Homecomings as monumental as Peyton Manning's return to Indianapolis are rare in the sports world. We make such a big fuss over the minor ones -- OMG, Greg Jennings returns to Green Bay next month! -- that it is easy to be cynical about the major ones. But Manning's return is unique. He defined Colts football for over a decade. He left amid a swirl of secrecy, speculation, mixed messages and mixed emotions. And now he is back, still at the top of his game, to (get ready for the sportswriter cliché) walk into that visitor's locker room for the first time!
First-ballot, civic-institution Hall of Famers like Manning just don't return home as players very often. Here are five examples from the last century of Manning-level legends returning home with rival teams. The fans who grew up with the superstar usually cheer, occasionally boo and sometimes even shrug a little. The players are sometimes seeking revenge or redemption, though they are usually just looking for a win. And whether its 2013 or 1927, the return of a champion is always a remarkable event.
Honorable Mention: Brett Favre returns to Green Bay, 2009
Favre had a tremendous game when he returned to Lambeau Field as the quarterback of the Minnesota Vikings: 244 yards and four touchdowns in a 38-26 win. And of course, his return was a big deal. Too big a deal. Something about late-career Favre -- and our simultaneously fawning and exasperated coverage of late-career Favre -- activated the typical fan's gag reflex instead of the childlike sense of wonder. "The statute of limitations has expired on 'Favre's Return Home' story lines," some smart-aleck humorist for The New York Times would later write. "The dead horse has been flogged, and the bloggers have flogged the floggers, so it's time to move on to a more interesting subject."
A decade from now, it will be easier to look back fondly on Favre's final seasons. A few of the players on the list below were considered overexposed egomaniacs who did not know when to retire, too. Time smooths and balances our perceptions a bit.
No. 5: Marcus Allen returns to face the Raiders, 1993
"As homecomings go, Marcus Allen's had everything except a yellow ribbon," reported the Long Beach Press-Telegram. If Al Davis had his way, it would have included a firing squad.
It was a miracle that Raiders fans remembered Allen at all after Davis spent half a decade trying to make him disappear. Allen was a superstar from 1982 through 1985, but a mysterious rift developed between the hero of Super Bowl XVIII and the increasingly unpredictable owner. Money was part of the problem, with Allen holding out several times and Davis refusing to budge. But there was more to it than that, including Davis' hints that Allen hid dark, mysterious secrets (Drugs? Gang activity? An island full of human/animal hybrids?). The owner and running back rarely spoke, and Davis ordered his coaches to shoot themselves in the foot by starting the likes of Vance Mueller over Allen. By 1992, Allen was 32 years old and behind Nick Bell on the Raiders depth chart. Davis skullduggery aside, it was easy to assume that Allen's career had been frittered away by the conflict.
But Raiders fans did not forget Allen, and they did not nibble at Davis' dark allegation bait. A large group of Raiders fans cheered for Allen as he walked off the Chiefs team bus hours before the game on Nov. 14, 1993. A crowd of 66,553 fans attended the game at the Los Angeles Coliseum, well above the Raiders home average. As Bob Keisser wrote in the Press-Telegram, there was even a yellow billboard right in front of the stadium, a gift from a Kansas City radio station:
"To: Al Davis football team.
Re: Commitment to Excellence."
And then, in big red letters,
"HA HA HA HA HA HA!"
Allen had the last laugh. The Raiders took a 14-0 lead, but Allen reproduced a facsimile of his legendary Super Bowl touchdown by cutting back across the field and gaining 39 yards to set himself up for a short touchdown. Later, he dove into the line after a play-action fake, and so many Raiders defenders plunged after him that Willie Davis enjoyed single-coverage up the sideline; Dave Krieg had plenty of time to throw a 66-yard touchdown pass. The Chiefs won 31-20. Allen rushed for 85 yards.
After the game, Allen wished former teammates well and tried to be conciliatory toward his former boss. "The thing between me and Al has been perpetuated a little by me and a little by the press,'' Allen said. "I think the media makes more out of this than there is."
