INDIANAPOLIS – On Wednesday at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center, Jim Irsay and Peyton Manning stood within 100 feet from where they conducted their first on-site press conference together as an owner and NFL quarterback.
That occasion was on April 18, 1998, and the pair stood side-by-side yesterday reflecting about their warm feelings for each other, the memories each will share for a lifetime and circumstances that spurred a departure after 14 memorable years.
"We are here to honor all the incredible memories and incredible things he (Peyton) has done for the franchise, for the city, for the state," said Irsay. "In the history of sports through the last century, there have been in team sports a handful of hall-of-fame great players that have done incredible things for franchises. I know this parallels the handful of people through time that have meant so much to the franchise. I know in my heart and in the hearts of our fans it's unparalleled for the Colts."
Manning threw for 54,828 yards and 399 touchdowns with Indianapolis, starting his first 208 career games and winning four MVP awards before a series of neck surgeries kept him from playing last year.
Indianapolis went 2-14 in 2011, earning the top pick in the upcoming draft and prompting a number of changes. Irsay hired new General Manager Ryan Grigson and Head Coach Chuck Pagano and a snug salary cap situation and the passage of time finds the Colts in a rebuilding mode, something no one wished for or could have predicted.
"Peyton and I have had numerous conversations over the months. We always kept trying to come back to the circumstances that were before us," said Irsay. "We tried to put each other in each other's shoes and tried to realize what the situation was for the franchise, what it was for Peyton. In the end, those circumstances were too difficult to overcome, circumstances that dictated to us, to the franchise that really were unavoidable.
"It's something where as we're going forward and being a rebuilding team with salary cap problems, and Peyton is on the mend to try to resume his career. We both wanted to be together. It's been very difficult and just tearing at our hearts to try to look at the situation to find the best solution. Peyton has been completely unselfish in terms of looking at where the franchise is at this point."
Irsay cited his wish to see Manning succeed immediately as the Colts rebuild to compete in the future.
"It's not like I sat there a year and a half ago and said, 'We really want to rebuild, we're looking forward to rebuilding.' It didn't work that way. I think with injuries, the erosion of time on the roster and different things and circumstances dictated that. I think people lose track of the salary cap and where we are really at there. Just to sign our draft picks, we're going to have to make more roster moves," said Irsay. "Peyton and I talked about it, how hard it is to win in this league. It's going to be a process for us. Hopefully, we'll watch Peyton win immediately and that we'll continue to slowly build and find our stride. As Peyton and I talked, the hope and plan was that it would be a slow continuity. That we would slowly go into it and there wouldn't be such jagged edges to all of the sudden rebuilding being upon you. But, it forced itself upon us."
Manning was part of a rebuilding process when he arrived in Indianapolis, and he very much enjoyed his time with Irsay, in the organization and the city.
"I sure have loved playing football for the Indianapolis Colts. For 14 wonderful years, the only professional football I've known has been Colts football," said Manning. "Our team won a lot of games here. I played with so many great teammates here, and I've been part of a great organization here – an organization and an owner who I respect and continue to respect.
"I've been a Colt for almost all of my adult life. I guess in life and in sports, we all know that nothing lasts forever. Times change, circumstances change and that's the reality of playing in the NFL. Jim and I have spoken extensively about where we are today, and our conversations have led both of us to recognize that our circumstances make it best for us to take this next step. This has not been easy for Jim, and it certainly has not been easy for me. Jim, along with Bill Polian, drafted me 14 years ago. Jim and I have always been close, and we made a lot of great memories together. He's always been good to me and Jim, I will be forever grateful.
"This town and this team mean so much to me. It truly has been an honor to play in Indianapolis. I do love it here. I love the fans, and I will always enjoy having played for such a great team. … I haven't thought yet about where I'll play, but I have thought a lot about where I've been. I've truly been blessed. I've been blessed to play here. I've been blessed to be in the NFL and as I go, I go with just a few words left to say, a few words I want to address to Colts fans everywhere. Thank you very much from the bottom of my heart. I truly have enjoyed being your quarterback."
Irsay reiterated how much Manning meant to him during his years of service.
"There will be no other Peyton Manning. Over the last decade and a half we've been so blessed to have him," said Irsay. "When a 37-year old owner met a 22-year old player coming out of Tennessee and the dreams we had and the experiences are beyond my imagination. As difficult as this is, I know our journey together hasn't ended. It's really just begun. … He's always part of the Horseshoe. I can't thank him enough.
"Whenever we went on the road, the circus was coming into town, and Peyton was the ringleader. The memories we have and the great people we've been blessed to be around, I'll always treasure."
A career of accomplishment in Indianapolis is over. Memories and friendships will last a lifetime. Honoring the moment, Irsay placed Manning in a spot of dignity held by only a select number of previous Colts greats.
"It's a difficult day here of shared pain between Peyton, myself, the fans, everyone. In that vein as well, the 18 jersey will never be worn again by a Colt on the field."