LOS ANGELES — Peyton Manning was one in a million.
When the Andrew Luck bombshell landed on the NFL late Saturday, when the 29-year-old, prototype quarterback announced he’s retiring from football, I could think about only one man.
The two will be connected in NFL history — Indianapolis Colts history, in particular — until concussions, political protests or common sense finally crush its allure. It was the draft availability of Luck, in 2012, that made Manning available to the Broncos. The Colts cut Manning in order to draft Luck.
Fair to say the Broncos won that arrangement. Luck played only 16 games after Manning retired.
But I considered Manning Saturday night inside Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum during the Broncos’ 10-6 preseason loss to the Rams for a different reason. As Luck stood on a dais in Indy explaining how he’s lost the zest to compete, how injuries and rehabs sapped his desire to play a game that put $97 million in his bank account, I recalled how Manning responded in precisely the opposite manner.
“I felt stuck in it,” Luck told Indianapolis media of the injury-rehab, injury-rehab cycle that ended his career.
This is not to knock Luck, who retires with a brain, knees and limbs that still work properly. Do you, man. But it is to acknowledge Manning’s drive to return from injury was one in a million.
In an age of guaranteed contracts and vast medical knowledge, there will never be another.
His broken neck was first. He had one Super Bowl ring and more money than a man would ever need. Yet he returned from a draining rehabilitation process, during which he lost feeling in his fingers, to help the Broncos to Super Bowls XLVIII and 50. Then came the kicker: a foot injury, sustained in November of the Super Bowl 50 year, that sent Manning back to the rehab room. To start over. Again.
The Broncos were prepared and planning to ride Brock Osweiler as far as he could take them.
Not with Manning in the building. Sit down and take it? Not Manning, not at 39 years old, and the rest is Super Bowl history, followed by one sweet parade through downtown Denver.
Luck’s stunning announcement that injuries had “worn” him down makes Manning’s multiple comebacks even more remarkable. Not once, but twice, he could have walked away. He didn’t. He was wired in a way that wouldn't allow it.
The Broncos’ ties to the Luck news extended into Saturday’s preseason game. At the exact moment the Luck news broke — 6:28 p.m. Pacific — backup quarterback Kevin Hogan took a snap. Hogan was the man who succeeded Luck as Stanford’s quarterback. Hogan eventually passed Luck in program wins. They remain friends, and Hogan reacted like most of America: “Much of the details, I kind of found out along with everyone else,” Hogan said.
“I just wish him the best,” Hogan said. “That's really all I can say.”
Here’s hoping John Elway, a fellow Stanford guy who scouted Luck before the 2012 draft, shot Luck a phone call of well-wishes on Saturday. Maybe Luck ultimately returns. Who knows?
It must be noted the Broncos handled Manning in a way the Colts did not handle Luck. Whereas the Broncos surrounded Manning with dazzling playmakers — and later an all-time defense — the Colts treated Luck as a piñata. Recall the T.J. Ward hit that lacerated Luck's kidney? That was just one example. There were plenty more.
Elway’s Broncos did not play a single starter in the fourth preseason game — a smart move by Vic Fangio — unless you count kicker Brandon McManus. McManus’s two field goals were all the Broncos could muster against their backup peers with the Rams.
“Need to be more consistent,” Fangio said afterward.
It was bad business by Luck to wait until Aug. 24 to inform the Colts their franchise quarterback is no more. It was the best business to witness Manning tell injuries and the odds to kick rocks, because he's not done yet.
One in a million.