The Peyton Manning era in Denver drew closer Thursday morning as the Broncos opened training camp just four months after the future Hall of Fame quarterback was trying to prove he still had the goods.
Released in March after 14 seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, a neck injury derailing his entire 2011 season and maybe his career, Manning found himself a man without a team for the first time in his career. But before he turned to Denver, he turned to Team Cutcliffe.
Without Duke head coach David Cutcliffe, a longtime mentor, Mannings path back to the NFL might have turned out differently.
The only guy for me to go see at that time was David Cutcliffe, said Manning, who last played under Cutcliffe at Tennessee in 1997 when Cutcliffe was the offensive coordinator. Hes a guy that has known more about my throwing motion and quarterback mechanics than anyone throughout my career.
Manning likened working under the watchful eye of Cutcliffe to going home.
Its kind of in some ways like going home, Manning said. Like golfers (going) back to that swing coach (they) always knew.
Mannings trek to Englewood, Colo., began in Durham, N.C., and on the same practice fields Cutcliffes Blue Devils use. Even though Duke was around the corner from starting spring practice when Manning arrived, Cutcliffe still opened all of Dukes facilities to the legendary signal caller. There was no interference with the Devils, though. Manning gushes with gratitude for his mentors willingness to help.
That he would give me the time and energy and make me a Duke football player for the time Im still a Tennessee Vol, no question about it but it just tells you about the kind of person he is, Manning said.
The thing is, as much time as he gave me, it never took away from his football team. That he was multi-tasking tells you how much of a load he can carry.
Nearly 20 years ago, Tennessee head coach Phillip Fulmer, assistant coach Randy Sanders and Cutcliffe made an in-home visit with the highly touted Manning.
The coaches went through the usual pitch, but also spent quite a bit of time talking about things unrelated to football. Something stood out that evening to Archie Manning, though. After the coaches left, he told his wife, Olivia, he couldnt recall Fulmer saying much of anything to Peyton. He was a bit perplexed.
Fulmer called Archie the next day acknowledging he hadnt spoken to Peyton much because Peyton and Cutcliffe were hitting it off so well he didnt want to mess it up. Fulmer was smart, because Manning and Cutcliffe were already developing a bond.
Knoxville, Tenn., is a long way from New Orleans, and at times young Peyton got a little homesick. Cutcliffe, though, opened his home when students were gone and Peyton became a regular visitor. He even baby sat a few times.
That bond also drew Eli Manning, who chose to play his college ball at Mississippi after Cutcliffe was named head coach in 1998.
Fast forward to the Mannings NFL careers. If anything, their relationships with Cutcliffe have since grown in many ways.
Peyton has periodically sent Cutcliffe film to review periodically during his career, and knows he will always get critically honest feedback. He still does some of the drills Cutcliffe taught him in the mid-1990s and also prepares somewhat the same. Peyton wants to go into every game feeling as he did in college, when he had a sense of calm that allowed everything to slow down on the field.
From a preparation standpoint, Manning said, theres nothing more he could have done to get me ready to play every Saturday.
Thats why when Eli needed to work out during last years NFL lockout and when Peyton faced his most recent football crisis, they chose Cutcliffe to help them move forward. Eli responded to one of his worst seasons by winning a second Super Bowl. Peytons career remains intact.
Cutcliffe knew how to handle the sensitive situations because he knows the young men so well.
Hes been a big part of my family for some time, Peyton said about Cutcliffe. And he and I have stayed close since I graduated.
Cutcliffe may be the mentor and 21 years older at age 57, but he sees Peyton, Eli and Archie as friends. The only time he has seniority is when its evaluating and teaching time.
I am happy for Peyton and his opportunity with the Broncos not as much as his former coach as I do being his friend, Cutcliffe said.