"Ah, shoot. There he is—there's the man right there. Don't make a mistake, make sure you're in the right place at the right time, make sure you're running the right route."
That's what a nervous Pierre Garcon thought to himself the first time he took the practice field with Peyton Manning, who was already a legend when the rookie wide receiver joined Manning's Indianapolis Colts in 2008.
"He definitely had you nervous out there the first few times," Garcon recalled of the Peyton Manning he knew when the cameras weren't rolling. "You don't want to mess up. And he runs the whole practice. He's the coach, the only voice, and whatever he says, you gotta do."
The epitome of a general, on and off the field and before, during and after games, Manning is retiring from the NFL as its all-time leader in passing yards, touchdowns and—unofficially—endorsements. For nearly two decades, he has been the face of the game, which is why he's been covered widely and deeply by the press.
As a result, a lot of football fans might feel as though they already intimately know a man they've never actually met. But with the 39-year-old making his retirement official, we reached out to some of the lucky folks who truly rubbed elbows, broke bread and talked shop with No. 18.
A few common themes emerged, starting with that intensity Garcon alluded to.
He Was a Player-Coach
Almost from the get-go, Manning commanded so much respect with his meticulous approach and strong presence that he was revered—and sometimes feared—by many of his teammates in a coach-like fashion.
That's the impression Garcon gives, who said he was on the receiving end of a few of Manning's notorious practice-field blowups.
"There were times that I thought I was just gonna get cut because I ran the wrong route or didn't catch a pass," said the 2008 sixth-round pick, who now plays for Washington. "It didn't make it easy, but over the years, it got easier. First couple years, though, every day it was something nerve-racking."
Thing is, Manning was so thorough in his preparation that he knew when you screwed something up, regardless of your position.
"He watches everybody's tape," Garcon said. "He watches the offensive line one-on-one drills, the receiver one-on-one drills, offensive film, defensive film."
According to retired running back Dominic Rhodes, who spent seven seasons with Manning in Indy, the Colts would go months without dropping a pass in practice, and when it happened, you could hear a pin drop, and they'd immediately run the botched play again.
"You didn't want to drop a ball in practice, and you didn't want to miss a protection," he said, "because you knew that the guy at the top studied his tail off to make sure he didn't mess up."
How in the world did Manning have time to put in that kind of preparatory work? According to former backup Brock Huard, he didn't really take days off.
Tuesday is traditionally a rest day across the league. But if you were a quarterback working with Manning in the 2000s, it was another day at the office.
"Tuesday in Indianapolis was a work day," recalled Huard, now a sports radio host in Seattle. "You'd come in Tuesday afternoon, and Peyton and I would get the game plan before anyone else, and we'd spend two hours meeting with Coach [Jim] Caldwell and [offensive coordinator] Tom Moore. That's just the way it was.
"His wife Ashley would say in those years and those moments that if she wanted to spend time with him, it was in the home theater watching tape."
He Was Obsessive
Working with (under?) Manning required next-level dedication. If you could make it in Indy or Denver during the Manning era, you could make it anywhere. And while former Colts wide receiver Austin Collie noted that the organization was skilled at finding, drafting and signing the types of players who could live up to Manning's high expectations, some would inevitably slip through the cracks.
"There were numerous guys who [didn't last]," Garcon said. "If you didn't study or prepare for it, you wouldn't last long. Because it goes so fast, and every week there's new stuff that you need to know."
With Manning, there was no way to phone it in.
"If you didn't know your s--t in the meeting room or if Peyton perceived that you didn't take football seriously, that's a quick way to get on his bad side," said a former Broncos teammate who requested anonymity. "If you're going to play running back with Peyton Manning, you had to know your s--t, protection-wise. You just had to. For him to be comfortable throwing that football, he had to know that you knew who you were going to block. He would get real frustrated with those running backs."
And if you thought you'd get a break on days when Manning wasn't healthy enough to practice, you'd have to think again. Former Broncos head coach John Fox recalled a time when an aging Manning had to miss practice due to a foot injury. According to Fox, the quarterback spent that day's practice "in the rehab pool with his helmet on so he could hear the play calls and was watching the video on his iPad."