But some Raiders fans had no problem taking sides. John Nadel of the Associated Press reported that after Allen's 39-yard cutback run, a fan just below the press box was seen turning and shouting toward Davis' personal suite. "Nice move, idiot!" he yelled.
Allen would eventually rush for 617 yards in 10 games against the Raiders -- nine of them victories for the Chiefs.
No. 4: Michael Jordan returns to Chicago, 2002
Michael Jordan never had to share the spotlight when he played for the Chicago Bulls; even the great Scottie Pippen was never more than a sidekick. But when Jordan returned to Chicago with the Washington Wizards on Jan. 19, 2002, he had a hard time getting the Windy City's attention. The Bulls were 8-30, Jordan's Wizards were 18-18, and his tenure as a player/president/part-owner, after a series of retirements, had begun to look like a vanity project. Meanwhile, the Bears were hosting the Eagles in the playoffs at Soldier Field later in the day. Given the choice between the spectacle of an old legend's return and in-the-now Super Bowl hopes for Da Bears, many fans in Chicago made a predictable choice.
"The breakdown of conversation topics -- in the media, the bars and the barbershops-goes (1) Bears; (2) Philadelphia Eagle quarterback Donovan McNabb, a Chicago native, comes home to play the Bears; (3) How will the Bears stop McNabb? (4) The last time the Eagles and Bears played at Soldier Field, in the infamous Fog Bowl," wrote J.A. Adande in the Los Angeles Times. "The difference between the Bulls and the Bears is like the difference between something you bought and something you inherited."
That's not to say that Jordan was overlooked. NBC made Bulls-Wizards its nation showcase game, though the Bulls were about as watchable as a court re-varnishing. A sellout crowd gave Jordan a three-minute ovation during pregame announcements. When he hit a routine first-quarter basket, "fans yelled as if it were a game winner," reported Nancy Armour for the Associated Press.
Reality soon set in: Jordan was not the Jordan of old, and neither team was any good. The combined shooting percentage in the ugly 77-69 Wizards win was 29.8 percent. Jordan scored 16 points and collected 12 rebounds, but he also committed nine turnovers and was 7-of-21 from the field. "It wasn't a pretty game," Jordan said. "Both teams were pretty much hyped, wanted to play well. A lot had been made of the game."
Jordan received one last ovation from Bulls fans as he headed for the tunnel after greeting some former teammates after the game. It was one of the last Chicago cheers of that busy January day: The Bears lost a few hours later to the Eagles.
No. 3: Paul Brown returns to Cleveland, 1970
Paul Brown tried to act like Week 4 of the 1970 season was just another week. "I've been through so many Sunday afternoons and so many games, it will be just another game," he told the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
No one bought it. Even the unflappable Brown quickly admitted that his return to Cleveland was no ordinary road trip. "I won't deny it, I left a lot of my life there, along with my family," he said.
It is not every day that a coach faces a team that is named after him. Brown organized, founded and essentially willed the Cleveland Browns into existence. He kicked down the doors of the NFL from the upstart AAFC in the 1940s with a franchise so excellent it demanded a league merger. He gave the football world Otto Graham, Marion Motley, Jim Brown and many of the coaching and strategic principles we take for granted today.
Then, after the 1962 season, he was fired. Art Modell bought a controlling interested in the team a year earlier, then unceremoniously dumped Brown after a 7-6-1 record. There were rumors that Brown had lost the respect of team veterans and that the game was passing him by. To this day, Bengals president Mike Brown believes that Modell fired Brown over a simple power struggle: Modell wanted absolute control, and he could never have that when the guy the team who founded the team still wore a whistle around his neck. Either way, a man synonymous with his team was no longer with his team.
Eight years later, Brown was back. He purchased the AFL Cincinnati Bengals in 1968, and when the AFL and NFL merged, the Bengals and Browns were plopped into the same division. That meant two meetings per year between Ohio teams so similar, down to the orange uniforms, that their meetings would look like intra-squad practices. And of course, it meant Brown would face the Browns. "I've only been in downtown Cleveland once since I left," he said.
