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April 02, 2012
The behind-the-scenes story of how the most prized free agent in NFL history hit the recruiting trail—and how he ended up a Denver Bronco
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April 02, 2012

Peyton Manning's Long Game

The behind-the-scenes story of how the most prized free agent in NFL history hit the recruiting trail—and how he ended up a Denver Bronco

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"Don't worry," said Manning. "Just keep driving, and when you get close, call me, and I'll tell you where to go."

Roger Frazier, Manning's old equipment manager with the Vols, found a field at the private Webb School in Knoxville. Manning called Munchak and told him that when he got off the highway at the appointed exit, he should look for a black car at the end of the ramp and follow it. Munchak did. After a few blocks they pulled up behind another car—Manning's. No media in sight. Manning led them to the field. Though it was raining and water was pooling in one spot, Manning said, "I'm fine." Undisturbed, he threw 55 passes. Then they all went for cheeseburgers.

Afterward, Manning headed for his family's cabin in Chattanooga. He spent part of the weekend calling people he trusted, then interrupted Fox's dinner on Saturday night by phone with some questions, the tenor of which neither will disclose. "Whatever you decide," Fox told him, "and I hope it's us obviously, we're fine. We appreciate being part of the process."

Manning talked to another confidant, Bill Parcells, who he knew wouldn't b.s. him. He told Parcells his arm wasn't 100% yet. "You know who Jamie Moyer is?" Parcells asked, referring to the veteran lefthander who's been pitching in the majors since 1986. Manning said he did.

"He's 49 years old," Parcells said. "He's not 26 anymore, but he's still getting 'em out. Can you still throw well enough to get 'em out?'

"I think I can," Manning said.

"Then don't worry about it."

Manning, of course, wins as much with his head as with his arm. If his arm, still weakened from the time off after four neck procedures, makes him short with a few balls, he should be able to make up for it with his intelligence—checking down, fooling the defense. Manning could play a game right now, but he wants his arm to get stronger before he has to make throws that count. His doctors have told him his strength should improve.

On Saturday night Manning called Dungy to discuss the pros and cons of the three finalists: Denver, Arizona, Tennessee. Then he asked, "Are there any other things I should be thinking about?"

Said Dungy, "I told him it's never going to be 100 percent. He had so many good choices, it's going to be 51--49, or maybe 50--50, and then it just comes down to a gut feeling. I told him what [Hall of Fame coach] Chuck Noll told me a long time ago: When you're making an important life decision, make sure it's without regard to money, title or position. Make sure it's about who you're going to be working with and how much you'll enjoy being there."

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