INDIANAPOLIS – The return of Peyton Manning to Indianapolis for Sunday's Colts-Denver game already has registered deeply in the hearts and minds of Colts and NFL fans.
One of his former head coaches, Tony Dungy, knows Sunday will present emotions for fans and Manning alike.
"I never thought I would see him in a different uniform and certainly wouldn't think he would be coming back playing maybe the best football of his career – undefeated and putting up such gaudy numbers," said Dungy, part of NBC's entourage covering the game and Manning's mentor in Indianapolis from 2002-08.
Dungy knew the decision reached by Jim Irsay to part ways with Manning in 2012 was a difficult one for the affinity the owner felt for a player and person who had done so much to represent the franchise tremendously in every regard.
"It wasn't a no-brainer," said Dungy of the decision. "He knew all the factors. Jim also had a great deal of loyalty. Jim was a young boy when his dad traded Johnny Unitas, so he knew the ramifications of those types of decisions.
"He also knew how much Peyton had done for Indianapolis, for that franchise."
Irsay had to measure the moment regarding Manning's health after multiple neck surgeries threatened a Hall-of-Fame career, along with the chance to solidify his franchise with the drafting of Andrew Luck.
It was the drafting of Manning in 1998 that helped place Indianapolis among the league's elite. Manning helped the Colts to eight division flags, two conference titles, one World Championship, to the NFL's winningest regular-season decade (115, 2000-09) and the longest league winning streak (23 games, 2008-09).
The uncertainty of Manning's improving health and the chance to address the toughest position in sports with a gifted talent in Luck factored into the decision.
Indianapolis had a chance to ease into a new era almost as seamlessly as San Francisco did from Joe Montana to Steve Young and Green Bay did from Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers.
"With everything the way it was at the time – with Andrew being there and being available, knowing the scouting report on Andrew and the percentages of Peyton coming back and playing well at that point it was the right thing to do," said Dungy, who consulted with Irsay on numerous occasions during the process.
Dungy and Manning had an 85-27 regular-season record as a coach-QB tandem, the second-best ever achieved in the Super Bowl era. It was 92-33 counting the playoffs.
Dungy had unique insights on his star player through a relationship that extended just as successfully on a personal level.
Dungy knows exactly how Manning will approach Sunday as a player and for what it will mean for him internally.
"He is going to treat it that way (like it is a normal game) because that's the way he prepares; it's analytical and it's positioned – this linebacker, that corner, that defensive coordinator," said Dungy. "But I promise you this means a lot to him coming back there playing in front of those fans. Just the whole thing; it's more than just a game against a faceless opponent.
"I know him and the way he's going to prepare. He's going to try to keep himself in that mode all week, but it's going to be difficult."
Dungy witnessed the civic transformation made by the club's success with Manning during his own years in Indianapolis.
"When I got there, he had been there four years already," said Dungy. "It was a basketball city, and Peyton Manning made it a football city, without question.
"He played well on the field but he was there, he was involved in the community on a daily basis. He spent 14 years there and poured everything he had into it, that's why it's going to be so emotional when he goes back.
"It's going to be emotion from the fans. There's going to be emotion from him. He's going to try to hide it as best he can, but I promise you it's going to be emotional. It's going to a fun night and a night where we're going to see great quarterbacking, I think, on both sides of the ball. And something I'm really looking forward to watching."