Peyton Manning earns respect


This wasn't even close.

It isn't a slap at Tom Brady, Adrian Peterson, Calvin Johnson, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, London Fletcher or the 78 others who received a vote from a panel of 320 players asked to name the most respected player in the NFL. Those men are worthy. Those men work hard. Those men have talent. Those men are leaders.

But Peyton Manning set the bar.

Manning won in a landslide, collecting 27 percent of the vote. His 86 votes dwarfed the 24 votes received by Brady and Peterson, who finished tied for second.

It is award season, and Manning is collecting them the way he collects touchdowns. He probably will win his NFL-record fifth Most Valuable Player award. Last month, Sports Illustrated named Manning its Sportsman of the Year, an honor the magazine had bestowed on an NFL player only five times before.

And there is this nod from Manning's peers. Respect is a powerful word in this game. It is earned through real, hard work. There are no shortcuts, because good NFL players know what it takes to have success in this league. It takes work and time and talent. Real recognizes real, and fakes are easily spotted.

"You always hear people use the cliché, 'He's a pro's pro,' " said former center Jeff Saturday, who played with Manning for 13 of Manning's 14 seasons in Indianapolis. "But that typifies who Peyton Manning really is. This guy, there's no pretense in who he is as a football player. This guy for 16 years has shown up early, left late, and studied all those hours.

"He changes cultures. You saw what he did in Indianapolis. They weren't known as a football team, a football city. He completely changed the culture in that organization and took them to two Super Bowls. He completely changed the landscape of what football looked like in the state of Indiana. Now, he's doing that in Denver as well."

Saturday was one year removed from his collegiate career at the University of North Carolina and working for an electric supply company in Raleigh, N.C., when the Colts called in December 1998. To that point, he wasn't sure where his football career would go. He signed with the Baltimore Ravens as an undrafted rookie free agent in April 1998 but was cut several weeks later and didn't catch on with another NFL team. Would he play in the Arena Football League? Would he get at shot in the NFL?

In early 1999, Indianapolis signed Saturday to be, as he said, "a practice body." Manning was entering his second season. At that point, he wasn't Peyton Manning the pitchman. He was the maniacal worker who obsessed over every detail. Manning wanted to know opponents' tendencies. He wanted to know defensive coordinators' strategies. Same as today.

Together, Saturday and Manning worked tirelessly on the mental part of the game. Late in 1999, Saturday started two games at guard. In 2000, he transitioned to center and went on to start 188 of 197 games for the Colts, earning six Pro Bowl nods, and he was twice named first-team All-Pro.

That first year with Manning, though, was key.

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