It was December of 2010. Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck had just put the finishing touches on a remarkable collegiate season that catapulted him into the NFL’s top draft position. He was crowned as the greatest quarterback coming of the collegiate ranks since Peyton Manning and John Elway. Luck was the unanimous number 1 choice, barring of course that he would declare for the draft. He had many factors to consider. He wanted to finish his education and enjoy his senior year but saw the allure of the NFL right before his eyes. So, like many college athletes making this kind of decision, Luck consulted with his confidants. He spoke with his father and mother. He talked with his uncle, who would later go on to be his agent in the NFL. But there was one person that Luck spoke to that may have had the biggest influence on his decision.
In 1997, University of Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning had just completed his junior season. Manning had a phenomenal season and was the consensus number 1 pick in the upcoming draft. He was being touted as the best quarterback coming out of college since John Elway. Yet, Manning was wavering on whether to declare for the draft or not. Finally though, Manning decided to forgo the NFL for one more year and instead opted to finish his senior year. He would win the Maxwell Award that year and would finish 2nd in the Heisman Trophy voting. The Indianapolis Colts would be number 1 on the clock in that upcoming draft.
With Andrew Luck pondering his return to Stanford, his father advised that he should speak to Peyton Manning. The Luck and Manning family have had a uniquely tied history that spans over 30 years. Oliver Luck, Andrew’s father, had played in the NFL for the Houston Oilers and played on the same roster as Peyton’s father, Archie Manning. The two shared a good friendship during their time in Houston. Archie would have Oliver pick up his two sons and occupy them by taking them for milkshakes and burgers while Archie would finish errands and the like before the boys arrived. “It was my job to pick them up and occupy them with ice cream or hamburgers so Arch could get treatment or run errands or just get a few things done before the boys arrived,” said Luck.
“But the RX-7 was a hatchback and it only had two seats. So we had to squeeze both kids in or, sometimes, one went back into the hatchback. I’m guessing it was Peyton since he was younger. He would have been 6 at the time, I think. Looking back now, 30 years later, I realize how valuable the cargo was that I was carrying back there.”
Fast-forward to 2010 and we find Oliver Luck’s son talking to one of those Manning boys that Oliver was driving around in the 1980’s.
“Before he made his decision he had a couple of long conversations with Peyton,” Oliver Luck said. “Archie and I played together way back when with the old Houston Oilers, so we’ve known the family, and Peyton’s kind of acted like a mentor to Andrew. So he got advice not just from his old man and his mom, but some people like Peyton Manning, Eli and others who have gone through it.” Even before this conversation however, Peyton had mentored Andrew at his annual passing academy camp. “Andrew got a chance to go to the Manning Passing Academy in high school, and maybe twice as a college kid,” Oliver Luck said. “While in high school, you don’t just get to see the college and pro guys, but you get to test yourself against kids from around the country, to see where you stack up. As a counselor, you get to spend time with Peyton and Eli, and you get to ask questions and get straight answers and begin to understand what sort of an attitude and approach you need as a professional.”
Luck decided to stay and finish his senior year at Stanford. He would finish 2nd in Heisman Trophy voting and win the Maxwell award, in similar fashion to the quarterback and mentor he would soon succeed. How much did those conversations with Peyton influence him to stay? One is lead to believe that it’d be more than people think. That upcoming NFL season would be one that would change the NFL landscape for years to come. Peyton Manning had 4 neck surgeries and missed the entire season. The Colts finished 2-14 without Manning in the lineup. Once again, the Indianapolis Colts were in position to take another once-in-a-generation quarterback.
Andrew Luck declared for the draft and was once again the consensus number 1 pick. The NFL combine was quickly approaching with Andrew Luck and other top prospects in attendance. At the combine, Luck was asked about whom was his hero growing up. His answer wasn’t too surprising.
“Peyton was my hero growing up,” Luck said. “He was my football hero. That’s who I modeled myself after in high school, middle school, whatever it was. You never truly replace a guy like that.” Admittedly, I admit bias here and believe that in large part because of Peyton and his influence, Andrew stayed and finished out his senior year.It’s not because I am a Peyton Manning or Colts fan, but because I know what its like to look up to someone in that same way that Andrew did.
