Everybody knows that Todd Helton used to play football, preceding Peyton Manning as the quarterback for the University of Tennessee Volunteers.
What you may not know is Manning used to play baseball. He was the shortstop at Isidore Newman School, the private high school he attended in New Orleans. But as he told the story Monday on the Dave Logan Show, even baseball became a way to get in extra football practice.
“All my receivers played baseball, so we’d go play baseball and then we’d keep our spikes on and go back to the school after the game and throw pass routes,” Manning said. “So it was a good transition from baseball to football.”
Watching his old friend Helton and the Rockies play at Coors Field has been one of the few diversions Manning has allowed himself during his intensive work at Dove Valley to get ready for the Broncos season. He attended Sunday’s series finale against the Dodgers — a 3-2 Rockies win — and hung out with Helton for a bit in the clubhouse afterward.
“It’s been a lot of fun being in the same city with Todd,” Manning said. “He’s always supported me in a big way and I’ve been a huge fan of him. It’s kind of fun that he and I played at Tennessee together and we’re still kind of hanging around. I’m hoping the Rockies get on a little run here. I think they’re playing good as of late. Hopefully they can get Arizona and come back and get Anaheim this weekend.”
Hanging out in the Rockies clubhouse gave Manning an insight into the vast difference between preparing for 162 games a year, as the Rocks do, and preparing for 16, as the Broncos do.
“I will tell you one thing I am envious about,” he said. “That locker room in baseball, it’s so laid back. It has to be. I mean, 162 games. In football, if you smile before the game you get in trouble because you’re not focused. And there’s something to it. Obviously, they want to win, but it is a different atmosphere when it comes to that.”
Manning admitted to a little impatience with the strict rules in the new collective bargaining agreement governing practice time. Joining a new team, learning a new system and practicing with new teammates, he’d like all the practice time he can get.
“I’ve enjoyed the increased activities we’ve been allowed to do,” he said in the midst of the Broncos’ third set of organized team activities (OTAs). “I really haven’t left since I signed here back in March. At first, we weren’t even allowed to throw at the facility. We could only lift weights here. Then we could throw here with just players, no coaches. And then coaches could come on the field. And now, finally, we’re in these OTAs where we can go against the defense. We’ve got jerseys, we’ve got helmets, it feels like a football practice in a normal football environment.
“I think we’re getting good work done. We’re learning a lot, just trying to improve every day. So it’s been part of the process for me, but I’ve enjoyed being around the guys and getting to know them as people, but also getting to know them on the field as football players and timing and just getting comfortable.”
Following up on his mention of timing, I asked if he had any idea how long it might take to develop the sort of chemistry with his new receivers that he famously enjoyed with pass catchers such as Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark in Indianapolis for 13 seasons.
“It’s hard to give a date,” he said. “That certainly is something that we’re shooting for. Believe me, I’d like to have it down perfectly by tomorrow. Every time we throw an incompletion in practice, it’s not something that I want. I want to complete every single pass in practice. The only way I do know to get that timing is to push the comfort level out here in practice. To attempt passes, to try things. We’re getting great work going against some great guys in our secondary.
“It’s not something that happens overnight, but it is something that you can try to make happen overnight by just taking advantage of every repetition and every opportunity to meet, and after practice on your own. I threw some with (Demaryius) Thomas today after practice, trying to kind of grab a different guy to get some work.
“It’s hard to say when you can have it. I think one thing I’ve really tried to do is just not play any kind of comparisons to my years in Indy as far as receivers. It’s a different time and we’ve got different guys and we’re continuing to work to try to get our timing down. It’s a challenge that I look forward to trying to beat.”
Even after 13 years in the NFL, Manning said Denver reporters asked him a question after Monday’s workout he had never gotten before.
“People are passionate about their football,” he said. “I’m not going to lie, I had an all-time first today. I was being asked about some incompletions that we threw in practice. That’s just never happened to me before. That’s kind of like asking Todd why he didn’t hit more home runs in batting practice.”
Nevertheless, Manning found himself explaining why he might throw to a covered receiver in practice when someone else was open.
“In practice, we are working on certain things,” he said. “There are times when coach (Mike) McCoy will tell me, ‘Hey, I want you throw it to this guy no matter what. I want you to force this play in no matter what the defense does.’
“So you work on these things in practices. I can assure you I have no idea what my all-time statistics are in practice. That’s not a statistic anybody really wants to keep up with.”
For now, the Broncos are still installing plays, the first stage of getting a new offense down.
“You’re putting in new plays during this time and you’re running these plays for the first time against the defense,” Manning said. “You get to run them one time and you’d like to run it again and they say, ‘No, there’s another new play we have to run next.’
“So it is hard in these OTAs to master a play. That’s what I like about minicamp and especially in training camp, we’ll be able to repeat some of these plays that we put in and really try to get comfortable in learning everything about the play. Because really, to learn everything about a play, you really have to rep it a number of times. With the new rules and the limited amount of time you’re allowed on the practice field, there is a challenge in that. But it’s one that we’ll be able to still maneuver around.”
Between mastering the new playbook, his continuing injury rehab and acclimating himself to a new environment and new teammates, Manning hasn’t taken a lot of time off to check out the city or the state. He is a notorious workaholic, which may explain his four NFL most valuable player awards. But what he’s seen so far of the Broncos’ fan base confirms the impressions he formed as a visiting player.
“I really wish I had more time to experience it more,” he said. “People do ask me, ‘How do you like Denver?’ and I really can’t honestly tell them that I’ve had a chance to do some things that I want to do because I have spent so much time over here. The Rockies games have been the one little getaway that I have and I have been to a couple of benefits. I really don’t know it as well as I’d like to know it.
“All I can tell you is the people just couldn’t be any friendlier. There’s a great sense of hospitality here from the people. People really love this city. One thing I have learned is I’ve met a lot of people who really aren’t from here originally but moved here at different points in their lives. Take John Lynch, take Brandon Stokley, some other non-athletes that live here, and just how much they fell in love with it once they moved here. So I think that speaks a lot about the city and the people.
“From the football standpoint, I can just tell from the times that I’ve played out here how passionate these people are about their football. That’s the kind of environment that you want to play in as an athlete. Denver’s always had that passion and I’m hoping I can do my part and be a part of it. That’s why I’m working so hard, so hopefully we can give these fans something to cheer about.”