Duke football coach David Cutcliffe still remembers watching Peyton Manning run out on the field for warmups in his first game back from a career threatening neck injury – one that sidelined him for one year.
He called that moment “surreal.”
“Knowing the year he had, knowing the pain associated, not just physical pain with the injury, but emotional pain,” Cutcliffe said. “I watched every step and he was jogging the same way Peyton Manning jogged in 1994.”
That moment was in 2012. Fast forward to 2016, and Manning, 39, will officially announce his retirement Monday after 18 seasons, according to the Denver Broncos.
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Cutcliffe said he hadn’t talked to Manning directly, but a text from him seemed to indicate the future Hall-of-Fame quarterback was at peace with his decision to retire.
“I think all of us have enjoyed a premiere career, and I’m very appreciative,” Cutcliffe said at a press conference Sunday. “He has been inspirational to me as a friend and as a coach, and he has made me a better person.”
Cutcliffe was Manning’s offensive coordinator at the University of Tennessee and the two have maintained a close relationship.
Under Cutcliffe, Manning set records in wins, yards and touchdowns in his career at Tennessee.
He would go on to be drafted No. 1 overall in 1998.
Manning will go down as one of the best quarterbacks to ever play in the NFL. He won five NFL MVP honors and is the NFL’s all-time leader in passing yards and passing touchdowns.
Although admittedly biased, Cutcliffe thinks Manning is the best to ever do it.
“In my opinion he is,” Cutcliffe said. “To put yourself in a position to win playoff games. To put yourself in a position that this late stage in his career they’ve played in two of the last three Super Bowls and won one of them. Good gosh. The yards are unparalleled. The touchdowns are unparalleled.”
Manning started 227 straight games, before sustaining the neck injury that caused him to miss the entire 2011 season.
It was Cutcliffe that Manning trusted to rebuild his throwing motion after the many neck surgeries in 2011, and Cutcliffe was one of the people Manning chose to lean on for emotional support.
Manning won one final MVP in 2013.
Manning’s final season as a pro was arguably his worst statistically (9 TD’s, 17 INT’s), but ended in the best way possible: with his second Super Bowl ring.
It was also marked by allegations that Manning used performance-enhancing drugs to get back on the field after his neck injury.
When asked what he thought about the allegations, Cutcliffe said he doesn’t think twice about it.
“I was there, and I know,” he said. “It’s so blown out of proportion, it’s amazing. It really is. ... What I think is it’s a commentary of what occurs all too often of people who are in the public eye.”
“I’m not concerned about that at all,” he continued. “I was right there.”
Manning was also hampered by many injuries in 2015, most notably a torn plantar fascia in his left foot. He missed six games, and turned the ball over more than any other quarterback in the league.
But Manning came back and led Denver through three playoff wins, including that 24-10 Super Bowl 50 win over the Carolina Panthers on Feb. 7.