The clock in the hotel room shows 9:45 p.m. Peyton Manning is standing in somewhere between the bed and the television set holding a football, as if he is taking a snap from center. On one side of him is Emmanuel Sanders. On the other, Cody Latimer. The wide receivers were summoned by Manning, as they have been many nights before. For 20 minutes at the end of a long day at the team hotel during training camp, Manning is working with two new acquisitions so they are on the same page with cadence, code words and signs. They have to know him. He has to know them. Sleep can wait.
The three of them had gone through the same routine on the field after practice that afternoon, when almost every other player had left the field and moved on to eating lunch, returning texts or vegging out.
Omaha, indeed. Peyton Manning is 38 years old and has been in the NFL for 15 seasons. He has a Super Bowl ring. He has five MVP awards, more than anyone ever, and 13 Pro Bowl selections, more than any quarterback ever. He came back to play football after the type of injury that has convinced many others to retire. If great seasons are measured by passing yards or touchdown passes, he had the greatest regular season by a quarterback in NFL history in 2013. Then he lost in the Super Bowl.
Now what the hell is he doing standing in a hotel room at 9:45 at night, gesturing and yelling calls at two puzzled wide receivers? No one does this. Shouldn't he be softening, tiring and losing his edge by now? Isn't there a cold beer waiting for him somewhere? A foot rub, maybe?
To understand where Manning is today, we have to start in Philadelphia, Miss., at a store called Williams Brothers. In 1907 when it opened, it was a solid business. In 2014, it is a phenomenon -- a general store from another time that draws customers from states all over the South. They walk in and point to smoked hams and horse collars hanging from the ceiling. They stare at photos of the store's history hanging on the walls. They go home with overhauls, hoop cheese, barbed wire, animal feed, sugar cane and cowboy boots. The original owner, Cooper Williams, ran the business from behind the bacon cutter. His son Sid Williams can be found there today, slicing meat, wrapping it and using a marker to write down the cost on butcher paper. The place is known for its hospitality and its commitment to quality. They carry your purchases out to your car with a smile, and call you "Sir" or "Ma'am." When a Wal-Mart opened in the area a few years back, it did not put a dent in Williams Brothers' business.
How does a quarterback continue to thrive after 240 games in the NFL? The same way a general store continues to thrive after 107 years. Cooper Williams had a daughter named Olivia. Olivia married Archie Manning. Peyton is their son. Sid is Peyton's uncle. Peyton and his brothers Eli and Cooper worked at Williams Brothers when they were kids. This is their family business, and a place where they learned to do things the right way.
Young Peyton also learned from watching dad. You know Archie Manning was a pretty good quarterback himself. No player on the New Orleans Saints was issued No. 8 after Archie turned his jersey in. When Archie was but a child, his dream was to become the quarterback for Ole Miss. Through the force of his will, Archie made his dream come true.
Archie was the valedictorian in his high school class. His old cronies tell a story. When friends asked Archie to go skeet shooting for the first time, he agreed to go only after practicing first. "He would never put himself in a situation in which he was not prepared," said Duke head coach David Cutcliffe, a family friend of the Mannings.
To understand where Peyton is today, we have to go back to the football field at Isidore Newman High School in New Orleans where he is throwing passes to his brother Cooper to prepare for their coming season. At this point, Archie is retired from his 13-year playing career. But he is working out like an NFL quarterback would, and Peyton is watching.
"He would still train like he was playing," Peyton said. "My dad, I'm telling you, has the most disciplined workout regime of anybody I've ever known. He's never missed a day. Cooper and I would go over there to the high school and throw. My dad would be there running these 350s. A full lap around the field, he had to do them under 50 seconds with 30 seconds rest. He was doing five of them. That's what I call a healthy run. As a 15-year-old, seeing a 40-year-old work out like that, it left an impression. I could only imagine what he was like when he was 25."
Even after back surgery last July and knee replacement in June, 65-year-old Archie still gets in his workouts every morning at six. "I do believe part of this is genetic with Peyton," said Cutcliffe, who was Peyton's position coach at Tennessee and has worked with him every offseason since. "You have to look at Archie. Look at Olivia, her family. Peyton got a double dose of this driven, success-oriented DNA."
