The Indianapolis Colts practice facility was located on the outskirts of town not too far from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway where I spent each May for a period of time covering the Indianapolis 500 and the time trials leading up to it.
It was my first time in Indy without covering the race. I drove down to do a profile for The Detroit News on new Colts quarterback Peyton Manning a few months after he lost the Heisman Trophy race to University of Michigan corner back/receiver Charles Woodson. Later the Colts picked him number one in the 1998 NFL draft.
The Colts arranged a 20-minute window for me to talk to Manning. A young public relations person escorted me across acres of open practice space to a back area of the facility. Manning fired sort crisp passes to a pair of teammates after practice.
It seemed to take forever to reach Manning in part because I knew the Heisman vote would come up and I voted for Woodson over Manning. And I was a little nervous.
“He knows you are a voter,” the PR guy said. “And its going to come up.”
That’s fine. That was the primary reason I was there. Tennessee fans were angry over the result and Michigan fans were ecstatic. I went back and forth. Some days Manning was the leader in the club house. Some days Woodson held the top spot.
Shortly after Michigan beat Ohio State I voted. 1. Charles Woodson. 2. Peyton Manning. 3. Randy Moss.
I bring you this story today because both Woodson and Manning were voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame last weekend and had an enjoyable joint interview on the NFL Network where they talked about being linked forever in football lore.
Manning enjoyed a fabulous career at Tennessee. He passed for 3,819 yards and 38 touchdowns his senior year. The tie breaker for me was Woodson did things I’d never seen before. As a defensive back he shut down half the field. As a wide receiver no one could stop him. And he was dominate on special teams, capped by a 78 yard punt return against the Buckeyes.
Michigan went on to share the National championship with Nebraska although I didn’t know that was going to be the outcome when I voted.
“So who did you vote for?” Manning asked shortly after the interview began.
I was prepared to make life easier on me and say I voted for Manning. Who would know the difference? But I could not do it. I’d regret lying to the man the rest of my life. That’d be the worm boy way out of it.
“Charles Woodson,” I said.
I gave my reasons why. Manning lowered his head as if to ponder my decision and just said: “OK.”
He was really cool about it, claiming he was more disappointed in Vol fans who supported him and wanted to see him win. I could tell Manning wanted to win the Heisman but he had bigger fish to fry. He had dreams of winning multiple Super Bowls with the Colts.
I could also tell that he was a super cool guy with a sense of humor. He looked like a humorless block head, but was quite the opposite. He joked that I probably had to vote for Woodson to keep Wolverine fans off my ass. He heard that they could be rough.
Then he joked: “You know I played quarterback, don’t you?”
So we get through the interview and I considered it a success because the man never chopped my head off. I excused myself and left the back area of the Colts practice facility, ready to go check in my hotel and begin writing my story about a cool dude named Peyton Manning who planned to bring a Super Bowl championship to Indy.
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