NEWARK, N.J. — When Peyton Manning signed with Denver in March 2012, his trademark No. 18 had been out of circulation with the Broncos for many years.
It had been worn by Bloomfield, N.J., native Frank Tripucka, who played for the Broncos for four seasons when the AFL was starting up. Tripucka, who died of heart failure at the age of 85 at his Woodland Park home in September, led the AFL in completions and passing yards in the 1960 and 1962 seasons and retired after the 1963 campaign.
“It’s quite an honor for me to wear No. 18 for the Denver Broncos,” Manning said Tuesday during Super Bowl Media Day at Prudential Center. “When I signed with Denver, I was made aware that No. 18 was retired, and that Frank Tripucka was the first quarterback of the Denver Broncos. I was fully prepared to wear No. 16, believe it or not, and go back to my college number” at Tennessee.
But Tripucka had a different idea.
“I spoke to Frank Tripucka,” Manning recalled, “and I spoke with his wife, and actually, they were not asking me, they were telling me that they really wanted me to wear No. 18. (They said) that would honor Frank. I certainly have been honored to wear that number, and after his passing, we had a great visit with his family. … That was a special moment for me.”
Manning certainly is happy to honor Tripucka’s career and his memory, but that’s the only legacy he wished to speak about on this day.
The future Hall of Famer helped Indianapolis to a Super Bowl triumph over Chicago in the 2006 season, but he and the Colts lost to New Orleans three years later. Many pundits believe Manning needs to win this one to cement his place in NFL history, after many postseason stumbles with Indianapolis and one with Denver last season.
But Manning continually deflected questions about what a victory over Seattle on Sunday would mean for him personally, and kept framing everything in terms of the team.
When asked about possibly winning a second Super Bowl, he said, “It would be a tremendous accomplishment for the organization. The Broncos, with Pat Bowlen as the owner, this is his (sixth) Super Bowl, which is pretty phenomenal. In my 16th season, this is the third one I’ve been a part of. I know how hard it is to get here. To win, it would be an extremely gratifying feeling to represent the organization.”
When the word “legacy” was used in a question, Manning replied, “I’ve been asked about my legacy since I was 25 years old, which I’m not sure you can have a legacy when you are 25 years old, or even 37 (his current age). I thought you had to be 70 to have a legacy. I’m not 100 percent sure what the word even means. I’m still in the middle of my career.”
Well, not the middle of his career. But Manning quickly corrected himself.
“Let me rephrase that,” he said. “I’m down the homestretch of my career, but I’m still in it. It’s not over yet. And so it’s still playing out.”
One of Manning’s current bosses, Denver executive vice president of football operations John Elway, can empathize. Critics questioned his potential legacy before he and the Broncos won Super Bowls in each of Elway’s last two seasons.
“I think that when people say that, they’re looking for something,” Elway said. “Because he had such a tremendous year, I mean, what else are you going to talk about Peyton Manning that’s negative other than, ‘OK, we’ve got to go to his legacy.’
“So I don’t think this game, one way or the other, affects his legacy, (considering) the way that he has played. He’s going to be one of the all-time greats no matter what.”