As Peyton Manning plotted his personal odyssey through the 100-year history of the NFL, he knew he had to come to Baltimore.
He’d been (through no fault of his own) the face of a franchise that abandoned the city. He’d matched wits with Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, in his opinion the greatest defensive player and greatest safety of his generation. He’d been outdueled on a frigid night in Denver in the most exciting win the Ravens ever pulled off. And he’d spent a lifetime paying homage to Johnny Unitas, his father’s favorite quarterback and a beacon for how Manning hoped to play the most scrutinized position in American sports.
As part of the NFL’s centennial celebration, Manning had agreed to star in a series called “Peyton’s Places” in which he’d visit the most fascinating people and locations from the league’s first 100 years. Let others speculate about whether he’d sign on as a color commentator for Monday Night Football. Manning, the great quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos, wanted to feed his inner football nerd.
Which is how he found himself staring at Lewis across a plate of steamed crabs at Nick’s Fish House in February.
Manning could not imagine telling the story of NFL defense without meeting the linebacker who tested his mind like no other. They were two faces of the same coin — generational talents so fanatical in their film study and field generalship that they ultimately became subjects of parody.
“We both realized that you have to take whatever ability you have and combine it with a work ethic to find some kind of edge out there,” Manning said in a recent phone interview.
“It was that shared common thing,” Lewis said. “Like Magic and Bird when they were going at it. It was like, ‘Magic knows this and Bird knows that.’ It was the same thing with me and him. I don’t think people knew how really detailed it got when we played against each other. … You had to find your own weakness, because you knew he was going to find it.”
The episode of “Peyton’s Places,” which posted last week on ESPN+ (the network’s premium streaming platform), invites viewers to witness the kind of charged conversation Manning and Lewis shared over the years as they built a friendly rivalry.
They relished testing themselves against one another but palled around at the Pro Bowl, where they routinely served as captains and enjoyed billing rounds of drinks to the rooms of first-time selections. On one trip to Hawaii, they even mused about playing together.
“That was more of a hope and a dream,” Manning said.
His trip to Maryland for “Peyton’s Places” went well beyond cracking crabs with Lewis.
He visited the Babe Ruth Museum and Birthplace where he saw the tea set Unitas selected as his reward for winning the 1959 Most Valuable Player trophy.
He also traveled to Kent Island to talk with Baltimore native Mel Kiper Jr. about the drastic evolution of the NFL draft as a television event. For example, when Manning’s father, Archie, was picked second overall in 1971, he found out via a phone call from a public relations man. He celebrated by attending a 10 a.m. class at Ole Miss.
The third episode of “Peyton’s Places” traces the history of NFL quarterbacks, and Unitas is a central character. Manning visited cramped Arsenal Field in Pittsburgh where Unitas played semi-pro games for $6 a night before signing with the Colts. He was visibly moved as he took in the scene with Unitas’ favorite target, Raymond Berry.
Afterward, Manning and the 86-year-old Berry walked across the street to a conference room, where they broke down film of the 1958 NFL championship game, in which Berry caught a dozen Unitas passes for 178 yards.
Such encounters were exactly what Manning envisioned when he signed on for the series.
“What jumped out to me was having the opportunity to spend time with some great players and people that have been a part of this history,” Manning said. “To sit down with Raymond Berry and hear him talk about Unitas … he was talking about plays and what the Giants were supposed to do on this play and what happened instead. It was as if the game was yesterday. When the NFL was telling me about this, those were the kinds of things that flashed into my mind. Like man, this could be really special and cool, and it’s not an opportunity I’m going to have again.”
Manning paid homage to Unitas by wearing black high tops at the University of Tennessee and met the great Colt at a banquet where he received the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award as the nation’s best senior quarterback. Unitas’ old teammate, Earl Morrall, was the keynote speaker.
“And Unitas is talking to me for the whole banquet, telling stories,” Manning remembered. “I’m eating it up but at some point, I said ‘Mr. Unitas, should we listen to Mr. Morrall?’ And he said, ‘Nah, nah, nah, I’ve heard all his stuff. Let’s just you and I keep talking.’ It was incredible.”
He displays a picture of himself and Unitas, both wearing tuxedos and gripping a pair of those high tops, in his home.
When Manning was drafted by the Colts, he quickly learned the special venom Baltimore reserved for his Indianapolis version of the team.
“My rookie year, we came there,” he said. “That was the first time the Colts had returned to Baltimore, and I still remember this fan sitting right behind me, saying, ‘Give us our trophies back! Gives us our trophies back!’ And I was kind of looking at the guy like, ‘Man, I was 8 years old when they left.’ But I get it.”
He empathized with the bitterness of abandoned fans, but every day, he walked by pictures of Unitas, Lenny Moore and Gino Marchetti at the team’s facility.
“I always felt a connection,” he said. “It was the same uniform, that horseshoe, and Indianapolis didn’t have that long of a football history, but Baltimore certainly did. I know it’s a touchy point, but for me, I just went ahead and said, ‘I’m a Colt; I’m going to embrace all the Colts, no matter what city they played in.’”
The various threads of Manning’s experience with Baltimore came together on Jan. 13, 2007, when the Ravens hosted the Colts in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs.
The game pitted Manning and the Lewis-Reed defense at their respective apexes, but that was just the beginning of the story.
The air throbbed with genuine rage that day. It had been 23 years since the Mayflower trucks carried the Colts away, but the team was still owned by a man named Irsay, and Baltimore had not forgotten.
“It was an electric atmosphere,” Manning recalled. “I certainly knew that it was more than just two teams playing each other.”
Lewis still cannot quite believe the Ravens lost a game in which his crew held Manning without a touchdown.
“I remember [Ravens defensive coordinator] Rex [Ryan] screaming, ‘This is the best on the best,’ ” he said. “It was one of the most electric energies, and a lot of it was because of [Manning], who he was and the respect he carried.”
The Colts won 15-6 on five Adam Vinatieri field goals.
Lewis found a measure of revenge six years later when the Ravens upset Manning’s Broncos in the AFC divisional round. That game is remembered for Joe Flacco’s miraculous heave to Jacoby Jones, but Lewis had 17 tackles, and you hear his voice come to life as he describes the patterns he noticed in his quest to check Manning.
Afterward, Manning walked into the Ravens’ locker room with his son to congratulate Lewis on a brilliant career, which would end two games later with victory in Super Bowl XLVII.
“That’s the respect that me and him carry for each other,” Lewis said. “People play the game for a lot of reasons, but me and that guy, we played for the right reason — best on best. And the thing I appreciate to this day is the way we became better friends than we were rivals.”
The last thing Manning did on his trip to Baltimore was share a few beers with old Colts fans at Nick’s.
“We just talked about Unitas and Lenny Moore and Marchetti and what those teams and players meant to that community,” he recalled. “They were very friendly. One guy was a little hesitant, kind of saying, ‘I don’t really like anything about the Indianapolis Colts.’ … But that was important to me, to give them a voice and tell that story. Because even though that team doesn’t technically exist anymore, those fans exist. That was a bitter time, going back to 1984 and it took a long time to get over, even when the Ravens came. But it was a chance for me to hear that story.”