INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Bert Owens is just one of the countless Colts fans with broken hearts.
“I’m sad I didn’t get to relish his last games with us because I didn’t know they would be,” the 56-year-old Owens said after the Colts released Peyton Manning. “It’s going to take some years for us to rise again.”
The dismay stretched from the streets of Indy to the governor’s office and beyond as Manning said goodbye, standing beside team owner Jim Irsay.
“I sure have loved playing football for the Indianapolis Colts,” Manning said. “For 14 wonderful years, the only professional football I’ve known has been Colts football.”
The move brings an end to a golden run in a city that Manning helped turn into an NFL power. He changed the sports hierarchy here after Indy for decades was known simply as the home of the Indianapolis 500 and the capital of a state that prized basketball over all else.
“I think in terms of the sport and the state of Indiana, he made football relevant in Indiana,” former Colts executive Bill Polian said. “When he first arrived, Indiana was a basketball state. The pecking order was IU basketball, the Pacers, and then the Colts. Now, although IU basketball is back, and we’re thrilled about that, and the Pacers are back, and we’re thrilled about that, the Colts and football are at least sharing top billing, and that’s all due to Peyton Manning.”
Just before noon, the Indianapolis Colts Grille downtown was packed with customers waiting to watch the Manning announcement, some asking for towels and tissues in anticipation of the bad news. General manager Mike Duganier said all 66 flat-screen TVs were tuned to the news conference at full volume and the entire restaurant watched in silence.
When Manning finished speaking, the restaurant broke out in applause. Duganier quickly changed the channel to Big East basketball to lighten the mood.
“We’re a Colts grille, not a Peyton Manning grille,” Duganier said. “We’re all Peyton fans, but this is a restaurant by the Colts for Colts fans.”
Manning, who played his college ball at Tennessee and has family roots in Louisiana, has been a popular figure for years in Indianapolis. His work with kids became so prominent that St. Vincent Hospital renamed its children’s wing in his honor, and his imprint there is everywhere — autographed helmets, jerseys hanging, a painting of him in the lobby.
Manning shows up, too. Employees raved about how he comes and just walks around, no reporters in sight.
“He’s contributed in ways people can see, like his children’s hospital, but he has also done so many things that he insists no one know about,” Gov. Mitch Daniels said. “There have been countless times that he has called me when we’ve had some kind of need and said, ‘Governor, I want to help,’ and he’ll do everything but associate his name with it. We are going to miss seeing No. 18 under center for the Colts, but I am happy to hear he will continue to call Indianapolis his home. It’s not a happy day.”
Manning’s departure was news many fans expected after he missed last season, yet hoped wouldn’t come to pass.
“When the Super Bowl was here, everybody talked about our ‘Hoosier hospitality,’ and this is a part of it,” said Melody Whitlow, 52, as she learned of the news. “He’s one of our own, and he always will be.”
Larry Bird, the most famous Hoosier of all from his storied prep days to Indiana State to the NBA, agreed.
“Peyton Manning is the best professional athlete to ever play in Indianapolis, truly a one-of-a-kind player, maybe a once-in-a-lifetime player,” said Bird, now the president of basketball operations for the Pacers. “Being a small market, having a player like him come here and do what he did on and off the field is remarkable … We wish him nothing but the best.”
By restoring the Colts’ once-proud tradition, Manning also helped Irsay make the case for a new stadium to local and state government leaders. Irsay later went to other owners and encouraged them to give Indy its first Super Bowl, which came off without a hitch just a few weeks ago as Manning watched his younger brother, Eli, win another championship with the New York Giants.
There seemed to be as many No. 18 jerseys in the crowds that week as anyone else’s.
“As difficult as this day is, it’s made difficult because of the greatness and the things Peyton has done for our city, for our state, for our franchise,” Irsay said.
One of Manning’s signature moments came when he led the Colts to a 38-34 comeback victory over Tom Brady’s New England Patriots in the 2007 AFC championship game in Indianapolis. The Colts went on to defeat the Chicago Bears in the Super Bowl, and Manning took Reggie Miller’s mantle as the city’s favorite athlete for good.
“From all of us (hash)18 fans, I just want to say thank you for what you did for the city,” Miller tweeted. “Thank you for being a LOYAL friend back in the day, you and your family will always be my FAM!!!!!”
Manning plans to live in Indy, even after he moves on to a different team, and he will continue his partnership with the children’s hospital, too.
In part because Manning has been so engaged in the community, fans wished him well. Mayor Greg Ballard said Manning would “always be a Colt and a part of our Indianapolis community.”
“This was a basketball town before Peyton,” said Bill Benner, a longtime local sports writer and currently an official with the Horizon League. “He elevated football to a level I don’t think would have happened otherwise … All of us who’ve grown up here would have wished this ended some other way, but the circumstances were so incredibly unique.”
It’s more than just that rocket right arm that will be missed, too.
“On every front — for the sport, in the state, in the community and for the franchise — he’s been arguably, and maybe unarguably, its greatest player and greatest representative,” Polian said.
Owens said he hoped Manning can someday return to the game’s greatest stage.
He added: “Wherever he lands, I hope he can continue the game, and I hope he sees another Super Bowl,” Owens said. “But if he goes off and is really successful, it’s going to be like, ‘Man, we could’ve still had him.’”
Associated Press writer Carrie Schedler contributed to this report.
Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/cliffbruntap
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