Brandon Stokley relishes reunion
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Brandon Stokley was ready for a reunion, not retirement.
I think he's the best ever to play the position. So, to have a chance to play with somebody like that is pretty special.” -- Brandon Stokley, on playing with Peyton Manning
Stokley played in just two games for the New York Giants last year before a strained thigh led to an injury settlement. Instead of helping the Giants win another ring, he spent his winter back home in Castle Rock, Colo., wondering if his NFL career was over.
He kept in shape, and when Manning signed with Denver, the Broncos quickly brought back his sidekick slot receiver who played with the four-time MVP in Indianapolis from 2003-06.
Stokley, who played in Denver from 2007-09, said he's, well, stoked, to be back with the Broncos and Manning.
"I wasn't really ready to be done," Stokley said. "I still feel like I can play."
Stokley and Manning hooked up at a public park in Castle Rock to play some catch during the quarterback's free agency whirlwind tour in March.
It was Stokley who let the sports world know that Manning looked strong and accurate after missing last season following a series of neck operations that led to his release by the Colts. Manning had worked out privately for some teams, but Stokley was the first eyewitness to come forward and give the 36-year-old quarterback rave reviews.
At first, he was surprised by Manning's precise, powerful passes.
"I was. I hadn't talked to him about it. I didn't ask him how he was throwing or even if he was throwing. So, when I went up there, I just wanted to have a clear mind and just see for myself. So, I was really impressed that first day," Stokley said.
"And we ended up throwing for three straight days and he was the only quarterback there, so he was throwing a lot of balls and you never saw any drop-off. And when we threw a week or two later, he looked even better. That just showed me he is improving."
Stokley then made a tour of high school football fields around the Denver area with Manning and receiver Eric Decker to get back into shape and rediscover their rhythm.
Not long after Manning called John Elway and agreed to a five-year, $96 million deal, Stokley signed a one-year contract to return to the Broncos in what he views as the best of both worlds.
"No, I didn't ever think I'd have another chance to play with him," Stokley said. "I don't want to say you kind of take him for granted, but then you move on and you kind of realize what you had. And you kind of always hope that you get that chance again. So, for me, it's been great, I think he's the best ever to play the position. So, to have a chance to play with somebody like that is pretty special."
Stokley, who turns 36 next month, same as Manning, is healthy again.
"I feel great. I feel 100 percent. I don't have any ailments or nothing's bothering me. So, the body's feeling good and I feel good," he said.
Known as the "Slot Machine," Stokley is the only Broncos receiver who has played with Manning before, and he's freely dishing out advice to his young teammates, some of whom he'll be battling with for a roster spot and playing time.
"I've always looked at it like anything I can do to help out," Stokley said. "I believe in my ability and what I can do and if it's good enough, then I'll be on the team. If it's not, then I won't. But I don't think helping somebody else out is going to hurt me. I've never looked at it that way. I've always had older guys who have helped me out. So, whenever I get the chance I try to help out whoever asks."
Stokley's first stint with the Broncos was best known for his "Immaculate Deflection" catch that stunned the Cincinnati Bengals in the 2009 season opener. Down 7-6 with 28 seconds left, Kyle Orton's underthrown pass to Brandon Marshall was tipped by cornerback Leon Hall and into the hands of Stokley, who raced for an 87-yard TD and a 12-7 win in Josh McDaniels' head coaching debut.
Stokley said it's been fun to see how far Decker and Demaryius Thomas have come since he played with them when they were rookies during training camp in 2010, before injury ended Stokley's first stint in Denver.
He said he's eager to see how much better Manning will make them, too.
"Oh, I think it's going to be huge, especially with what they had last year and the offense that they ran last year to what they're going to have this year," Stokley said. "I think the expectations are going to be a lot higher from the quarterback.
"So, I think anytime you have that, it just makes the player work harder and want to do better. With Peyton, everything has to be so precise, detail-oriented, it just rubs off on everybody else."
Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press
The NFL on ESPN.com