- Rick Reilly, Columnist, ESPN.com
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Peyton Manning has been a disaster so far on drives as a Denver Bronco.
The other night, for instance, he left his new house in Cherry Hills to go downtown and drove for 10 minutes the wrong way on I-25 before he figured it out.
"In Indianapolis, I'd go south on the interstate to go downtown, but here, it's north," the Broncos' new QB shrugs. "Seems like every day there's something new to learn. New plays, new players, new city. People ask me if I'm settled in yet. No way, not even close."
Then there's the New Jersey thing. Seeing Peyton Manning in his new Broncos jersey is like seeing Donald Trump in a Greenpeace T-shirt. You want to ask him if he's been Photoshopped.
"Before I'd even put it on, they wanted me to sign a bunch of them," Manning says. "And I'm like, 'Can I just sweat in it first? You know, half letter in it? Just seemed weird."
And then this, which is even more upside down: While everybody in Denver squirms waiting to see whether Manning's four-times-operated-on neck will hold up when he gets hit hard for the first time in 19 months, Manning himself can hardly wait.
"I'd like to get it over with," he says. "I really would. I'd kinda just like [Chicago Bears linebacker Brian] Urlacher or somebody to get a good clean shot and just lay me out. Kind of shake the cobwebs out. So I can get up and go, 'Yeah, OK. I'm ready now.' And at least Urlacher wouldn't use me like a footstool to get up, either."
The Broncos start the preseason at the Bears next week, 7:30 p.m. CT. Would 7:45 be convenient, Mr. Urlacher?
Yes, linebackers of the world. Dreams do come true.
We are through the looking glass here, people. After 14 years in Indianapolis, Manning didn't just change horses in midstream -- Colts to Broncos -- he changed languages. For instance, sometimes a receiver will come back to the huddle and ask him about a route. Manning, in a hurry, will answer him entirely in Colts lingo.
"And he'll just kind of stand there looking at me."
Manning has language on the brain lately. A few weeks back, at a golf tournament at Cherry Hills Country Club, he snuck away with the iPhone of a buddy of mine and changed all the fonts to Chinese. The guy was three hours trying to figure out how to get it back. Maybe Manning just wanted him to know how he feels lately?
Fans seem confused, too. Manning signs every day after practice at Broncos headquarters, even if it's not the quarterbacks' day to sign. He never misses.
"But never in my life did I think I'd be handed a John Elway jersey to sign. And the kid's already got John's signature on it. I tried to talk him out of it. 'Kid, I'm just going to ruin the value. I'm serious.' But he made me sign it anyway."
If Manning does what Elway hopes he does, what Elway and the Broncos gave him $96 million to do, win a Super Bowl, then that jersey might be worth more than a 16-year-old could know how to spend.
"He's come a long way since [he first threw for Elway in March at] Duke," says Elway, the team's executive vice president of football operations. "The ball pops coming out of his hand every time now. It wasn't that consistent at Duke."
So why'd The Duke give him $96 million?
"Because I knew he'd get the ball to them one way or another," Elway laughs. "He always has."
He got it to them plenty Thursday at Broncos camp in front of a record 5,000-plus fans. I counted Manning as 15-for-16 in the live 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills. For Broncos faithful, it was like a gully-washer after a yearlong drought. Tim Tebow could go a week and not hit 15 passes.
I asked Manning whether he notices his golf ball going 7 percent farther at a mile high. "Yeah, but I wish it went that much farther for footballs," Manning replies. "I could use an extra 10 yards. I'm 36 years old."
Manning seems to love the new air he breathes. He's got a Colorado driver's license, has already registered to vote and has moved into his new 16,000-square-foot home.
But since he arrived, the Colorado news sections have been full of disaster and death. First came the wildfires that left more than 300 homes in ashes. Then came the "Batman" mass murder of 12 at a Century 16 theater in nearby Aurora.
"I'm trying to figure out ways I can help," Manning says with a sigh. "It's been tough." He called two of the moms of the slain theater victims to offer sympathy.
"You know, I learned something through this whole [neck] injury thing. People would call or text and say, 'Hey, we're thinking of you. You're in our prayers.' And at first I was like, 'Nah, I'm fine. I'm good. Don't worry about me.' But after a while, I learned to appreciate what they were saying. They were taking time out to let you know they were worried about you. They meant it. They cared. And you start to be grateful for it. And so I try to do more of that now.
"But as a parent, I can't imagine. I'm lucky. I got the greatest blessing a person can have -- twins. [Mosley, a boy, and Marshall, a girl, are 16 months old.] God gave me that gift. So I didn't need the injury to remind me how lucky I am. I realize how lucky I am every day."
Upstairs, in his office, Elway must feel the same way. He watches Manning below, on his practice field, looking as Peyton Manning as he ever did, and grins.
"Everybody looks at him and goes, 'I just can't get used to seeing him in that jersey,'" Elway says. "But I can. I look at him and think, 'He looks like he's been wearing that thing his whole career.' But I guess I would. I wanted him in it so badly."
Peyton Manning has a new team, a new commute, a new jersey and a new language. What comes next? That first big hit at game speed.