Tom Brady and Peyton Manning will face off for the 17th and perhaps final time as the Denver Broncos play host to the New England Patriots on Sunday in the AFC Championship Game.
Should Manning retire this offseason, as some suspect the soon-to-be 40-year-old will, it would mark the end of an era in the NFL, which has known Brady and Manning as two of the game’s top quarterbacks for most of the last 20 years. Despite the longevity of the legends’ careers only a handful of players can claim to have shared a locker room with both Brady and Manning, and fewer can say they caught a pass from each of the two future Hall of Famers.
Since Manning entered the league in 1998 and Brady made his debut in 2000, five players have ended up on the receiving end of a pass from both: Torrance Small, Jermaine Wiggins, Dan Klecko, Wes Welker and Austin Collie. And no one is a more unlikely member of the fraternity than Klecko, who spent six years in the league as a defensive tackle from 2003-08.
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During his career, Klecko hauled in a total of 11 passes — three from Brady, two from Manning and six from Donovan McNabb — and scored two touchdowns, both on passes from Manning. It was a role he never envisioned when he came into the league as a fourth-round pick out of Temple but one he gladly stepped into when called upon.
"All I played was nose tackle or three-technique (lined up on the guard’s outside shoulder) when I was in college, so it had been four years since I had even put a ball in my hands, since high school," Klecko told FOX Sports on Monday. "Who the hell thinks that when you get to the NFL, that’s going to be the next time you start carrying the ball?
"But (Patriots coach Bill Belichick) comes to me in camp and he says, ‘Hey, we’re going to start using you as a goal-line fullback.’ I learned pretty quickly in the NFL that the mantra is that the more you can do the longer you’ll stick around. I learned that being around guys like Tedy (Bruschi), guys like (Mike) Vrabel, so I said, ‘Bill, absolutely, whatever you want,’ and it was a lot of fun."
When you watch the tape, you can hear him audibling out of (the original call), and I’m thinking, ‘There’s no shot in hell this is going to me.’
Appropriately enough, Klecko’s most memorable catch came the second time Brady and Manning played each other for the AFC title, in January 2007. (They also met in the AFC championship game during the 2003 and 2013 seasons, as well as a divisional-round game in 2004.) At the time, Manning was in his 10th season with the Indianapolis Colts, and Klecko, released by the Patriots during the 2006 preseason, was in his first year with Indy.
Trailing 21-13 with 4:06 left in the third quarter, the Colts were looking at first-and-goal from the New England 1-yard line. Klecko was lined up at fullback, and after the snap he moved out of the backfield to Manning’s right side. Klecko first made contact with Patriots linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, ostensibly to block, but then he sprinted toward the end zone as Banta-Cain chased after Manning. Manning then flipped the ball to Klecko, who dove into the end zone for the score.
"When you watch the tape, you can hear him audibling out of (the original call), and I’m thinking, ‘There’s no shot in hell this is going to me,’ " Klecko said. "And you can see, I think he kind of waited a minute to throw it."
A two-point conversion then tied the score, and the Colts went on to win the game 38-24. Still, Klecko calls the moment bittersweet.
Klecko proved versatile for the Patriots.
"I loved those guys, and I still do," Klecko said of the Patriots. "I miss that place. I didn’t want to leave there, and I don’t think they wanted me to leave, but it was never a great fit. I was a 5-10, 270-pound nose tackle, and that was never going to work there, even though we tried so many times. But when you catch that ball it’s like, ‘I wanted to do this for you, but you let me go,’ and you could see when I spiked the ball it was kind of like a ‘screw you’ to them, too."
Indianapolis then went on to beat the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI as Klecko, a two-time Super Bowl champ with the Patriots, joined kicker Adam Vinatieri and defensive back Dexter Reid as the only players to win Super Bowls with both Brady and Manning.
"I went to Temple for four years and we didn’t win a ton of games," Klecko said. "So I guess that was God’s way of giving me something back."
Now 35, Klecko works as a marketing executive at a commercial insurance brokerage near Philadelphia and says he cherishes his legacy as a bit of trivia in the Brady-Manning rivalry.
"It means the world to me," Klecko said. "These are the two pre-eminent players of their generation and I not only got to play with them, but I’m always going to have my name tied to them. It’s special. I have three boys of my own now, and when I look back, they don’t just see me as an old man who sells insurance.
"I have such a great respect for the history of the game, growing up the way I did," added Klecko, whose father, Joe, was a longtime Jets defensive lineman and part of the vaunted New York Sack Exchange. "So to be forever linked to them is pretty cool."
And maybe that’s part of the reason Klecko says he doesn’t understand the frustration from some fans over the continued success for both Brady and Manning.
"People will say, ‘Well, Brady’s been in the same system for 15 years and that’s why he’s so great,’ and yeah, that’s true, but it’s a system he created," Klecko said. "There’s no doubt about it, he runs the offensive meetings and he knows what plays are going to go in. Granted, Belichick has much more of an iron rule over the Patriots than Tom does, but everything that happens on offense goes through Tom. That’s the bottom line."
As for Manning, there’s something to be said, Klecko argues, for living up to expectations for as long as the Broncos veteran has.
"You can see the flip side of all that in the guy who was drafted right behind him, Ryan Leaf," Klecko said. "It’s not easy to deal with that pressure. It’s not easy to deal with, ‘Hey, you’re the next coming of Jesus on a football field.’ That’s what he was, and man, the guy has handled it with such grace and class and has become one of the greatest players to ever play the game.
Klecko was "almost in awe" of Peyton Manning while with the Colts.
"I was almost in awe going to play with him, even coming from the Patriots," he continued. "It’s still Peyton Manning, and I can remember our lockers were right behind each other and that was so cool to me."
It was away from the field, however, where Klecko truly was able to appreciate both stars, who were most in their element when they were just "Tom" and "Peyton" with no last names attached.
"They were both awesome dudes," Klecko said. "Peyton was the kind of guy who wanted to shotgun a beer with you on the ride home. That was the fun part about Peyton. He was a good ol’ boy — what you see is what you get with Peyton, and that’s really who he was. And then people always ask, ‘How’s Tom? He seems stuck up,’ but no, he’s the quietest, nicest guy in the world.
Peyton was the kind of guy who wanted to shotgun a beer with you on the ride home.
"He’s just a nerd, a football nerd, and I honestly believe that when he says, ‘Hey, this is all I’ve ever wanted to do,’ that it’s the truth," Klecko continued of Brady. "He’s also the kind of guy that would take the whole team out for dinner. He’d say after the game to meet him somewhere and we’d all go out with him. We were a pretty close-knit group up there in New England, and he was really the ringleader, and I think that’s why you’ve seen them have so much success for so long, because of guys like him."
While he cherishes his friendships with both Manning and Brady, Klecko leaves no doubt where his allegiance will lie on Sunday.
"Since I’ve stepped back from the game after I got pushed out of the league — since I ‘retired,’ with quotation marks around it — I’ve always rooted for both of them," Klecko said. "I’ve always loved to see them do well, but I’ve always had a special place for the team that picked me. It’s always been the Patriots. I actually got to take my boys up a few weeks ago to see Tom, when they played the Jets at MetLife, and they’re big Patriots fans, so it’s pretty easy for me to root for them.
"Your head tells you it should be New England all the way, but your heart is telling you it’s going to be a good game," Klecko added. "I think the Broncos players are going to play out of their minds to get Peyton one last Super Bowl because he doesn’t have much time left. And Tom doesn’t always play well in Denver, so it’s going to be interesting."