INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Adam Vinatieri had witnessed Peyton Manning from afar. He had a general idea of what made him tick as the New England Patriots/Indianapolis Colts relationship grew from AFC East rivals to bitter AFC antagonists.
“I knew of him. I obviously knew who he was,’’ Vinatieri said. “I knew what he was accomplishing.
“There was a time when we were both at the Pro Bowl, but that’s about it. Yeah, I knew he was a darned good quarterback, a guy that wanted to win.’’
In the days leading up to that next Pats vs. Colts meeting, New England coach Bill Belichick always – always – schooled his players on the pending threat.
“He would break down everybody and every team,’’ Vinatieri said. “When it came (to the Colts), there was more of that. ‘These guys have Reggie and Marv and Edge and Freeney and Mathis.’
“Then it was, ‘Oh, by the way, Peyton is as good a quarterback as anybody that’s ever played so you’d better be on point with these guys or they will embarrass you.’’’
Belichick, Vinatieri added, wanted his players to fully understand the level of threat Manning presented.
“He was like, ‘Peyton is this and he’s this and he’s this. He works hard and he studies and blah, blah, blah,’’’ he said. “So when I got here, I expected that from him.’’
That impression wasn’t simply reinforced when Vinatieri and Manning joined forces in 2006. It was amplified a zillion times.
What became clear almost from the outset – and most definitely as the Colts were preparing for their Feb. 4, 2007 date with the Chicago Bears in South Florida for Super Bowl XLI – was Manning’s clout with the team.
“When I got here, Peyton was the boss,’’ Vinatieri said. “I dare say if he wanted to stop practice, he’d stop practice. It wasn’t the head coach doing that, it was Peyton Manning.
“That’s the only thing that surprised me because I wasn’t used to that. When I was in New England, Belichick was the leader. Tom Brady was a leader, don’t get me wrong. But Belichick was the boss. Know what I mean? Can you distinguish the difference?’’
After the Colts staged the greatest comeback in a conference championship game by overcoming a 21-3 second-quarter deficit and chasing down the Patriots 38-34 in the ’06 AFC title game, players gathered to discuss the logistics for Super Bowl XLI.
Among the topics were a curfew and hotel accommodations. Team president Bill Polian informed players there would be no curfew until Saturday night and players would be allowed to have family members in their room.
“When both of those (topics) came up, Peyton looked at me and said, ‘What did you guys do in New England?’’’ Vinatieri said.
Vinatieri was the voice of experience. During his 10-year career in New England, the Patriots appeared in four Super Bowls, winning three.
His quick message to Manning: Man, this is a mistake.
“Peyton stands up in the middle of the meeting and said, ‘Hey, Bill, we’re not going to have anybody on our floor but players,’’’ Vinatieri said, smiling. “Bill was like, ‘OK, we’ll talk about it.’ Peyton said, ‘We won’t talk about it. This is what we’re going to do.’
“And that’s how it was. That’s when it really hit me that, ‘Damn, this guy’s got some juice.’ You had the owner, then there was Peyton Manning.’’
That exchange drove home to Vinatieri the tunnel-vision drive that made Peyton Manning who he was. The Colts weren’t going to South Florida for some R&R. It was a business trip.
“The only thing I gave a (expletive) about was winning another ring,’’ said Vinatieri, who has four. “Peyton was the same way. With all due respect, Peyton wanted to win. Period. He didn’t care about anything else.
“It was almost ruthless to a degree, but I say that with the utmost respect. I was like ‘Damn, dude.’ But you know what? That’s why we won 14 games, 13 games.’’
That’s in large part why the Colts are honoring Manning with a statue Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium. The dude won at a ridiculous level and was a major part of the Colts breathing life into the football fabric of Indianapolis and Indiana.
“People can say a lot of different things, but I love tough guys,’’ Vinatieri said. “And there are times he’s a tough guy to be around. But he’s a winner. He’s driven.
“Guys like that are few and far between. Look at the one year he’s gone (2011). We barely win 2 games.’’
Vinatieri has had the good fortune to play alongside a handful elite quarterbacks during his 22-year career: Drew Bledsoe, Tom Brady, Manning and Andrew Luck.
It’s doubtful you’ll ever draw Vinatieri into a Manning vs. Brady debate. But no one should question his appreciation for what Manning brought to the Colts and the NFL.
“There’s not many of those kind of guys who come through football, that grace the game,’’ he said. “There are a lot of good players, don’t get me wrong.
“But there are only certain guys who are special. He was definitely special.’’