A crowd of more than 80,000 attended the game, though sellouts were a weekly affair in Cleveland then. Bengals quarterback Virgil Carter completed his first nine passes to take a 10-0 lead. Carter, a smart, weak-armed scrambler, was making his first Bengals start in relief of injured flamethrower Greg Cook. Brown and one of his young assistants developed a special game plan for Carter that involved short dropbacks and quick throws, a far cry from the bombs-away tactics of the era.
But the Browns were a very good team in 1970, while the Bengals were a still-growing expansion team from a rival league. Leroy Kelly scored two touchdowns in a 30-28 Cleveland win. After the game, Brown turned and headed for the locker room without shaking hands with Blanton Collier, Browns coach and longtime Brown lieutenant.
The handshake "snub" was as big a deal as any Belichick-Ryan or Harbaugh-Schwartz postgame incident today. During a preseason game between the Bengals and Browns, television cameras caught Collier running to the middle of the field and watching in apparent confusion as his former boss cold-shouldered him. So when Brown did the same thing after the regular-season loss, boos rained down from Browns fans upon the man who made Browns fans possible.
But Brown had not shaken hands with an opposing coach in years; the AFL banned the practice after some incidents. "You never know when someone is going to come out and take a swing at you," he said, adding that he had spoken with Collier before both games.
Boos aside, Brown's Cleveland return was a true homecoming for the low-key coach. "There were so many people who said hello to me on the way in. It seemed as if every policeman and everyone else wanted to great me. It was nice," he said. Legends like Otto Graham were also there; Graham had become a Bengals announcer. The Cleveland Plain-Dealer reported that Graham asked Brown in the locker room if the team bus was heading straight to the airport. "Sure, do you want to hitch a ride?" Come on," the coach replied. With that, two Cleveland legends walked out of the stadium together.
Brown's influence on the NFL did not end when he left Cleveland that day. In fact, a new chapter was just beginning. The young assistant scheming to protect the weak-armed Carter was Bill Walsh, and the system that turned the Bengals into a quick-passing playoff team grew into the West Coast Offense.
No. 2: Ty Cobb returns to Detroit, 1927
Ty Cobb left the Detroit Tigers under clouds of suspicion. He was coerced into retirement by American League president Ban Johnson under allegations that he had conspired to fix games nearly a decade earlier. Baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis reinstated Cobb in January of 1927, but the Tigers did not want him back. Despite a .339 batting average, Cobb was considered washed-up as a player, and of course was never a fun guy to deal with. But Connie Mack offered Cobb an enormous salary to join the Philadelphia Athletics, and Cobb agreed, mainly to seek revenge on those who tried to run him out of the league.
The city of Detroit had every reason to be tired of Cobb, if not outright suspicious, when he returned to face the Tigers on May 9, 1927. Instead, they gave him the Roaring 20's royal treatment. "The welcoming celebration for the former Detroit manager began shortly after he stepped off a boat from Cleveland with the remainder of the Philadelphia team and was climaxed shortly before game time with the presentation at the ball park of an automobile and other gifts," read a newspaper account of his return. "A testimonial luncheon at noon at the Masonic temple preceded a parade to Navin Field."
Thirty thousand fans showed up to watch Cobb. Another 1,100 attended the luncheon, with more than 300 more watching from the balcony. The mayor of Detroit attended, as well as both managers, legendary University of Michigan coach Fielding Yost, and Michigan football star Benny Friedman. The event might well have been fans' only chance to see Cobb. Lingering residue over the game-fixing scandal, and an escalating power struggle between Johnson and Landis, provoked the American League president to consider banning Cobb from playing in Detroit. Johnson acquiesced just days before the Athletics' arrival. As usual, Mack batted Cobb third and placed him in right field.
