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Sacco Sez: Manning a product of NFL quarterback history

Posted Mar 9, 2016

As he leaves the NFL, Peyton Manning's career reflects the history and legacy of NFL quarterbacks who came before him.

Peyton Manning did not come from nowhere.

Aside from being the son of Archie and Olivia Manning, aside from growing up in America's Football Family and learning at the knee of one of the greatest quarterbacks not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Peyton Manning is the end result of every quarterback who ever played the game.

And he respects—reveres—them all.

That is one of the things I love and admire so much about Manning.

There is an old saying that players are players, and guys like me are watchers. We are the ones who read the books, study the history, love and admire a game which we certainly lack the talent to play.

Ring of Fame linebacker Karl Mecklenburg once was out with an injury that caused him to miss a few games, and when I asked him if he would watch the game from the sidelines on Sunday, he politely said, "No, I'm a football player, not a football watcher."

"Meck" was an all-time great, but you get the point.

That is one of the ways in which Manning is so different.

Everybody loves to play. Everybody loves Sunday, or Monday and Thursday Night Football.

But Manning seemingly, and by his confirmation, loved all the little things that drive other guys crazy. Meetings. Film study. Late nights and early mornings, with the football guys, not just the players and coaches, but the equipment guys, trainers, video guys, and even the PR guys.

Even the time spent with the network announcers, which some guys historically have tried to duck, Manning not only embraced but seemed to relish.

So if we revere the game, we most certainly should revere a player who has been as all-in as Peyton Manning has. And he loves the quarterback position.

At his retirement press conference, he mentioned meeting Johnny Unitas after his first game as a pro (and acknowledged that he had met Johnny U before), and spoke of the positive advice he received from Unitas.

This was just one anecdote from Peyton's press conference, but there is always more depth than that.

A former NFL head coach — not from the Broncos — and I were once discussing the greatest quarterbacks of all time, and he said, "Take your pick. The order is either Unitas and Elway, or Elway and Unitas. They all line up after those two."

That was a long time ago and the coach has long passed on. I suspect he would now add Manning to that list, and maybe others as well.

When Johnny Unitas passed away, Manning wanted to wear black high tops in a game to honor the great one (and most fans have no idea how great Johnny U was), but the league nixed the idea. I thought saying no to Peyton's tribute was a mistake then, and I still think it was. When we have a guy who pays such tribute to the past, we should encourage it, in my opinion.

[A side note on the topic: Unitas is the subject of a couple nice biographies, one by Lou Sahadi and the other by Tom Callahan. They are more mandatory than recommended reading, if you love the position as Manning and this author do.]

Many have called Peyton Manning the greatest of all time. He's worthy of legit consideration, but others have worn that title, including Elway and Unitas, Otto Graham and Joe Montana, Sammy Baugh and Tom Brady, to name too few.

There is always another guy, and there always will be. But they all come from somewhere, and owe a debt to the ones who came before.

Many guys, including many players, do not have a full appreciation of them, but Peyton does.

He has told the story of how when he and his older brother, Cooper, were little boys they would quiz each other about the uniform numbers worn by quarterbacks.

A couple of years ago, when he had performed his weekly ritual of breaking another longstanding record—this one held by former Cleveland Browns quarterback Milt Plum for most touchdowns without an interception to start the season—he was asked postgame about the mark, and the reporter in his query referred to "Milton Plum." The reporter had never heard of Plum or he surely would have known that it was never Milton, just Milt.

But Manning knew.

A reporter followed up, just tossing it out as a lark, asked Manning if he knew what number Plum had worn.

"Number 16," Manning said.

Way to go, Peyton, I thought.

In Peter King's story about the retirement, Sports Illustrated ran a picture of Manning sitting and talking football with Sammy Baugh, "Slingin' Sam," the first quarterback to set all the passing records.

Manning loves and respects the position, and that is an entire separate legacy from the one he created on the field.

He even knows the uniform number worn by the Ole Miss shortstop in the 1969 College World Series.

I asked him that—a trick question—but he figured it out. The shortstop was his dad, Archie, but he did not wear his familiar 8 when he played baseball at Ole Miss.

It was 42, and Peyton Manning absolutely knew that that number once belonged to a very fine NFL quarterback, also an Ole Miss product.

That was worn by Charlie Conerly, whom most fans today would not know. But back in the day he quarterbacked the New York Giants to the 1956 NFL Championship, and being in New York and familiar to Madison Avenue executives, Conerly was the first "Marlboro Man" in cigarette ads.

So even the famous television commercials done by Manning have a history at quarterback, going back seven decades.

If we dismiss the past, we dismiss and devalue part of ourselves.

I have the highest praise for those who care about and embrace the game's greatest players at possibly the most significant position in football, and Peyton Manning is at the top of that list as well.

By the way, he has worn three numbers himself in his career, albeit only one as a pro.

Everyone knows of his legendary 18, and many know he wore 16 at Tennessee, but fewer are aware that he wore number 14 at the Isidore Newman School in New Orleans.

And that is part of history as well.

The great Air Force Academy coach, Fisher DeBerry, is fond of saying, "If you are walking along and see a turtle sitting on the top of a high fencepost, you have to realize the turtle did not get there himself. He had help."

Peyton Manning, who revolutionized the way the quarterback position is played today, knows all about the turtle and the help he got from all the other quarterbacks along the way.

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