- Elizabeth Merrill, ESPN Senior Writer
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INDIANAPOLIS -- This could not be another story about Peyton Manning. His agent, a tall and well-coiffed man who also happens to represent his brother Eli, said as much Sunday afternoon. Tom Condon rushed his way through the lobby of the JW Marriott five and a half hours before the Super Bowl, a Louis Vuitton bag slung over his shoulder, on a mission to escape any more Peyton questions.
The last time he had talked to Peyton, the uber-agent said, Peyton had made it clear that he wanted the focus to be on the game. On Eli. But for the better part of seven days, big brother was all over the headlines. There were revealing interviews and words exchanged and the news, midweek, that Peyton was cleared by his doctors to play football again after sitting out 2011 with a neck injury. And then came Sunday, the day Peyton Manning went underground. He did not partake in lunch with his family at an Italian restaurant downtown, where mama Olivia and brother Cooper wore nervous smiles in a private dining room as the youngest Manning boy, quarterback for the New York Giants, was off preparing to play the New England Patriots.
During the game, there were no cutaway shots of Peyton on the big boards at Lucas Oil Stadium, his stadium. It was the Super Bowl version of Where's Waldo. He had to be somewhere in this mass of nearly 70,000 people. Turns out Manning, according to his mother, was hidden in the Gatorade suite, away from his family and the cameras.
"He knew this was Eli's night," she said.
"Probably Peyton Manning is the happiest of all. I just know he is. He's Eli's biggest supporter. He loves him beyond belief. So how could he be anything but ecstatic for his little brother?"
Olivia, it seems, is like Eli. She does not crave the spotlight. She politely declines two interview requests on Super Bowl Sunday, then suggests talking to Cooper or their dad, Archie, instead. She finally relents, after the Giants beat the Patriots 21-17, the confetti fell and Eli had won his second Super Bowl.
It was such an odd and beautiful week for the family. It was like coming home. Peyton has been the quarterback in Indianapolis for 14 years now; it's all he knows, and it's clear nobody wants to let go. All week, No. 18 Peyton Manning jerseys were everywhere. It was a city's show of solidarity for a quarterback who made football important here, who, although he now has one fewer ring than his brother, is arguably the most beloved person in Indianapolis.
At Tuesday's media day, a fan wore a T-shirt that said, "SAVE PEYTON." Some fans erupted in cheers when Eli took his place in front of the microphone. They had very little to look forward to after the Colts' shocking 2-14 season, but then Eli's team got hot and made it to town. If Peyton couldn't win another Super Bowl, they most certainly wanted Eli to.
"It's been tough," Olivia said. "There were so many twists and turns. We're playing the Super Bowl in Indianapolis, and I mean, all this week I've seen so many Colts No. 18s, and then here comes the Giants No. 10s in your city. I saw somebody with a jersey on that said, 'Peyton's little bro.' I'm just so proud.
"I'm telling you, I think it was the best Super Bowl I think I've ever been to. I live in New Orleans, and we put on some good ones. But this was really special. It was such a great atmosphere. The people are so nice, and we know Indianapolis so well. We were very comfortable here. It just couldn't be any better."
It was Saturday night. Eli Manning was holed away in his hotel room, and Peyton, well, who knows where he was? Tony Reginelli was just sitting down for dinner back in New Orleans, his wife said he couldn't come to the phone, but then Reginelli grabbed the phone because someone was calling about Peyton and he just had to talk.
Reginelli is Peyton's former high school football coach at Isidore Newman. He is 78 and still extremely tight with Peyton. Five years ago, Reginelli suffered a heart attack the day before the AFC Championship Game but begged doctors to let him watch it on TV as they put a stent in his chest. No way was he going to miss Peyton's game.
On Saturday night, dinner be damned, he wanted to talk about Peyton and Eli. They come from a great family, he said. He said it twice, actually. Nothing rattles Eli. He's smooth and doesn't let things get to him. That's why they call him "Easy." Peyton is wound a little tighter. Both approaches work fine. In four of the past six years, there has been a Manning playing on the final night of the season.
"It's a different philosophy," Reginelli said. "Eli will go enjoy life. Peyton, he'll enjoy it after he meets a certain standard."
Peyton recently wrote Reginelli a note, but he didn't want to talk about the contents of it. It's clear he's concerned about Peyton's future. Reginelli says a prayer for him all the time. He has no idea how all of this will shake out, but he knows Manning will do everything he can to try to come back.
