Indy in disbelief as Peyton welcomed

The signed photograph of Peyton Manning still hangs prominently on the oak paneled wall across from the bar at St. Elmo’s Steak House. Nobody has flipped it around. Or drawn devil’s horns on Manning’s helmeted head.

For years, Manning seemed as tied to local landscape as the venerable 110-year-old downtown restaurant. In fact, they seemed as much like partners as institutions.

It is where Manning reviewed his first contract, where he was given the secret elevator code to the wine cellar and where last month he hosted his brother for a post-Super Bowl victory dinner.

But the reality that Manning won’t be walking through a side door — or into the Colts’ locker room — has begun to hit home for residents of Indianapolis after Manning, released by the only team he had played for in a superlative 14-year career, agreed Tuesday to a five-year, $96 million contract with the Denver Broncos.

“Weird,” said Joe Smith, as he sat at the bar of another downtown watering hole, The Front Page, and watched on television as Manning, flanked by John Elway and Denver owner Pat Bowlen, held up an orange No. 18 Broncos jersey. It was a rather concrete sign that a new era is beginning in Indianapolis just as it is in Denver.

“It’s like he’s here, but he’s not here,” Smith said. “I still don’t think he’s going to play for them. Right now, I think there are more Peyton fans than there are Colts fans.”

If still stunned, the rest of the city also appears to be coming to terms with his departure in a civil fashion. There is little of the discord surrounding the Packers when Brett Favre was kicked to the curb for Aaron Rodgers. There have not yet been any cathartic jersey burnings, as there were in Cleveland when LeBron James took his talents elsewhere.

It may simply be that Indianapolis has had quite a while to prepare for this. The Colts’ season was a mess without him, sufficiently lowering expectations for next season and for Andrew Luck. And Manning has provided so much — a championship, a new stadium, voluminous charitable work — for so long that people here are happy if he’s happy.

A “Thanks, Peyton” banner hangs out in front of the Indianapolis Colts grill. Miniature Manning jerseys hung from a pet supply boutique.

Bob Kravitz, the lead sports columnist for the Indianapolis Star who has been a must-read on all things Peyton, seemed to capture this sentiment in Tuesday’s column that dominated A1.

“It just seems surreal, doesn’t it?” Kravitz began. “Weird, unsettling . . . wrong somehow. It was one thing to go through the entire divorce. But to now see the football love of our lives taking up with another team, wearing the navy and orange of the Broncos, remarried to John Elway?

“Crazy. And yet, this should be said quickly: I’m happy for him. Thrilled.”

It was indeed odd to get off a plane Monday night and turn into an airport gift shop with a rack full of blue No. 18 jerseys on sale. The adult sizes that once sold for $89.99 were discounted to $39.99.

Not far away, on a shelf, was another item that could soon be slashed: a stack of Tim Tebow autobiographies.

In talking to bartenders, rental car employees, hotel clerks and shopkeepers, they also seemed to be sorting out how they should feel. First, it seemed, they hope Manning stays healthy, that another shot doesn’t render damage that a neck surgeon can’t fix. Next, they were relieved that he didn’t end up with Tennessee, a division rival who would surely torture them twice a year.

“The only thing that would be worse than Tennessee would be New England,” Smith said.

(Manning would not face the Colts until 2013, unless it is in the playoffs — a prospect that appears unfathomable with a rookie coach, a rookie quarterback and a gutted roster.)

There have been some uncomfortable moments in this separation, for sure. With the Super Bowl coming to town, and Eli Manning being a participant, Peyton and Colts owner Jim Irsay began campaigning to win the hearts — if not the minds — of the faithful. Peyton spoke of how uncomfortable it was to see so many people clean out their offices, while Irsay responded by calling Manning a politician. Neither was really wrong.

But by the time the decision to release Manning was put in writing, everyone had put on their best face. Manning choked up as he thanked the fans at a farewell press conference, and Irsay was gracious and appreciative.

For a generation of fans, having watched Manning gesticulate at the line of scrimmage, directing his cast, they seem to realize it is their turn to take a cue from him.

That it is time to move on.