- Elizabeth Merrill, ESPN Senior Writer
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DENVER -- This was so big that grown men cut out of work early just to buy jerseys that haven't even arrived yet. It was so big that classes were stopped, midtest, and high school boys clapped and high-fived while teenage girls sighed. On Monday night, hours after word spread that Peyton Manning was coming to Denver, couples gravitated to John Elway's swank restaurant in Cherry Creek, compelled to toast what they believed was one of the most historic days in Broncos football. They ordered crab legs and expensive steaks. It was time to celebrate a beginning, and an ending. And neither one seemed real.
Forty miles away on Tuesday morning, in the peaceful bedroom community of Loveland, Colo., Bailey Knaub put on her Tim Tebow jersey and headed off to school. It seems like a lifetime ago now, that day Knaub met Tebow. It was two months ago. The 16-year-old girl who endured 73 surgeries had watched the Broncos only on TV before the quarterback invited her to a playoff game against the Steelers, a game in which Tebow blew up Twitter after an 80-yard touchdown pass in overtime for the improbable victory, a game in which he mentioned young Bailey in his postgame news conference.
So much has happened since then. Tebow's weaknesses were exposed that next weekend in a humbling loss at New England; Manning, recovering from neck surgery, was cut from the Indianapolis Colts seven weeks later. In a scene that resembled "The Bachelor," teams lined up to court Manning, a future Hall of Famer, and Elway, eventually, proved to have the smoothest moves.
Knaub's story, meanwhile, did not draw the attention of news helicopters. She had another operation last week -- No. 74 in her battle with Wegener's granulomatosis, a rare disease that causes blood vessels to become swollen and inflamed and has left her with only one lung. She missed a little school but is back now and insists she feels "great." Knaub is shy and refuses to be known as "the sick girl," so she doesn't want to talk about that. She wants to talk about Tebow, who the Broncos agreed to trade Wednesday, pending approval, to the New York Jets.
"I just wanted to show that I'll support him wherever he goes," Knaub said. "He made me feel special. That's just what I'll never forget."
Back at the Broncos' team facility in Dove Valley, Manning walked into a packed room on Tuesday afternoon for an introductory news conference. It had a nervous, sort of surreal vibe to it, which local radio personality Les Shapiro chalked up to the oddity of seeing Manning, who spent 14 years in Indianapolis Colts blue, holding up a bright-orange jersey. People just aren't used to it yet.
But when Peyton Manning speaks, he says all the right things, and an entire city stops to listen. People here somehow seem to know that everything will be OK, that their fortunes are about to change. Maybe it's fitting that one of the most popular and polarizing figures in the history of this storied franchise would be replaced by a quarterback who is almost universally revered.
Maybe it's the only way this could've been done.
It's not real. It can't be. In late January, Tim Tebow was summoned up on stage at the Pepsi Center during a Brad Paisley concert, and the screams that followed seemed to reinforce the fact that this was a city in love with its quarterback. How could they move on so quickly? How could a loyal fan base that has sold out home games since 1970, through thick and thin, be so fickle?
But it was never that simple. Explaining Tim Tebow, a seemingly selfless young man who made his critics cringe when he openly spoke about God, who made his detractors boil through the first three quarters of most games, would take much too long. So let's focus on the city. Denver is a haven for transplants, of people who moved to the mountains to ski and hike and be healthy and fit, so maybe it can occasionally come across as being somewhat distracted. But its love of the Broncos has never been questioned. Fans have been behind their team through everything, through the highs of the Super Bowls and the lows of late-season collapses.
It's not the same for other sports. When the Nuggets and the Avalanche falter, apathy creeps in. But the Broncos were the first professional team in Denver, and people from Nebraska to New Mexico identify with the orange and blue.
Broncos fans are passionate. Their most visible supporter was a guy named "Barrel Man," who came to games dressed in a cowboy hat, a barrel and very little else. He did this for decades, in the snow and freezing temperatures. Whenever people around him were cold and wanted to leave, Barrel Man said they couldn't. They paid for a whole game, he'd say, and they were staying for a whole game.
A couple of years ago, "Barrel Man" -- Tim McKernan -- was dying of lung failure, and he had one last wish. His lung capacity was about 15 percent, but he had to see another Broncos game. Denver owner Pat Bowlen put him up in a suite. McKernan died a few weeks later.
His son Todd said he's sure McKernan would've loved Tebow. He plays hard and doesn't complain. He wins. But Todd McKernan said it's impossible for any Broncos fan not to root for Manning's arrival.
"I'm sad to see Tim Tebow go," he said. "But from a football standpoint, he's a little bit behind Peyton Manning. How do I say this? He can't carry Peyton Manning's jock. It's not very nice, but we haven't had anything close to that since Elway."
