Saccomano retired as the Vice President of public relations for the Denver Broncos after spending more than three decades with the team. Kelley was the longest-tenured public relations executive in Indianapolis Colts history. They served in these roles during the seasons that Manning played for their respective teams. On the eve of the publication of their Sports Publishing book, Peyton Manning: A Quarterback for the Ages, we asked them to share their personal recollections of one of the greatest players in NFL history.
Sports Publishing: What was the most memorable “Manning Moment” each of you witnessed firsthand?
Saccomano: There are so many that it is very difficult to pick just one. But to choose a couple, throwing seven touchdown passes in one game to tie the NFL record, after coming back from a triple fusion of the neck and being the only quarterback to ever play in that scenario was pretty amazing to see. But I quickly have to add Super Bowl 50, at a time when all anyone wanted to talk about was that he was not the same as he used to be, Manning helped guide the Broncos to the Super Bowl 50 title, becoming the first quarterback in history to lead two different franchises to Super Bowl titles. And in the surreal department, there have been 50 Super Bowls, no overtimes, so exactly 200 even quarters of play. When the 200th quarter (the fourth quarter vs. Carolina) ended, he had exactly 200 regular and postseason career wins. This kind of stuff seemed to happen with him all the time. That was a gutty, courageous performance and exemplified an athlete who knew his precise strengths and played to them throughout the game.
Kelley: There were so many comebacks, examples of preparation or [instances of] how Peyton took care of fans so well that two or three more books could be written about him. My favorite moment, though, was riding with Peyton and Tony Dungy in an SUV from Fort Lauderdale to Miami Beach the morning after Super Bowl XLI. Our party ended around 4:40 a.m., and we had to meet our driver—showered and in suit-and-tie—at 6:00 a.m. in the hotel lobby. Without an escort, our driver got us there in about an hour for the winning team/MVP press conference. We all were euphoric, and they spent most of the ride on cellphone calls chatting with well-wishers, including President George W. Bush. When Tony told Peyton to get off a call because someone “wanted to speak with him,” it was a moment no one could buy. Not knowing who was on the phone, Peyton’s first words when finding out were, “Yes, Mr. President.” I’ll never forget that moment. It was funny and special.
Sports Publishing: Each of you had a close working relationship with Peyton Manning. Football fans everywhere know about his incredible accomplishments on the field. Can you provide a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the off-the-field preparation that made [Manning] so successful?
Saccomano: How about his first day in Denver, before he even signed? He, John Elway, [then Broncos coach] John Fox and I were standing in the hallway chatting, right after his arrival in the building to sign and begin his Denver career. No players were around as it was early off-season. But then tight end Julius Thomas (now an established player but at that time a completely obscure guy who had missed his whole first season) went walking by. Manning exclaimed, “Julius Thomas!” Manning asked him to speak for a moment, and I remember that Julius stood virtually at attention as Peyton suggested they get together on their own (it was during the time of year when team workouts were, and are, not allowed) to run pass patterns, get familiar with each other, etc. Of course Julius agreed. But the part that stunned me was that Manning recognized him, telling me that he had committed the faces of all his new teammates to memory by study of our media guide thumbnail pictures. This was later confirmed. A couple of years later I asked Julius if he remembered the circumstances of his first meeting with Peyton Manning. He remembered it well, agreed that he too had no idea how Manning would recognize him walking down a hallway in civilian clothes, and added, “There is a reason why he is so great, and that is just an example of it!”
Kelley: Peyton was dedicated to preparation in ways I saw no other player in my 29 NFL seasons. Seeing his commitment to study, conditioning and practice for 13 seasons, it never wavered, never diminished. He was just as driven when he departed the Colts as he was when he joined us. There were many things that set him apart but one I remember in particular truly is remarkable. Hours after a key win late in his career (when he starred in the outcome, by the way) I was in our offices getting materials ready for the coaches who would arrive around 6:00 a.m. Monday. As I dropped off materials in each coach’s office, I saw a light at the end of the hallway in a meeting room. I also smelled steak. It was Peyton. He had gotten a takeout from his usual post-game spot and brought it back to watch film for next week’s opponent. I pushed the door open, handed him some statistics, just chuckled at his ethic and left him alone. He never stopped working – ever. That separated him from so many others, and it was a reason why he pulled more rabbits out of empty hats than any athlete I ever saw. His NFL MVP Awards – Peyton has a record five – are earned.
