super Bowls with Manning at the helm.
When asked to elaborate on what his relationship has been like with Irsay since the Colts released him, Manning was curt.
"No," he said. "I can't and I won't."
Irsay said people misinterpreted his comments and this week reiterated his admiration of Manning.
"He's a historical icon and a great friend of mine," the owner said. "It's something where what he means to our organization is, as I said, the greatest Indianapolis Colt ever. I don't have to wait about No. 18 being retired. That jersey is already retired even though he's still playing. My respect for him is immense."
Manning's most important completion didn't happen on the football field. It was the 2007 dedication of the Indianapolis children's hospital that bears his name, Peyton Manning Children's Hospital at St. Vincent. With his annual gala and associated donations, Manning has raised more than $7 million for the hospital.
Murals of him playing adorn the halls, as do his framed Colts, Broncos and University of Tennessee jerseys. There are several Manning-themed rooms, painted blue and white, decorated with jerseys, helmets, pennants, magazine covers, Wheaties boxes, and large flat-screen TVs.
"I could call him and say, 'We'd really like you to come up to the hospital and meet with this family or this patient,'" said Vince Caponi, the hospital's executive board chairman. "If he was available, he'd get in his car and drive up there without a lot of hoopla. He'd just go in one of the back doors and go up and visit patients.
"When he would go into a patient's room, he'd be really focused on the patient. He'd want to know where they went to school, what sports they played, how well they did in school, what kind of illness did they have, how the doctors and nurses are treating them. Rather than the focus being on a superstar athlete, the superstar was the pediatric patient."
Madeline Helpling got that treatment recently. She's a 19-year-old patient at the hospital who's fighting high-grade osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer.
"She got a phone call from Peyton," said her grandmother, Debbie Stansbury. "It was shocking to her because it was a blocked call, and normally she ignores those. But for whatever reason, she answered it. From what I understand, he had asked the oncology [ward] to give some names to uplift some oncology patients because obviously they have the longest stay. They said Madeline could use it."
How fitting that Manning would call.
Madeline was in Room 18.
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