DENVER — Before Denver, before Super Bowl wins, before football immortality, there were mai tais.
Peyton Manning and John Lynch, longtime competitors, formed a friendship at the Pro Bowl with talks about the game’s nuances that admittedly bored their wives to exhaustion. Greatness is found in boredom, the desire to wring the most out of every practice rep and every detail out of another competitor’s brain.
Having a few drinks didn’t hurt either.
“We billed those to a rookie at the Pro Bowl who was there for the first time. I think one year it was a kicker from Buffalo,” Manning deadpanned Sunday during a press conference.
Manning and Lynch shared the sport’s greatest honor on Saturday night, elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. They also feature a common thread, both finishing the final four years of their career in Denver. Lynch failed to win another title, but earned Ring of Fame honors. While a risk because of a serious neck injury, Manning became the greatest free agent signing ever, compiling a 45-12 record in Denver, leading the team to four AFC West titles, two Super Bowls and the championship in 2015 in his last game.
Sunday, the former Broncos legends reflected on their experience in Denver, where they found success and homes. Lynch lived in Colorado for 11 years before landing the San Francisco 49ers GM job. Manning still makes his primary residence not far from UCHealth Center where he changed the culture, the appeal and the popularity of the franchise from the moment he signed.
“It was an anxious period of time coming to Denver. It was anxious period of time coming off an injury, learning new teammates and new coaches, a lot of the same things that Tom Brady is having to go through right now (with Tampa Bay),” Manning said.
“I was nervous. I did not know how it was going to play out. But Denver, the Broncos organization, John Elway, John Fox, Mr. (Pat) Bowlen — I remember having a couple of conversations with him that first year even though his health was declining — everybody made me feel welcome. That was really helpful in this transition period and second chapter of my football career. I just felt really lucky to play four years there and be a part of another championship team.”
For Lynch, he arrived in Denver, too, trailed by doubts. He had an injury that spurred his exit from Tampa Bay, a team he helped lead to a Super Bowl win. With the Broncos, he found a home as a leader on the field and in the community.
“Going to a new team, driving to work is different. It kind of wakes up your senses,” Lynch said.
“Peyton can attest to this because he’s still living there, and I promised him I would be there forever when we recruited him to Denver, it was such a great place to live. Such a first-class organization: Mike Shanahan, Pat Bowlen, Greek the trainer (Steve Antonopulos). They just did things right. Mr. Bowlen was such a tremendous man. He was all about winning and all about facilitating anything it took to win. He was an owner who was there all the time, but he wasn’t doing people’s jobs for them. He was there to let you know he cared.”
Manning reciprocated in ways unimaginable even by his standards. He was a first-ballot Hall of Famer had he never played a snap for the Broncos. However, he won his fifth MVP for Denver, throwing for an NFL record 55 touchdowns in 2013. Then, he returned from a foot injury to help the Broncos cross the finish line for the Super Bowl 50 victory.
“Peyton at 70 percent,” star linebacker DeMarcus Ware, eligible for the Hall of Fame next year, told Denver7, “made us 100 percent.”
Manning remains involved in football, hosting “Peyton’s Places” on ESPN that documents unique NFL stories. It made reaching the Hall of Fame even more special. Perhaps no player knows and understands the history of the game like Manning. When he learned of his election, he called his parents Archie and Olivia, who were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary.
They were thrilled. Peyton had come full circle. He followed in Archie’s footsteps into the NFL. Now, his father will present him at the Hall of Fame in August.
“He’s certainly proud,” Manning said. “I am thankful for all of his support.”