INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Brandon Stokley shared history with Peyton Manning. He also shares a close friendship.
“We’re probably closer now than we’ve ever been,’’ Stokley said.
The history part, which has since been rewritten twice, was the exclamation mark to a magical, prolific 2004. Manning and his high-octane offense spent the season chasing, chasing, chasing Dan Marino’s single-season record for touchdowns. The benchmark for quarterbacks, 48, was set in 1984.
“Everybody thought it was an unbreakable record,’’ Stokley said.
It stood until Dec. 26, 2004, and it was appropriate Manning dialed up his buddy when the opportunity to supplant Marino in the history books presented itself.
About to make history, the two had a history.
They met when Manning was an All-America quarterback at Tennessee and Stokley a productive wideout at Louisiana-Lafayette. The Mannings started the Manning Passing Academy in 1996, held the event in Louisiana and routinely recruited camp counselors from state colleges.
“Someone reached out to me. It wasn’t Peyton,’’ Stokley said. “That’s how it started. I went back every single year.
“That’s where our friendship started and we continued to be friends in the NFL. I continued to go to his camp and I was fortunate enough to go to Indy.’’
The camp colleagues would be teammates in Indianapolis (2003-06) and again in Denver (2012). Stokley’s career would span 15 seasons, 152 games, 397 receptions and 39 touchdowns, but his four-year stint with the Colts – and Manning – still holds a special place in his heart.
“Everything lined up,’’ he said. “I got to play with Peyton Manning. For me at that time, it was unbelievable.
“We had some magical seasons.’’
Magical became historic in week 16 of ’04 against the San Diego Chargers in the RCA Dome. The Colts were 11-3 and Manning was sitting on 47 touchdown passes.
Manning tied Marino in the third quarter with a shovel pass to running back James Mungro – Edgerrin James flipped spots with Mungro in the two-back formation as the Colts broke the huddle so the record-tying toss would go to Mungro – and broke it during a furious fourth-quarter rally that forced overtime.
“It was a huge deal at the time,’’ Stokley said. “Nobody thought that record would ever be broken. Then, there we were.
“We were on that record pace and that’s all anybody was talking about. To be on the receiving end of it was a really cool moment for me. That was definitely one of the highlights of my career, to be on the receiving end of that record breaker.’’
Trailing the Chargers 31-23 with 1 minute to play, the Colts faced a first-and-10 at the San Diego 21. Manning’s options included Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne.
He opted for Stokley and some Manning-esque improv.
“Typical Peyton,’’ Stokley said. “We practiced the play a handful of times, but it really wasn’t in the game plan. We never huddled back then, but I would kind of go back and get the play from him and relay it to the outside receiver.
“He told me in that moment, ‘Hey, I’m going to give you the smash signal.’ That was the universal signal in the NFL for the outside guy to run a hitch and the inside guy to run a corner route.’’
Positioned outside to the left, Wayne ran a 5-yard hitch. Manning had other ideas for Stokley.
“He said, ‘I’m going to give you that signal, but you run the corner-post,’’’ Stokley said. “I said, “All right, perfect.’ And that’s what it was.
“He gave that signal, he sold it and it worked perfectly.’’
Stokley faked the corner, corkscrewed San Diego’s safety into the turf with a sharp inside cut and cradled history. The 21-yard TD ignited a celebration in the stands and on the field as teammates swarmed Stokley.
Manning? He held two fingers in the air, feverishly signaling the need for the Colts to attempt a 2-point conversion. The record TD was electric but left them short, 31-29. James tied the game with the 2-PAT run, and Mike Vanderjagt’s 30-yard field goal 2:47 into overtime won it 33-31.
“That was Peyton Manning at his best,’’ Stokley said.
The only regret? Despite his best efforts, Stokley was unable to maintain possession of the record football.
“I gave the football to Aaron Moorehead and told him, ‘Don’t give it to anybody. You hold onto it,’’’ he said. “We ended up going into overtime and Aaron said the equipment managers were asking for the football and he’s telling me, ‘I don’t know what to do.’ And I’m trying to play a football game.
“Finally I just told him to give it to them. I think they gave it to Mr. Irsay.’’
The record football is indeed in Irsay’s possession.
“I hope it’s in a cool spot,’’ Stokley said. “It’s a part of Colts’ history.’’
The Manning-to-Stokley record was surpassed three years later by New England’s Tom Brady (50), then recaptured by Manning with the Broncos in ’13 (55).
Stokley considered 2004 one more time, and wondered what might have been. With so many lopsided games that season, Manning missed what amounted to six full quarters.
“We could have put that mark a lot higher,’’ Stokley said.
Along with setting the single-season TD record, the Colts became the first team in NFL history to have three receivers finish with at least 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns: Harrison (1,113 yards and 15 TDs), Wayne (1,210 and 12) and Stokley (1,077 and 10).
“Magical,’’ Stokley said. “It was the best year of my career.
“It was a testament to Peyton and the work ethic and the drive and the commitment from him and all of us collectively.’’