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Kelly Holcomb had front-row seat for start of Peyton Manning's career

TEMPE, Ariz. -- When the Indianapolis Colts drafted Peyton Manning first overall in the 1998 NFL draft, Kelly Holcomb understood what it meant.

Manning, who was the best quarterback in college football in 1997 at the University of Tennessee, was slated to be the starter before he arrived in Indianapolis. Holcomb knew that drafting Manning meant he’d be second on the depth chart.

“You understand,” Holcomb told ESPN. “That’s just the politics of the deal. You understand that’s the situation. When you’re the first pick of the draft, let’s be honest ... in nowadays NFL, guys are coming in, and they want to see returns on their investment.”

What Holcomb didn’t know was he’d have a front-row seat for the start of one of the finest careers in NFL history.

But before Manning’s football legacy took shape, he started becoming a legendary practical joker. There was the time Holcomb had to run an errand during training camp in Terre Haute, Indiana, and let Manning -- who didn’t have a TV in his room -- stay in his room to watch whatever they were watching.

It didn’t take Holcomb long to realize the mistake he made.

“I got about two or three minutes down the road, and I’m like, ‘You are the biggest idiot in the world. Why did you leave him in your room?’” Holcomb said.

When he returned to the dorm on the campus of Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, Holcomb could see his teammates looking at him.

“I’m like, ‘Oh, my gosh, what has this dude done?’” Holcomb recalled.

He entered the lobby and saw it. Manning had moved Holcomb’s entire room -- bed, dresser, TV and clothes -- down to the lobby and arranged it to look like an actual room.

“We got a good kick out of that,” said Holcomb, who remembered that former Colts tight end Marcus Pollard recorded the whole thing.

Then there was the time Holcomb pranked Manning. Before one practice, Holcomb put an entire container of Vaseline around the top of Manning’s jersey. When Manning put it on, his hair spiked straight up.

“It was hilarious,” Holcomb said. “He was like, ‘Man, why’d you have to do that before practice.’ I’m like, ‘I didn’t care when it was.’ We had some good times. It was fun.”

When Holcomb wasn’t waiting for the right time to prank Manning, he was patiently waiting for his turn to play. But it never came. Holcomb didn't play a snap for the Colts after they drafted Manning.

“The guy never got hurt,” Holcomb said. “There were times in some of those seasons that he didn’t really get hit. He would go, like, six or seven games without getting hardly touched. That was kind of a credit to [offensive coordinator] Tom Moore and [quarterbacks coach] Bruce Arians and Howard Mudd, which was our O-line coach, who was really good.”

Then there was Manning’s insatiable desire to play. Even when the Colts were blowing teams out -- or getting blown out, as happened on occasion in Manning’s rookie season -- Manning took every snap, much to the chagrin of Holcomb.

In Week 11 of the 1999 season, the Colts traveled to old Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. Holcomb remembered how important playing the Eagles was for former Colts wide receiver Marvin Harrison because Philly was his hometown. Holcomb had a hunch the Colts might put up a lot of points that night. It also happened to be Jeff Saturday’s first start with the Colts because starting left guard Steve McKinney had emergency appendectomy surgery the night before the game.

The Colts beat the Eagles 44-17, and Manning played every snap.

“I’m like, ‘Man, I just want to get in there and play and just hand the ball off and do something,'” Holcomb said. “But Peyton finished the game. That was his mentality. That’s why he was able to play for 18 years.”

That’s also why Holcomb knew he had to get out of Indianapolis. He signed with Cleveland, whose offense was led by Arians, in 2001 and played in 19 games over the next four seasons.

Holcomb couldn’t foresee the four Super Bowl appearances, two rings, numerous records or direct route to Canton, Ohio, for Manning. When Manning entered the league, Holcomb just saw a young man trying to fit in.

“He didn’t want to come in and rock the boat too bad,” Holcomb said. “As a quarterback, you’re the leader of the ball club, and when you’re a rookie, you got to earn those stripes. He was always well aware of that. He was always well aware of it, not just because he’s the quarterback. He wanted to earn the respect of his teammates, and he was very humble when he came in.”

Nearly 20 years later, even though they’re not in touch as often as they once were, Manning returns Holcomb’s texts, which he saves for big wins or important moments.

Throughout his rookie season, when Manning set the NFL rookie season record for most interceptions, with 28, Manning would throw one, two or three picks, and then he went right back to work the next week, Holcomb said.

“That’s what’s hard for some young quarterbacks that have never been in that situation,” Holcomb said. “More than likely, you’re going to struggle. There aren’t many Dan Marinos in the world, who, as a rookie, are going to take their teams to the Super Bowl.”

What Holcomb saw in Manning was an understanding beyond his years of football and the preparation it required. Holcomb called Manning’s film preparation “diligent" and said he “dotted the I’s and crossed the T’s in everything he did.”

“He understood the game of football. He understood what it took to be good,” Holcomb said. “He understood that you had to put the time in, not only in the weight room but in the film room, on the practice field, doing extra, being a friend to your teammate. He understood all that, and he wanted to do that. I’m happy for him.”