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Sun, Feb 7, 2016

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CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist

Not only will Manning return, he will return as a productive QB


Manning's work ethic and will to be great were apparent to Pete Prisco long ago. (Getty Images)  
Manning's work ethic and will to be great were apparent to Pete Prisco long ago. (Getty Images)  

There is a scene I remember most about Peyton Manning, one that tells me his career is far from done and one that happened far away from any NFL stadium.

It was the first time I was set to meet him, essentially in the swamps of Louisiana, at some small school named Southeastern University in Hammond, La., about an hour from New Orleans, where he was hosting his Manning Passing Academy.

Back then it was a small camp, a few counselors, the Manning family and little media attention, a far cry from the event it as grown into each summer now.

There was no media time, like there is now, only some casual interaction with the camp host.

I spent 30 minutes talking with Peyton Manning in a dorm room that year, two football-heads talking about the game.

But that's not the thing I remember most about that trip, even if it did give me an insight into Manning the player. The thing I remember most about that trip was the heat -- and his drive despite it.

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Damn, it was scorching hot, the kind of heat that has you sucking down water every 10 minutes and craving air conditioning. Yet as I drove up to the college that day, there was Manning on the field, one of those Fieldturf, extra-hot fields, doing his pre-camp work.

Next to him were his brother, Eli, and a college quarterback by the name of Philip Rivers.

For an hour or so, Peyton Manning led the two on a torturous workout of drops, throws, footwork, sprints and anything else he could think of to wear them down.

It was the first time I saw the Manning Drive up close.

The man is a machine.

As I got to know him better -- and it was usually just through football conversations over the years -- I saw that drive even more and heard countless stories about it, like how he made sure to have his long workouts on vacation, lining up gyms and fields even before taking off. He never stopped.

I respect that in a player. There have been countless e-mails aimed at me saying I was a Manning apologist for propping him up the way I have, that I had a man-crush on the dude (see the bottom of this column for more). Even some of my colleagues have told me that.

No, it's just that I appreciate greatness and the drive to be great.

That's what has made Manning stand out from the rest. You know the stuff he does on the field, the trigger-quick reactions and the ability to read your defense better than you run it. That's unique and it's special, but it's the drive that distinguishes him from the others.

This is a man, long before you could take video home on your laptop, who built a film room in his basement.

The man has an insatiable work ethic, a desire to be the best. A coach who had him in the Pro Bowl said he once had a knock his hotel-room door the night before the game and opened it to find Manning there wanting to talk strategy. At the Pro Bowl?

I can't think of another player of his stature who knew as much about the goings on in the NFL as he does. He studies players, loves talking strategy and personnel and can name almost every player in the league and give you a scouting report on him.

I still love the game where he played the Broncos in a playoff game and Denver was banged-up at corner. They were down to a guy they picked up off the scrap heap the week of the game.

Manning knew all about him, talking about the kid in his post-game news conference.

Nothing got by him. Nothing gets by him. If you slight him, he doesn't forget. When the Colts seemed to slight him during contract talks, he took offense to it. Not publicly, but it bothered him.

It's the drive that made him great.

It's the drive that will make him damn good again.

I keep hearing stories about how he might not make it back. Why risk it? Why would he want to come back? What's the reason? Why not just go into the TV booth? Why not just become a GM, a job he would own? He has more money than he could ever spend, so why not just enjoy life?

Why? It's the drive.

Manning not only will play again. He will play well again. He will make the Colts regret their decision, and believe this: His competitive drive will fuel him as he sets out to do that. Whoever gets him, whether it's the Cardinals -- I think they are real players here -- the Dolphins, the Redskins, the Seahawks, whoever, will be getting a guy who is far from done.

The great ones all have that drive. Jordan had it. Tom Brady has it.

But I'm not sure we've ever seen a football junkie in the NFL like Manning. There was almost nothing else for him. Football consumed him, maybe like no other.

Things have changed some I imagine since he had twins, but I doubt it's going to change that drive.

That's why he pushes on.

So when people ask why he's trying to play again, trying to buck the odds after a reported four neck surgeries, I close my eyes and think back to almost 10 years ago in that thick, humid air and see him on that field, pushing on, no crowd around, just a man striving to be great.

That's the image that tells me he's going to be special again -- just without the horseshoe on his helmet, as strange as that may seem.

This won't be Joe Namath in a Rams uniform or Johnny Unitas wearing a Chargers uniform.

They were done.

I don’t think Manning is done -- far from it.

From what I hear, the right arm is coming back close to full strength and we know the mind will be as sharp as ever.

Peyton Manning in another uniform will be weird, but Peyton Manning not playing would have been sad.

Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.

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