Way Back Wednesday: Remembering Peyton Manning's debut vs. the Bears

Da Bears.

The Monsters of the Midway.

The Chicago Bears.

What a perfect opponent for the Broncos’ home opener in the NFL’s 100th season and the 60th for all the original American Football League teams, including this franchise.

Along with the Green Bay Packers, few teams conjure up more memories of great moments from throughout pro football history than Chicago.

And of course, the Broncos have former Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio as their new head coach.

Even though Denver has played a limited number of games against the Bears — the Broncos are 8-7 in all regular season games, including a 5-3 mark at home — this is not the only time the Broncos have begun a new era against Chicago.

Back in 2012, the Broncos signed quarterback Peyton Manning in what arguably is the greatest free-agent signing of all time in the NFL, and Manning was coming off significant neck surgery, which had curtailed his career in Indianapolis. He worked harder than anyone to get ready during the offseason, and his first game action came at Chicago's iconic Soldier Field in a preseason game on Thursday, Aug. 9.

That game was historic simply because it featured Peyton Manning on the field once again, after having overcome so much to get there.

As is the case in preseason games, his actual time on the field was limited, completing four of seven attempts for 44 yards and throwing one interception.

But more than that, it marked a return to the playing field for the undisputed face of the game.

His first pass from scrimmage was intended for tight end Jacob Tamme and fell harmlessly incomplete. The drive ended with Manning throwing an interception and his night was over after that one series.

For what it's worth, Denver won 31-3.

But it was one of those games in which Manning's performance was measured just by making it back, getting on the field and executing plays without any negative physical effects.

The Broncos were his new team and the city of Denver was his fresh start.

Of course, during that year and his entire stint in Denver, Manning played the final four of his 18 NFL seasons and conducted an all-out assault on the NFL record book in leading the Broncos to the world championship before capping his career with a Super Bowl 50 victory in his final game.

He also led Denver to Super Bowl XLVIII and made the Pro Bowl in 2012, 2013 and 2014, earning first-team All-Pro honors in 2012 and again in 2013.

Manning was a marvel for the Broncos — which, in a manner of speaking, is to say he was just Peyton Manning, as he was always a marvel.

That Bears game was without great distinction, but it set him on a path that ended with Manning being named the NFL Comeback Player of the Year in 2012, finishing second in the Most Valuable Player voting, a title that he would claim the following year.

At the time of his retirement, Manning held a litany of NFL records, many of which he set or added to while in the Mile High City.

He retired as a two-time Super Bowl champion with career records for passing touchdowns (539), passing yards (71,940), passing touchdowns in a season (55), passing yards in a season (5,477), most regular-season MVP awards (five), most TD passes in a game (seven, tied with others), most Pro Bowl selections (14), most career game-winning drives (54), and he of course led the NFL a number of times in a number of other categories.

He certainly made his case as the greatest free-agent signing of all time, and there is no question he is the greatest free agent in Broncos history.

This is the 60th year of play for Denver, and for a full third of the franchise’s existence, the quarterback has been either Hall of Famer John Elway (16 years) or future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning (four).

So while that August game at Soldier Field was itself not very eventful, it was dripping with significance in terms of Peyton Manning being a Bronco and taking the field once again.

But the Broncos' history with the Bears actually dates back all the way to 1965 — but not on the playing field — and it was eight years before Denver ever fielded a winning team.

That was the year the Broncos drafted Dick Butkus, two-time consensus All-American linebacker from the University of Illinois. Perhaps the greatest middle linebacker of all time, Butkus was a Chicago native and an Illinois boy through and through.

He had been drafted by the Bears with the third pick in the first round of the NFL Draft and there was absolutely no question he would sign with Chicago.

The Broncos, meanwhile, were such a moribund franchise on the field that they pretty much knew in advance there would be no chance of their signing their top draft pick, so they took Butkus largely as a public relations move.

Denver boldly stated they would top any financial offer the Bears could make.

Very likely, Denver did not have the finances to sign Butkus, but it hardly mattered, as it was a certainty that he would never sign with a very poor team from the American Football League instead of the legendary Bears in his hometown.

So executives from the Broncos blustered about their willingness to sign Butkus up until the predetermined moment when he signed with the Bears.

In his illustrious Hall of Fame career, Butkus was a perennial Pro Bowler who was Defensive Player of the Year in 1969 and 1970.

He was the poster boy for the Monsters of the Midway.

Even though Denver failed to sign Dick Butkus, four decades later, the Broncos more than made up for that failed public relations move by bringing in Manning, whose greatness was and is undisputed in the history of the National Football League.

And I have always found it interesting that of all the cities in which the Broncos might have been scheduled for their first game with Manning, it was in Chicago and at the one and only Soldier Field that he stepped on the field for the second phase of his magnificent career which will eventually be capped by membership in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

There, he will join Butkus and Elway, completing the circle of greatness that is forever part of the game.

But that is in the future.

This week, the Broncos play the fabled Bears franchise to create new moments in the first game at the newly named Empower Field at Mile High, with those past events forever part of the fabric of our game.

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