Manning's return causes dilemma in Indianapolis
Jeff Saturday is torn.
It was here, in Indianapolis, where he got a legitimate chance to make an NFL roster. It was here he earned five Pro Bowl trips, won two AFC titles and a Super Bowl ring, and became one of the city's favorite players. It is here where he still lives and works, returning after one final NFL season in Green Bay, and it is here where he will always be known for snapping the ball to Peyton Manning.
Choosing sides for Sunday night's showdown between Manning's Broncos and his former team, the Colts, is a real struggle.
''There's a love for your home city because you want them to get the win,'' Saturday said. ''But my friendship with Peyton makes it tough.''
Saturday finds himself in good company this weekend as Indy prepares to welcome back the man who turned a basketball town into a football power.
In some ways, it's like Manning never left. The city's northwest side remains the home of Peyton Manning Children's Hospital at St.Vincent. Manning returns each spring to host the hospital's biggest fundraiser.
Downtown there is Lucas Oil Stadium, the house built by Manning and a finalist to host its second Super Bowl. Indy's season-ticket waiting list is at about 8,000, a drastic improvement for a team that spent the first third of Manning's career trying to avoid blackouts almost on a weekly basis.
And there are still plenty of blue No. 18 jerseys at home games, some trimmed in Colts' white and others in Broncos' orange.
Fans here will likely revere Manning forever.
''He changed the culture of football in Indiana. This was such a basketball state for so many years, and the Colts were kind of an afterthought. Watching him go from a kid to who he is now, I just think it will be really neat (Sunday),'' said Dom Battinau, who played college football in Indy and now lives with his family in suburban Greenwood. ''The fact that we're blessed with Andrew Luck, I think, helps temper that (loss) a little bit. So you want to see him (Manning) throw for 400 yards and seven TDs and see the Colts win because I'm a Colts fan first.''
It's a common refrain in Indy even though some interpreted this week's comments from team owner Jim Irsay as a ''cheap shot.''
The truth is, Irsay understands exactly what Manning meant to this city and franchise, erasing the image of being a league-wide afterthought by making the Colts a perennial Super Bowl contender.
Manning understands, too, which is why he explained during his final news conference in Indy, in March 2012, that the decision to part ways with the Colts wasn't his or Irsay's. It was simply a perfect storm - Manning was due a $28 million bonus after missing the entire 2011 season with an almost unprecedented injury for a quarterback and Indy had the No. 1 pick and a chance to rebuild with the best quarterback prospect since Manning in 1998.
Fans who didn't want to see him go are eager to see him return.
''A lot of people still root for him, so I think there will be a big pro-Manning presence,'' said Gary Knight, a 43-year-old season-ticket holder since 1984. ''But I'd be surprised if there were any boos.''
Collegial reunions of this sort are a rarity in the NFL.
Despite the brewing storm over Irsay's comments, which he first made months ago, even the Colts owner doesn't want to hear boos for what he has called the most beloved player in franchise history. A pregame tribute is planned.
''I think you know there's just so much love and affection for him, and when our players come back, we do a tribute on the big screen and stuff, so it's just going to be one of the most exciting and anticipated games in the history of the league and the history of our franchise,'' Irsay told The Associated Press before training camp. ''It's one of those dramatic, just sort of conflicted, anticipated games and I think that's what it's about in sports.''
Pro Bowl receiver Reggie Wayne, one of Manning's favorite targets in Indy, isn't conflicted at all. Neither are his teammates, who repeatedly said Wednesday they wouldn't treat Sunday's game as anything out of the ordinary.
''I'm just ready to play ball and get it over with,'' Wayne said Wednesday. ''It's like the Ringling Brothers, man.''
Perhaps nobody understands better than Saturday what to expect Sunday night.
A year ago, Saturday came back with the Packers - less than a week after the Colts announced coach Chuck Pagano would be out indefinitely after being diagnosed with leukemia.
Saturday wore a CHUCKSTRONG T-shirt during warm-ups, and then between the third and fourth quarters, his highlight reel played on the big screen. The fans roared with approval even though the Packers were leading 27-19 at the time.
''I watched it, and it meant a lot to me,'' Saturday said. ''What I remember most was that (Packers coach) Mike McCarthy came up to me the Monday after the game and said, `That's one of the best, if not the best, tributes I've ever seen for a player and how much class the city of Indianapolis has.' He said, `Even though we lost, hold onto that moment.'''
Now it will be Manning's turn to be honored. Saturday, who will be on the opposing sideline, will be cheering for the Colts, the team that employs him, and at the same time his close buddy Manning.
''I think you'll definitely see a ton of 18s in the crowd, and there will be a lot of Denver 18s and Indianapolis 18s and he deserves that. He's earned it,'' Saturday said. ''But I think Indianapolis Colts fans definitely want the Colts to win, no matter what.''