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Mile High Morning: How Peyton Manning's HOF surprise was planned and kept under wraps


The Lead

The challenge was so tough because of the target.

How do you keep a secret from Peyton Manning, who was perhaps the sharpest NFL player of his generation?

Pro Football Hall of Fame president David Baker called Broncos Chief Communications Officer Patrick Smyth to try to figure out how he could surprise Manning since the knock-on-the-hotel-door tradition couldn't continue this year.

According to 9NEWS’ Mike Klis, Smyth then talked with Manning's wife, Ashley. She mentioned that coaches always held a special place in his heart, and then the plan started to take shape. Smyth coordinated for several of his former coaches — former University of Tennessee head coach Phillip Fulmer, former Tennessee offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe, former Colts coaches Tony Dungy and Jim Caldwell and former Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak — to come to Denver.

Still, they had to maintain the surprise aspect. Manning was brought to Empower Field at Mile High under the guise of filming a "Peyton's Places" spot. It may have set off alarm bells in his head, but he probably didn't expect what awaited him.

"My antennas were up, I'm not going to lie," Manning said.

As NFL Films shot him reading some phony lines, Manning sensed something behind him and turned just in time to see those coaches walking out of the tunnel. After some words from each of them, Dungy then said there was one more person who wanted to say something.

Out walked Baker to share the news that Manning was Canton-bound.

"It was a real cool moment to find out that way," Manning told Klis. "They called Ashley on Wednesday and said they weren't doing the hotel knocks because of COVID, they were coming out to each person individually. So she kind of quarterbacked it. Made it a really cool football moment. I think at first they wanted to come to our house and have dinner with cameras perfectly in place and Ed McMahon comes to your door and says you won a million dollars. She said we're not going to do that, we're going to make this a football moment."

The toughest thing after that, though, was keeping it quiet for two weeks until the Hall of Fame announced the news. Even just minutes after they got the news, Manning was nervous about it.

"We went to a little restaurant right after, at 2 o'clock on a Friday, and all the coaches came there," Manning told his former Colts teammate Jeff Saturday, "and I'm kind of looking at this bartender, who's looking at me like, 'Let's see: Manning, Dungy, Kubiak, Cutcliffe. Like, what's going on here?' Evidently he's not real big on social media — nothing was posted."

Below the Fold

That former Broncos safety John Lynch is also in the Class of 2021 with Manning is pretty special, too. The two share a bond having joined Broncos late in their careers and leading exceptional second acts in Denver. It turns out their bond goes far deeper than that, as Aric DiLalla writes for

Those coaches that surprised Manning with a visit had plenty of stories, too. During a series of interviews that day, they shared some of them to give people a snapshot of what it was like to coach one of the all-time greats.

The Unclassifieds

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