ENGLEWOOD, Colo. —** On Saturday, Peyton Manning called Demaryius Thomas. He told him to look for a flight to Denver, but he wouldn't elaborate further. So Thomas booked a flight, unsure of why but sure that it was necessary.
In preparation for his retirement, Manning must have made many similar calls to teammates current and past, beckoning them to Denver to join him as he brought his career to a close before his family and closest friends.
That his emotional speech began by recalling not only his first pass but to whom he threw it, shows just how highly he regards his teammates. That's why Thomas knew he couldn't miss coming to Denver, and that's why Von Miller and so many other teammates came to UCHealth Training Center on Monday.
"I'll miss figuring out blitzes with [former Indianapolis C] Jeff Saturday, [former Indianapolis WR] Reggie [Wayne] sitting on top of the bench next to me, and perfecting a fake handoff to [former Indianapolis RB] Edgerrin James," Manning said. "I'll miss [WR] Demaryius Thomas telling me that he loved me and thanking me for coming to Denver after every touchdown I threw to him.
"I'll miss the plane rides after a big win with 53 teammates standing in the aisles laughing and celebrating during the whole flight."
How much Manning will miss those moments with his teammates is surely a sentiment shared by them, as well.
Friends, family members and former teammates gathered at the UCHealth Training Center for Peyton Manning's retirement press conference to celebrate him and his career.
"[I'll miss] just having him around as a leader, […] hanging out with him," Thomas said. "It's been a great four years and I'm going to miss him because it's not just [that] he's my teammate. He's my friend. He took me in, let me play with his kids. I go to his house, he leaves, I'm over there playing with the kids and he respects me to do that. I'll miss a lot of that."
For Emmanuel Sanders, the other part of the Broncos' starting wide receiver tandem, Manning's impact went a long way in helping him become a better player and a better pro as Sanders studied his habits to improve his own preparation skills. But Manning also taught him more about appreciating what happens off the field.
"You talk about a guy that every Thursday, he set up a steak dinner with the offense. You talk about a guy that set up group chats, group message and would message guys almost every night about something that's going on in the game plan," Sanders said. "And here he is with all these accomplishments, MVPs; he doesn't have to do that, but he treats everybody—I don't care if you're an equipment guy, media guys, you know how he is—I mean, he treated everybody so well and that brought a family environment, a sense of love around this organization and around the National Football League."
Even for the guys who didn't share a huddle him had their special Manning moments that they would cherish for the rest of their lives. Defensive end Kenny Anunike had one such moment when the Duke alumni met Manning during his now-famous offseason workouts in Durham.
"It's crazy, I knew Peyton even before he was my quarterback," Anunike recalled. "Being at Duke, you know as a Duke Blue Devil, he was coached by [Duke head coach David Cutcliffe], him and [Giants QB] Eli [Manning] at Ole Miss and Tennessee. I remember walking through the halls one day, and Coach Cutcliffe and Peyton were walking out and I kind of got shocked a little bit. I'm a senior in college and he walks up to me and says, 'Hey, Peyton, this is my premier defensive end Kenny Anunike,' and I'm like, 'Wow.' I shook his hand, and that's when he had his surgery on his neck and I was there, too, rehabbing. We got to talking and I got to learn a lot about the guy, a lot about his character, a lot about how he works and to see now that I've become his teammate and then to come here and view his retirement, it's absolutely tremendous. It's a day I'll never forget."
Wide receiver Bennie Fowler had the honor of catching Manning's last pass, a successful two-point conversion in Super Bowl 50. The catch in the moment was special enough for Fowler, and he felt that he should give the ball to Manning.
"It's a great feeling, you know, catching his last pass and it being in Super Bowl 50 and us winning," Fowler said. "I think [giving the ball back] kind of told me that this might be his last game, last pass. I felt like it was the right thing to do, to give him the ball back after all that he's done for the game and his career. Him trusting me and throwing me the ball, I really appreciated that." The passing records and championships will be long remembered and revered, but the friendship and trust among his peers is something Peyton Manning forged everywhere he went that will also leave a memorable impact.