ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In 1994,
Helton, a junior quarterback and baseball standout for the Volunteers, was the backup at the time behind Jerry Colquitt. Manning, a freshman, was third in line.
"He was nice to me as an 18-year old, homesick freshman up there in Knoxville," Manning said Thursday at Dove Valley. "Todd was a big star when I got there already, a Knoxville legend, and he took time to be nice to me. I appreciated that."
When Colquitt was injured in Tennessee's season opener, Helton stepped into the spotlight as the starting quarterback for the Vols. But three games later, Helton suffered a knee injury of his own. Manning, an inexperienced freshman, took over. The rest is history.
Helton, who chose a professional career in baseball, and Manning have been friends ever since.
"He’s been a good friend my entire time we’ve known each other, almost 20 years," Manning said.
That friendship was plenty evident in the spring and summer leading up to the 2011 NFL season. Manning, having undergone surgery on his neck, couldn't utilize the Indianapolis Colts' trainers because the NFL was in a lockout.
So Helton called his former college teammate and offered him a unique opportunity.
"For him to get on the phone and call me and invite me out here to work out with the Rockies, in private, and use the Rockies trainers, I’ll always be indebted to him," Manning said. "I was in a kind of a weird place, an unknown. I had really nobody to turn to medically because of the lockout. What Todd did, that really kind of gave me some good direction. I’ll always be indebted to him for that."
Now, after 17 seasons with the Colorado Rockies, Helton is hanging up his cleats. The 40-year-old is retiring as the Rockies' franchise record-holder in nearly every offensive category.
The three-time Gold Glove-winner as a first baseman became the 96th player in MLB history to reach 2,500 hits earlier in September. According to the Rockies, he joined Hall of Famer Stan Musial as the only players in MLB history with at least 2,500 hits, 550 doubles, 350 home runs and a career batting average of .310 or higher.
"It’s hard just to put into short words a career that long," Manning said. "To do it for that long, like I said, I think sometimes when you just write 17-year career, it doesn’t do it justice. You ought to put it in bold, caps and write it about 50 times just to realize how much work he put in."
One way to judge the success of a player in the NFL, Manning said, is whether or not he earned the respect of not only his teammates and coaches, but his opponents.
He has no doubt Helton has done just that across baseball clubhouses.
"I know a lot of baseball guys and I’ve been in enough baseball locker rooms, and I know that Todd Helton has the respect of all of his opponents and peers," he said. "That’s a credit to him for how he’s played the game. He’s played hurt. He’s been a tough player, a consistent player."
Manning plans to be at Coors Field next Wednesday to watch his friend's final game.
"I’m happy for him," he said. "I feel like he’s at peace with it. I have communicated with him. I hope he enjoys these last games.
"But there won’t be another like him here, I can promise you that.”