Sports Publishing: You also spent time with him in non-football settings. Are there any such occasions that stand out for you?
Saccomano: Peyton Manning is like the Lone Ranger. He gives willingly and generously of his time, talent and money, but so often does it in complete privacy. I am not going to break the privacy clause, but his innumerable charitable acts include providing Thanksgiving dinners in Tennessee, New Orleans, Indianapolis, and Denver, and at times in all [four] cities. To this point he has provided tens of thousands of Thanksgiving dinners. He is gracious beyond anything imaginable and tries to make everyone around him comfortable—the definition of being a gentleman. At the Sports Illustrated Man of the Year dinner he posed with anyone and everyone who asked and was just as gracious for the last picture as he had been for the first. Peyton Manning is very big on sending personal notes and letters of thanks and congratulations—for many years he has sent such letters to retiring players, but he similarly contacts those who are less fortunate by injury or illness, often by surprise phone calls and visits. He was as “giving” a player as we have ever had in Denver. But again, a lot of it was done like the Lone Ranger, with no publicity of any type involved.
Kelley: The approach Peyton took with media stands out. He gave reporters regular access, and the effort he took with his answers is legendary to many writers and broadcasters. Early on in his career, I started asking reporters in advance what their questions would be for Peyton. Initially, it met with reactions one might imagine until I explained he wanted to have the best answer possible so the time they had with him would be as valuable as it could be. He was that dedicated, and it was not an attempt to dodge topics. We trained the media so well that writers would contact us in advance saying, “Here’s what I want to ask Peyton.” They knew this advance notice would help push along what they would write. Also, listening to Peyton in production meetings with network personnel might have been the most valuable time I spent in my entire career. Hearing him portray the Super Bowl 50 game’s approach, along with spinning yarns and telling anecdotes, entertained broadcasters and got the Colts huge exposure. Being in those rooms 16-18 times a year for 13 years gave me tremendous insights on Peyton and provided stories I can tell for the rest of my life. I told Peyton recently how he continues to impact my life just by what I am able to tell people about him long after I finished working with him. He absolutely captivated fans of the game.
Sports Publishing: Having had long careers in the NFL where you saw hundreds of players close up, what do you think Peyton Manning’s lasting legacy will be on professional football?
Saccomano: One of the things I frequently tell people, and I told him this, is I say, “Whatever you think you know about Manning, he is better than that. Whatever the record, whatever the charity, he is better than that.” He certainly is in the conversation as the greatest quarterback ever to play the game, and holds virtually all the records of note, but beyond those factors, I think his legacy is that he reinvented the way the quarterback position is played. As John Elway noted in Manning’s retirement press conference, quarterbacks used to take the snap and then study the defense, but Manning took his preparation to the level that he was able to make changes (which we all witnessed him doing time after time) as soon as he got to the line of scrimmage, before the ball was ever snapped. He changed the way the position of quarterback can be played, if the quarterback has the overall skill set of Peyton Manning and is able to prepare, process and adjust as well as and as rapidly as was Peyton Manning. He was one of a kind.
Kelley: One of Peyton’s legacies will be how he helped transform his position and how his career impacted others. Calling plays at the line of scrimmage and running a “hurry-up” offense are parts of his career that have been passed on to others. Just as John Unitas helped revolutionize the position in an earlier era, so did Peyton in his time. Not many players could call their own game, and most don’t want to try. [But] Peyton was in such complete command of the offense. His, and his family’s, love of the game and interest in the quarterback position led to the Manning Passing Academy, [which] shaped many young talents into collegiate and professional players. Among the legacies Peyton has, bettering the position, the sport and others’ lives—to me—would be among his biggest contributions. Peyton also won, won big, won often and won honestly—and that’s the most important barometer in sports and life.
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