Peyton, though, is different from his brothers. Archie said when Peyton was a boy, he would hang around with Cooper and his crowd even though Peyton was two years younger. "He got pushed around a little," Archie said. "That probably helped him compete. He seemed like he was more dedicated to it, more serious, than some of his buddies were. Even a game of 20 in the backyard, he was pretty serious about it. He had good friends and he really liked them. But the ones who weren't as serious about sports as he was, he didn't have a lot of patience with."
On family vacations Peyton would sit in the back seat and pepper his father with questions. But he wasn't asking, "Are we almost there?" Or, "Do you have something to eat?" He wanted to know about how to play quarterback. He was in seventh grade when he first asked to watch game tape.
To understand where Manning is today, we have to go to the football offices in the old Neyland-Thompson Center in Knoxville, Tenn. In the weeks before Manning's first semester at Tennessee begins, his coaches find him waiting for them in their offices when they report to work in the morning. In the next few years when reporters phone the coaching office after hours, their calls sometimes are answered by Manning, who is staying late watching tape.
Manning is the best note taker Cutcliffe ever has seen. He graduated Phi Betta Kappa in three years with the highest grade point average in the speech communications major. "When he was sitting down with his tutor, I knew I best not interrupt," Cutcliffe said. Manning was selected to appear on David Letterman's show because of his achievements as a scholar-athlete, and he handled the talk show host's smart-aleck one-liners like a seasoned politician. Manning later acknowledged studying tapes of Letterman prior to his appearance.
To understand where Manning is today, we have to go to the Colts practice facility on West 56th Street in Indianapolis in 1998. When Manning reports after being picked first in the draft, his position coach Bruce Arians sets up a video machine in Manning's hotel room. The night before Manning's first minicamp practice, Arians watches tape with Manning until 3 a.m. Finally, Arians goes to bed. Manning, apparently, does not. The next day at the practice facility, Manning steps in the huddle and knows every play. Doesn't even use a wristband.
"I don't know if he even slept that night," said Arians, who now is the head coach of the Cardinals. "When he stepped in the huddle and started calling everything, the rest of the guys just stopped. It was amazing."
If Arians had a one-hour meeting scheduled with Manning, he would prepare two hours of information because Manning would go through it so quickly. "I call him The Piranha because you can't feed him enough," he said. Longtime Colts offensive coordinator Tom Moore thinks of Manning as a sponge that never reaches a saturation point.
In August of 2003 as Manning is walking off the field in Terre Haute, Ind. after a training camp practice, Manning calls over Tom Telesco, a pro scout for the Colts at the time. Manning wants to talk about the Browns, the opponent the Colts will face on opening day in five weeks. In fact, he has a very specific question about a linebacker and how he dropped on curl routes. Telesco barely has started working on the Browns. He doesn't know what to say.
"As he walked away, I'm thinking, 'If you don't have everything in order with him, you are not going to survive, because he is all football, all the time," said Telesco, now the general manager of the Chargers. "As I transitioned to a different job, I would tell our pro scouts that not every person reads all of your reports, but I guarantee you the quarterback reads every word of every report you do. So you have to be right, you have to be detailed and you better be ready to answer every question he has. He'll grab you sometimes out of the blue and ask you something. If you don't know, he won't go back to you again, he will write you off."
During Manning's heyday in Indianapolis, Colts assistant coach Clyde Christensen would receive texts and messages from Manning while Christensen was vacationing in Myrtle Beach. There was this college receiver he threw to he was excited about. He picked up a tip while talking to a coach. This high school kid really impressed him at his Manning Passing Academy. And then, when the Colts returned from summer break, Manning would have a full notebook of discussion points that had occurred to him during his vacation. Even a decade or more into his NFL career, at the start of each training camp Manning demanded that Christensen coach him as if he were a peewee quarterback. "He wanted to go over the center-quarterback exchange, how he hands the ball off, his drop, his first step, cadence, how his stance looked under center and if the knee was bent right," Christensen said. "If you tried to skip anything, he was taken aback by that. Some people would be rolling their eyes. But he was the same way every year."