Broncos fans are knowledgeable. For every Tebowmaniac who was giddy over the fact that Tebow turned around a 1-4 team and took it to the playoffs in 2011, there was a pragmatist who doubted he had the skills to take the Broncos to the Super Bowl.
And Broncos fans expect to be in the Super Bowl, or at least in the hunt for it every season. Former Denver linebacker Karl Mecklenburg knew that years ago, when he was the franchise's pick at No. 310,in the 1983 draft. Mecklenburg grew up in Minnesota. Whenever the Vikings were good, he said, fans got nervous and waited for something bad to happen.
In Denver, they painted their cars and houses orange and went crazy on Sundays. Mecklenburg came in the same year Elway did, and the Broncos made the playoffs that '83 season. He compared Tuesday's signing to the Elway trade three decades ago.
"It's a big day," Mecklenburg said. "If the organization does their job right and puts the right people around him, it's back to the Super Bowl for the Broncos. I think that's something that three months ago looked like it was a long way off.
"It's going to be hard for the Tebow supporters to knock down Peyton. He has an unbelievable record of philanthropy, and I'm sure it will be the same thing back here in Denver. It's not like they're bringing in the bad guy to replace the good guy. They're both great people, both great winners. It's really a wash from so many different angles except for the fact that Peyton is a polished and finished quarterback who can win games right now and has championships under his belt."
A few feet from where the throngs once screamed for Tebow the pro shop at Sports Authority Field at Mile High was hopping on Tuesday. Every couple of minutes, the phone rang with requests for No. 18 Manning jerseys. And every time, Stephanie Redshirt told the callers that the Manning merchandise won't be in until the end of the week.
The store is sort of a shrine to failed quarterbacks. There's a rack of Kyle Orton jerseys 50 percent off -- "Nobody wants those," Redshirt said -- and the orange T-shirts that say BEL15VE, which is an homage to Tebow, who wears No. 15 and led the Broncos to so many gritty fourth-quarter victories in 2011. In some ways, it reminded fans of Elway and his miracle comebacks. But in many cases, it reminded them of what they didn't have. Denver is harsh on its quarterbacks. Elway spoiled them that way.
When Denver native Eddie Monjaraz arrived at the pro store Tuesday afternoon, he was looking for something to commemorate the day, be it a cup or a jersey, anything that he could pull out one day and tell his kids that he was there on March 20, the start of the Manning era, the day, Monjaraz believes, is the first step back to the glory days.
There have been 10 different starting quarterbacks since Elway retired in 1999, and none of them, from Brian Griese to Gus Frerotte to Jay Cutler, has been good enough for Broncos fans. Tebow, for at least one season, had some of them hoping.
For four months, roughly half the town was split in its support for Tebow, said Shapiro, an afternoon-show host for the ESPN affiliate in Denver. Half fervently believed he was a franchise quarterback; the other half cheered on the wins but braced for the worst.
"It's been an 18-ring circus because it has been so noisy," Shapiro said. "Basically, you had two elements screaming at each other all day long.
"You couldn't really reason with the Tebow supporters. If you criticized the way he threw the ball, they took that as criticizing the man. They had trouble separating the person from the player. He's a wonderful kid. He's going to do great things for humanity, I have no doubt. But can he play the game at this level and win consistently? There are many, many people here who don't believe that, and John Elway was one of them."
Before he was named executive vice president of football operations for the Denver Broncos in early 2011, John Elway was in his restaurant on First Avenue quite frequently. He'd sit at a small table across the bar, order a Dewar's on the rocks, and gladhand with all the fans who pined for stories.
An employee at Elway's who declines to be named said Elway seemed sort of lost in those retirement years away from Mile High, struggling to find his place. Now, he rarely comes into the restaurant because he's so busy. He's so driven again. The employee watched the Manning news conference on Tuesday and was struck by how happy Elway seemed.
"I've never seen him command a news conference like that," the employee said. "He's usually very He doesn't like spending time in front of the camera. This meant something to him."
It means something to Denver, too. For years, there was a popular bumper sticker with mountains on it that said, NATIVE. It meant you were from this place, where other people wanted to be. There is great pride in saying that you're from Denver, the employee said, and if you've been around for about 20 years and you're a Broncos fan, you can say you're one of them.
And if you're Peyton Manning, you can have all the bumper stickers you want and be welcomed immediately. Although the bright-orange jersey might have seemed strange next to Manning on Tuesday, if he does what he's expected to do, if he wins, he'll be a legend in Denver. Maybe someday, he'll be as big as Elway. He's Peyton Manning, the employee said. Who wouldn't embrace him?
Back in Loveland, Bailey Knaub will welcome Manning, too. She'll root for her Broncos, because that's all she's ever done. She's heard that Manning is a nice guy, too, which makes her feel a little better. Knaub hasn't talked to Tebow since late January. If she ever does again, she'll pass on one message: "Don't let this get you down. You'll be great no matter what."
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