Cobb doubled in the first inning, knocking in Eddie Collins and later scoring on an Al Simmons single to give the Athletics a lead they would never relinquish in the 6-3 win. He left the game for a pinch runner to nurse a lingering injury in the seventh inning. Legendary columnist Frank G. Menke weighed in on Cobb's merits after the game. "Cobb has been hitting in superb fashion; his fielding has been brilliant, and his work on the bases is fascinating to watch," Menke wrote. "Old as he is, 'ruin; that he is, he is near the top in the matter of pilfered sacks." After the game, Cobb attended a dinner sponsored by the Detroit Intercollegiate Alumni Association.
Cobb collected his 4,000th hit on a return visit to Detroit later in the summer. He also batter .357 and scored 104 runs for a team that won 91 games. But neither the hit nor Cobb's resurgence got much attention, in part because baseball milestones did not mean as much then, but mostly because the summer and fall of 1927 belonged to Babe Ruth.
No. 1: Gordie Howe returns to Detroit, 1980
By the time Gordie Howe returned to the NHL in 1980, he had transcended the "institution" and "living legend" labels to become something unprecedented in sports history. Red Wings fans bid the 43-year old farewell after the 1971 season; as he disappeared into a mostly-honorary front office job, no one could imagine that he would take the ice in anything but an old-timers game, much less as a rival.
But Howe was back in 1979-80, after abandoning his desk and spending nearly a decade in the World Hockey Association, sharing the ice with his son Mark for the post-merger Hartford Whalers. Unlike kicker George Blanda or pinch-hitting first base coach Minnie Minoso, Gordie Howe was an everyday regular player. And he would turn 52 years old before the playoffs.
"Howe has received stupendous ovations wherever he has played in this, his 32nd season," E.M. Swift wrote for Sports Illustrated in 1980. The first applause of the game was for Howe's career and accomplishments, Swift wrote. But "as their hands warm to the occasion, fans applaud Howe for what he gives them now. For enduring. Suddenly there are two different games on the ice: the home team against the Whalers and Howe against Papa Time." Road crowds often cheered Howe goals, even in close games.
But Detroit was no ordinary road city when the Whalers arrived on Jan. 12. Howe played for the Red Wings from 1946 through 1971, leading the team to four Stanley Cups and making a generation's worth of All-Star teams. "A crowd of nearly 21,000, that showed up for Howe's return to the city where he first gained National Hockey League glory, didn't know whether to cheer or cry," wrote the Hartford Courant. "They finally opted to cheer."
Four-and-a-half minutes into the game, Howe crossed the blue line on a breakaway but was caught from behind and tripped by a Red Wings defensemen; newspapers showed a photo of Howe toppling to the ice at a 45-degree angle. The Whalers scored on the resulting power play, and went on to win 6-4, snapping a nine-game non-winning streak. Howe played most of his shifts without incident, though when a fan tossed a dead octopus onto the ice during one of his face-offs, Howe drew cheers for skating off the ice with the invertebrate on his stick. Fans chanted "Gordie, Gordie" as he left the ice.
Howe returned to Detroit three weeks later, this time as a Wales Conference All-Star. Joe Louis Arena announcer John Bell saved Howe's introduction for last, and saw no need to address him by name: "And from the Hartford Whalers, representing all of hockey, the greatest statesman for five decades, number nine!" The ensuing ovation lasted over four minutes. Late in the game, Howe stole the puck and threaded a pass to Real Cloutier: his last All-Star assist before a crowd that not only grew up with him, but grew old with him.
But back to that regular-season Red Wings-Whalers game. After it ended, Howe dropped a bombshell on reporters, which, knowing Howe, should not have been a bombshell at all. "I still want to play in the NHL with my son Marty," he said, meaning that his final season might not be quite so final.
Howe did retire, only returning to the ice for one honorary minor-league shift in the 1990s to become the only person to play professional hockey in six different decades. But in 1980, even at age 52, it was not crazy to consider one last season. He played all 80 games of the 1979-80 regular season, recorded a goal and an assist in the playoffs, and treated Detroit and the whole NHL to one of the most amazing final seasons -- don't call it a farewell tour -- in sports history.