Like Andrew Luck, my childhood hero was Peyton Manning. I remember begging my mom to let me stay up late on Monday night games to watch the Colts. When my friends and me would play pickup football games, I would imitate Peyton and his pre-snap gyrations and mannerisms. I grew up watching Peyton lead countless comebacks and win game after game, season after season. Growing up in Indianapolis in the 2000’s, it was inescapable. I had always pondered if there would ever one day be a quarterback to come in the NFL that would be from my generation and be influenced by Peyton in the way that I and so many other kids had.
In the late 2000’s, I started to see the beginning of the end of the Manning era. The Colts were no longer that 12 win-a-year juggernaut and Peyton Manning was approaching his mid thirty’s. It was 2010 and I had just graduated high school with a new era in my life about to begin. I started college in the spring of 2011 but did not have much of an idea of what I really wanted to do with my life. Around that time, my cousin was getting married with family and friends coming in from all across the country for it. My dad had talked about my cousin George and the success he had out in Colorado and suggested that I should talk to him at the wedding. I knew of George growing up but didn’t really know him too well.
So at the wedding, I approached George and struck up a conversation with him. We talked about the Colts and how much of a fan he was too. He had moved to Denver from Indianapolis in 1998, the same year the Colts had drafted Peyton Manning. Indianapolis was his home. He had many friends and family still here in the city he once called home. He became a Broncos season-ticket holder and would cheer on the Broncos every Sunday. Until of course the Colts would come to Denver. He would show up to those select few games in a Colts jersey, much to the lighthearted dismay of friends that would see him at the other 7 games of the year in a Broncos jersey. He was there for that 2002 snow game where Mike Vanderjagt kicked those 2 50+ yard field goals to tie and win the game. He was older than me, around the same age as Peyton Manning. In talking to him, I felt like I knew him the entire time I was growing up. We shared a lot in common. We talked about my plans for college and career and I believe he could sense that I wasn’t too sure of what I wanted to do. He invited me to come to Denver that summer to spend time with him and his family.
That trip to Denver changed me in the most positive of ways. I remember spending nights talking with George about his experiences and how he had worked to get where he was today. It would be the first of many trips I would take over the next 3 years to Colorado. I started to see him in a lot of ways that I saw Peyton Manning. Although I have never met Peyton, ask any boy that grew up watching and idolizing him and they’ll tell you they know him. George became that mentor and older brother that I had never had. He offered advice and words of encouragement that would help me become the person I am today. I found parallels and ambitions in my life that mirrored his own. While I was on that first trip, I remember I talked to him about the upcoming 2011 Colts season and how they would likely once again win the division and get back to the post-season. Little did we know how much the season would make the parallels we shared grow.
When Peyton Manning signed with the Denver Broncos, I knew that George would likely relinquish the Colts as his number 1 team. Peyton was his favorite player and by the time 2012 rolled around, he had lived longer in Denver than he had in Indianapolis. He knew that the Broncos were getting something special. He shared a common bond with Peyton Manning and now that player would be playing for the team he cheered for on Sunday afternoons. Fate could not have written a more unique script. The picture was now coming full circle. He would always have love for the Colts and cheer for them but the Broncos were now number 1.
On the other hand, I had found parallels in my own life to Andrew Luck, who was on his way to becoming the next star in the NFL. Like Andrew, I too grew up watching and idolizing Peyton Manning and came from the same generation as he did. He was that quarterback that I thought would one day enter the league that grew up idolizing Peyton Manning the way that I had. The only player in the last 10 years to be compared to Peyton Manning is the only rightful one to succeed him in Indianapolis. The picture was now becoming fully complete. The pupil was destined to succeed the mentor in the same city, for the same team.
The Colts will travel to Denver this weekend to play the Broncos in the AFC Divisional Playoffs with the stakes being as high as they’ve ever been. I still watch Peyton and cheer him on the same way you would cheer for your older brother. Until of course, he play’s your team. It’ll be pupil vs. mentor. king vs. heir apparent. Luck vs. Manning. Or as I like to see it, Rick vs. George.