DENVER — When John Lynch entered free agency in 2004 and Peyton Manning in 2012, both came to the same conclusion: Denver was where they wanted to end their illustrious football careers.
Many likely don’t consider Denver a destination city, but for Lynch and Manning, who will both be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Sunday in Canton, Ohio, Denver and the Broncos were where they believed they had the best chance to end their playing careers on a high note.
“I had great admiration for the way the Broncos were run as an organization,” Lynch said. “There was a reputation they were going to give you a chance every year. That’s all you can ask for in this league.”
For Lynch, he entered free agency after playing in Tampa Bay for 11 years, where he helped the Buccaneers win Super Bowl XXXVII. Lynch was released following the 2003-04 season and offered to take a pay cut to stay with the team, but the Buccaneers decided to move on. And despite having an offer from the Patriots, who had just won back-to-back Super Bowls, Lynch chose the Broncos.
"Denver, it was just a tremendous fit,” Lynch said. “You just knew with (former Broncos coach) Mike (Shanahan) at the helm and, even more so, Pat Bowlen as the owner — I talk about it a lot, but all you want as a player — you want a chance. I think there's some organizations where you know you're going to have that if you join them. When I was playing, that was always the case, that you had a chance when you went to the Denver Broncos. They were going to do everything possible. Their actions represented that. It wasn't just talk — their actions represented them competing for a championship.
“That's what Pat Bowlen, I quickly learned, that's what made him go. The competitive spirit, of wanting to compete for a championship each and every year.”
Meanwhile, Manning’s free agency was one of the most anticipated in NFL history, after he missed the entire 2011 season with a neck injury. Many around the league questioned whether Manning could return to his prior form, which is why the Colts released him. Manning of course had many suitors, including the Cardinals, Dolphins and Titans. But like Lynch, Manning chose the Broncos, and for similar reasons — the culture and the people who cultivated it.
“It’s hard to predict things too far in advance. I certainly wanted to play for the Indianapolis Colts because they’re the team that drafted me. I think every player should have that goal. … That was my plan all along. And then things changed. Things happened,” Manning said, referring to his neck injury. “Denver just welcomed me with open arms. They were the only team that understood what I was going through emotionally, physically. They were the only team that said, ‘Hey, Peyton, give us your Indianapolis Colts’ playbook, we’ll form this hybrid offense with plays that we like here in Denver that we think will help you. Not every other team was doing that.
“I will always be indebted to Denver with (John) Fox, (John) Elway, (Mike) McCoy, (Adam) Gase for helping me in that transition. Just had a wonderful four years playing there.”
While some didn’t expect Manning and Lynch to have as much success in Denver as they did in Indianapolis and Tampa Bay, both had some of the best seasons of their careers during their four years with the Broncos.
Manning obviously went onto win league MVP in 2013 and Super Bowl 50 in 2015, throwing for 17,112 yards and 140 touchdowns during his four seasons in Denver. And Lynch made four-straight Pro Bowls and helped the Broncos to the 2005 AFC Championship Game, totaling 271 tackles and three interceptions in his four seasons as a Bronco.
"I'm really grateful that the Broncos were there for me at that stage of my career," Lynch said. "I had played 11 years in Tampa, and the thought of going anywhere else was really hard to digest. They gave me a really nice landing spot. My only regret is that we knocked on the door being in that championship game in '05 with Champ (Bailey) and I and that group, Al Wilson — we talk about it often — that we kind of let one get away right there. But my only regret is not having won a championship. But I gave it everything I had."
Today, Lynch resides in San Francisco as the 49ers general manager, while Manning still lives in Denver in a Cherry Hills Village mansion — one can sometimes find him on the Cherry Hills Country Club golf course, going 18 holes with former teammate and Broncos wide receiver Brandon Stokely.
Manning said moving to Denver in 2012 wasn’t just a football decision, but a life decision. For him, Denver was somewhere he wanted to spend his retirement; his life after football.
“Moving’s a pain. That was a major ordeal to move a long time ago,” Manning said. “I still have a great relationship with Indianapolis and am still very involved in their community just like I am in Knoxville and New Orleans, but you can only live in one place and Denver has just been a great place to live. Really couldn’t have made a better decision to go out there and play back in 2012.”
So while Manning and Lynch may have spent the majority of their Hall of Fame careers in other NFL cities, Denver will always be a place that holds a special place in their heart. And as members of the Broncos Ring of Fame, Broncos Country will always welcome them home.
“I think Colorado is a beautiful place to live. It has so much to offer with the mountains, the people are extremely active,” Lynch said. “The fan base, much like our Niner fan base, is very regional. It's not just people in Denver. When you travel — I don't know who's responsible, I think maybe somebody who wore No. 7 is fairly responsible for that — those guys who won championships. When you travel, people meet you at your bus. They're at your hotel. It's a very regional fan base, national fan base.
“There's a lot that organization has to offer. Those things like that travel in players' circles — that, 'Hey, you'd love living there, you'd love playing there, the organization does things right.’”