He worries about that a little. This isn't a sprained ankle, he says, and Manning now has twin babies to think about.
"I know he wants to play," Reginelli said. "I think if he has a little sliver of daylight, he would probably give it a lot of thought. Peyton, even in college and high school, set certain goals. I'm sure his goal wasn't to stop playing now. He's going to talk to all his doctors, and I'm sure he'll make the right decision."
Reginelli then said he had to go. He couldn't say anymore. He didn't want to get himself in trouble.
Colts owner Jim Irsay was noticeably absent, too. Irsay, at times during the past couple of weeks, has been made out to be the heavy in this whole ordeal. But Irsay will be on the hook for $28 million a month from now, and he has no idea whether Manning's nerves will regenerate so that he can play. On March 8, Manning will be due a $28 million option bonus that would trigger the final four years of a five-year, $90 million contract he signed before the 2011 season. ESPN's Adam Schefter reported Sunday morning that Manning is willing to restructure his contract. That was breaking news on the crawl Sunday, as pictures of Eli flashed on the screen as part of the Super Bowl pregame coverage.
It's obvious that Irsay, one of the more popular NFL owners, cares about what Colts fans think. A couple of days ago, he took to Twitter.
Some of u guys sending ur negative hate will only get love in return, but ur off base; Peyton and I are close n have great love for each other.
Last week, when Manning told The Indianapolis Star that the coaching turnover made for a dark and uncomfortable place at the Colts' facility, Irsay called him a politician.
Manning did a couple of interviews after that, and for much of the week, it seemed his name was mentioned more than his brother's. But that's what happened when the Super Bowl came to his town. Everybody, from the people at church on Super Bowl Sunday morning who wore No. 18 jerseys to the cab drivers trying to make a few extra bucks, wanted to know what would happen to Peyton.
Cooper Manning is one who keeps everything together. He had his career cut short by injury, and Reginelli always wonders how good he could've been if that hadn't happened. Cooper walked by Eli's locker late Sunday night, clutching a football in his left hand.
"A lot of fingernails being gobbled up," Cooper said. "We were on the edge of our seats. You can't eat, can't breathe. But it's what the NFL's turned into, and it's what these battles with the Patriots have turned into."
Eli laid low, too. He had dinner with backup quarterback David Carr on Monday night, then said that was it, he was finished going out, at least with friends, until after the Super Bowl. He stayed in his hotel room and pored over film. It sounded like something Peyton would do.
Carr said the Giants were calling Eli "Easy E" on the sideline during that final touchdown of the game. He scoffed at the notion that Eli would give any thought to all the attention his brother got last week.
"I've known the guy for four years now," Carr said of Eli. "No, I don't think so. He literally has an uncanny ability to tune everything out except for what matters on the field. I think that's what separates him. He doesn't care about what his uniform looks like, he doesn't care about all the stuff that goes along with it.
"I don't think there's any animosity or any way he thought [Peyton] stole his thunder. I think that everything is fine."
It was more than fine Sunday night. But someone was missing. Whenever one of the brothers plays in a big game like this, the other one is usually in the locker afterward, lending his support, win or lose. Peyton couldn't do that Sunday night. It was Eli's night.
Who knows what will happen in these next few weeks? Who knows whether the greatest brother combo in the history of the NFL will continue next year? On Sunday night, the Mannings didn't want to think of all that. They just wanted to enjoy this.
In the locker room, everybody had wanted to be around him. When he peeled off his pads and uniform, the area around his locker became so jammed that a PR flack had to tell people to step back. Seal posed for pictures with him. It was time to go.
Eli glided out of the locker room late Sunday night. He was clutching a spiral notebook. Nobody, the Giants say, prepares better than Eli.
A kid in a Giants jersey said congratulations, and Eli said thanks. He did not take a golf cart to the buses like some of his teammates. Eli wanted to savor this. He walked out into the crisp night air, up the ramp and into one of the last buses. He got in alone, and found a seat in the back.
Before Eli got on the bus, he looked around for somebody. Could it have been Peyton? He'd find his brother later.
They'd talk about the game and the throws. That's what the Mannings do.
"He wanted to just watch him and cheer him," Olivia said of Peyton, "and we'll hook up with him a little bit later and celebrate all night long."
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