CHICAGO — Early one morning in June, 40 months after stepping off a football field for the final time as a player, Peyton Manning climbed into the back of a black SUV outside his Chicago hotel. At 43, smiling and trim and wearing a blue striped polo and pressed khaki shorts, Manning looked exactly like he did late in his career—not a pound heavier or lighter. This was the start of another day in his current but not permanent job as a TV host. At the beginning of it, he wanted to make one thing clear.
“I do not like the ‘R’ word.”
“Retirement?” I said.
“Right,” he said. “Because I’m not.”
The car merged into light traffic, headed for Wrigley Field. Manning was in town for one of the last days of taping for “Peyton’s Places,” the 30-episode series on pro football history set to debut on ESPN+ (the cable outlet’s streaming subscription service) on July 29. Four episodes will drop that day, then one will be released per week through the end of the football season.
I’ll explain how Manning is getting into this project with the verve he used to be one of the best quarterbacks ever, because it’s still a significant part of his ethos. But a few words first about why I’m opening my second season with NBC writing this Football Morning in America column with Peyton Manning and a TV show. With the NFL embarking on the 100th season of professional football, you’re going to get hit over the head with history and momentousness in NFL storytelling a lot this year. I thought a piece on the league’s most ambitious project in the 100th-season celebration was in order, and this is it. During the course of the year, I’ll get into some history stories as well—including naming my all-time top 100 players later in the year—without, I hope, overwhelming you with it. I realize history is cool, but the present is more of why you read this column. And mostly, the present is what this column will be this season, and there’s plenty of the present (the 18-game season, CBA negotiations, the reviewable pass-interference conundrum) for you to read today.
But back to the car with Manning, headed for the Bears’ home of a half-century, Wrigley Field.
“This has been a journey for me,” said Manning, who is also the executive producer of the series. “I’ve learned a lot about 100 years of football. I thought I knew a lot. There’s been a ton that I did not know. There’s been fascinating stuff. In 1929, when the stock market crashed, a guy named Bert Bell basically lost his tail and what does he do? He goes out and buys a football team for $50,000. Which at the time, is probably the worst investment you could make. A bunch of guys in leather helmets running into each other. That’s what he does. That team, the Frankford Yellowjackets, turns into the Philadelphia Eagles. Bert Bell starts the draft. He gets them to play on Sundays. He puts the blackout rule in. He was kind of a founding pioneer of the NFL.”
Manning sounds like he sounded so many times in his career, telling a story in intricate detail about why a play worked or what was said in the huddle. I try to think of others who could have done this series, players or former players with cache and a name. Michael Strahan, maybe. Cris Collinsworth. Maybe Tony Romo. But whoever did it would have to be all-in, the way Manning sounds this morning. “I don’t think anyone else could have done this,” said Neil Zender, honchoing the project for NFL Films. “Peyton’s been interested in every detail of every shoot.”