INDIANAPOLIS - Peyton Manning still tugs on the heartstrings of Indianapolis football fans.
Friends and former teammates are happy he's made it back to the NFL's biggest stage, and the general public is excited to see if No. 18 can win a second Super Bowl ring this weekend, too.
Many in this town just wished this incredible season had come in Colts blue rather than Broncos orange.
"I think as fans of Peyton, people hoped he would stay with the same team and finish it out," said Jeff Saturday, Manning's longtime centre. "But that wasn't possible. Peyton wanted to still play. The Colts released him and that happens in our business. As a player, you have to move on to the next team and he's done what he's supposed to do."
He's continued to win at a record-breaking rate.
Many in Indy never doubted Manning would continue to play at this high level — if he could get healthy.
But after missing the entire 2011 season to recover from a damaged nerve in his neck and facing a salary cap dilemma, Colts owner Jim Irsay made the toughest decision of his career — cutting ties with Manning and using the No. 1 draft pick to begin anew. Immediate reactions in Indy were mixed when Irsay tearfully tried to explain he wanted Manning to have another shot at the Super Bowl before his career ended, while the Colts were attempting to remain a Super Bowl contender for the next decade with a completely new cast.
So far, so good.
Since drafting Andrew Luck, the Colts have posted back-to-back 11-win seasons and reached the playoffs twice.
Manning, meanwhile, has posted two straight 13-win seasons, just completed perhaps the greatest regular season by any quarterback in league history and will make his third Super Bowl start Sunday in New York.
Indy fans aren't surprised by Manning's success, especially after watching him turn this basketball bastion into a football-friendly town.
"I think everyone is pulling for him," said Joe Gray, a 59-year-old Colts season ticket holder who was impressed by the standing ovation Manning got when he returned to Lucas Oil Stadium in October. "I'm not saying I don't like Luck, I just wish Peyton was still here."
Grey finds himself in a crowded group.
Even longtime friends, such as Saturday and former linebacker Gary Brackett, acknowledge it was tough to see Manning leave, though they're happy to see him playing well.
Some Indy football fans say they cheer for Manning first and the Colts second, which may explain why so many orange No. 18 jerseys — or some variation of them — have been seen around town the last two years. Manning has remained close to the community, too, returning each of the last two springs to host fundraisers for the children's hospital that bears his name. On Sunday, the Peyton Manning Children's Hospital at St.Vincent is even planning a Super Bowl viewing party for patients and their families.
"We are fortunate to partner with a selfless individual who has given his time and resources off the field for the betterment of children and our overall community," said Vince Caponi, executive chairman of the hospital's board. "Peyton has the highest respect for our health ministry, and values his time spent with its pediatric patients."
But to those who know Manning best, this goes far deeper than rooting for an ex-teammate.
"My career is over, so now I can sit back and cheer for the guys I respect and he's definitely on top of that list," said Brackett, who served as Indy's defensive captain while Manning was the offensive captain.
"He's a friend, so I'm always pulling for him that way. But to see a guy coming back from all the neck surgeries he's had, at 37, going to another team, going to a Super Bowl, it's fun to watch," Saturday said. "Peyton Manning was everything you'd want our of a franchise quarterback while he was in Indy. He won the way you wanted to win. It was exactly what you wanted out of a franchise quarterback."