To understand where Manning is today, we have to go to Pascal Field House at Duke University after Manning's fourth neck surgery. He and Cutcliffe are working hour after hour, day after day, week after week, to teach that arm to throw again and to get those damaged nerves to fire. The muscle memory that had thrown thousands of passes had been wiped clean, but his resolve was unaffected. Progress came in minute increments, but it kept coming. It is coming still.
"There was nobody there, just us," said Cutliffe, who had Manning as a houseguest for more than a month. "We filmed a little of it, but I tell him all the time I wish we had every single bit of the footage, and the audio... It would be an inspiration for a lot of people."
It was on this quiet, enclosed field where Manning previously came to Cutcliffe with his idea. He wanted to see what opponents saw when they looked at him, so he set up a camera at the spot on the field where the middle linebacker would be positioned, another where a safety would be positioned and another where a cornerback would be positioned. He does it still. "I don't know of anyone else who is doing that," Cutcliffe said. "And I hope I'm not giving away a trade secret."
To understand where Manning is today, we have to go to the practice field at the Bowlen Centre in Englewood, Colo. As Manning is preparing to play a playoff game in temperatures that are forecast to be near zero, then-Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy looks over to see Manning with his hand in a bucket of ice water. Then Manning takes his hand out and starts passing. The point? Manning wants to get a feel for what its like to throw with a hand that is numb from cold.
At one point, Manning thought having to leave the place he played his entire professional career was the worst thing that could have happened to him. But now, he sees a benefit in being forced to move. "Being in a new culture with new coaches and players has helped me," Manning said. "A lot of guys get bored. It's the same monotonous routine. One thing that helps at a later age is being stimulated. That keeps the drive there."
Losing in the Super Bowl can take the life out of a player, especially an older player who can see the sun disappearing into the horizon. For a good month or so, Manning needed to let the loss to the Seahawks settle, and to "make peace with the football gods for the year." Then, in March, around the time he took his yearly physical exam, he did what he calls a "drive check." He asked himself some tough questions. "Am I going to be all in for 2014?" he said. "Anybody can get up for a game. There is nothing like running out through that tunnel when they introduce you. It's the greatest rush you can ever have. But do you still want to do it in April? Do you want to do the running sessions? The lifting? Throwing sessions? Go through training camp?"
In the weeks that followed, Manning traveled to Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Alabama to meet with college coaches. He wanted to see if he could learn anything from them about improving his game. The week before phase one of offseason workouts began, Manning gathered Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, Julius Thomas, Andre Caldwell and others in Durham, N.C., for a week of workouts with Cutcliffe. His old coach never asked Manning about the Super Bowl loss, or where his head was. But he saw something that week. "There was a purpose," he said.
In training camp, there have been late night texts and emails to quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp. He has asked offensive assistants Brian Callahan and Bo Hardegree to prepare extra studies for him. He has called out teammates like Sanders every day when watching tape, making them prepare better than before. Denver offensive coordinator Adam Gase has noticed Manning is enjoying what could be considered the mundane aspects of being a quarterback -- studying, installing, practicing, playing in preseason games and working out. "He is eating up every minute of this," Gase said.
The Broncos really like what they see. Head coach John Fox said Manning looks physically stronger than he has at any point since they have been together. And he said Manning is throwing the football better than he has since his neck injury.
So as it turns out, the question for Manning as the 2014 season draws near should not be: Does he still have his drive? It should be this: Does he have more drive than ever?
Broncos vice president/general manager John Elway might understand where Manning is better than almost anyone. "When I was older, what drove me was to win a world championship," Elway said. "We didn't have one. He obviously has one, but the thing everyone talks about is his lack of Super Bowl wins. I think that's what still drives him. He wants another one."
The opportunities are more precious than ever because they are running out. Manning smiles and says he "doesn't have much eligibility remaining." It really is no joke to him though. "He knows he's in the fourth quarter," his father said. "When he had his neck issues most people thought he was done. That the Good Lord allowed him to come back and play some more I think made him more driven than ever."
Something is different, maybe enhanced about Manning this summer. "There is an old Southern term," Cutcliffe said. "After something like losing in the Super Bowl, you set your jaw a little differently. Maybe the jaw has been set just a little differently."
To understand where Manning is today, we have to go to a hotel room at 9:45 at night.