(Please feel free to submit Photoshopped images depicting that occurrence.)
"It was damn overwhelming at times," said former tight end Joel Dreessen, who joined the Broncos as a free agent along with Manning in 2012. "You've got code words for code words and hand signals for hand signals and you're constantly trying to keep up with this stuff. He can be really overwhelming, but at the same time, if you loved football, you understood why he was that way."
The first words Huard used to describe Manning were "really, really intense." Had he ever encountered another quarterback with that level of attention to detail and preparation?
"Nope, nobody as demanding, as intense," Huard said. "Nobody. And I honestly am hard-pressed to even think of a No. 2 in that regard. He was maniacal in that way, the attention to detail, with every minute of pregame warm-ups orchestrated as routine. He is a creature of habit, and to get outside of those routines is uncomfortable."
"It definitely pushed me," said Collie, who spent the first two seasons of his Colts career catching passes from Manning. "When an individual can single-handedly elevate the play of the teammates around him by setting a high level of expectations, guys want to play for him. Because of that level of expectation, I found myself doing things that I didn't think I could do. That's what I loved about him. And part of that is driven by the fact that you don't want to let him down. You don't want to fall under that level of expectation that he has."
"He really made me focus in on my craft and become a smarter player," Rhodes added. "I learned football by playing with Peyton Manning."
He Trained Harder Than Anyone
On the surface, Manning does not appear to be a physical specimen. If you're young, he might look like your dad. If you're a dad, you might look in the mirror.
But former teammates agreed that Manning actually worked about as hard on his body as he did on his mind.
"The way he approached his offseason as far as conditioning, lifting weights, watching film or studying, it brought what I wanted to achieve to another level," said Marcus Pollard, who served as Manning's primary tight end for the first seven seasons of the quarterback's career. "I looked at him thinking, 'Hold on, player, you’re a quarterback. You can't outwork me. It’s not supposed to happen.'
"But for him, he's like, 'I'm the leader, I gotta show these guys that I'm here to stay, and I gotta do whatever I gotta do to make it happen.' That's the first time I saw him as really an elite guy and thought this kid could be really special."
Pollard said he began to see that in Manning during his second offseason, way back in 1999. At that point, Manning was just establishing himself as an ironman.
He'd go on to start 227 consecutive regular-season and playoff games. And more than a decade later, after multiple neck procedures, he was somehow able to extend his career, winning another MVP (2013) and going to two more Super Bowls (2013 and 2015).
"Every day, he was there before everyone else, and every day, he left after everyone," Rhodes said. "After practice, you'd see the man in the weight room getting stronger, and then he'd be back watching more film. Every single day."
To establish just how hardcore Manning was in terms of both physical and mental preparation, Collie related the time he joined Manning and fellow offensive teammates Brandon Stokley, Dallas Clark and Jeff Saturday for "informal" offseason practices at Duke University in the 2012 offseason.
Those sessions, which were held as Manning was recovering from neck surgery, were by no means covert. But it's still baffling to hear how thorough they were.
In order to get a complete feel for just how healthy he was, Manning had that whole group recreate the entire 2009 AFC Championship Game—a two-year-old 30-17 victory over the New York Jets. The players didn't just run every play, in order, but they also paused for TV timeouts, stood on the sideline during simulated Jets possessions and took a 12-minute break at halftime.
"He thought about everything, all of the possibilities," Collie said. "What a great way to establish a benchmark for how far he needed to go or where he was at in terms of his recovery."
He Was a Powerful Man Apart
It's obvious Manning was always an unofficial boss, a dynamic that had the potential to backfire. Especially in Denver, it's apparent he had so much power that some of his teammates felt disconnected from him.
One player didn't want to speak about Manning because he admitted he didn't get along with him, while others expressed concerns regarding the amount of clout he possessed.
"I had never been around football like that, where a player had that kind of influence over organizational decisions," said one Broncos player, on the condition of anonymity. "I believe Peyton had influence over John Fox, and I'm not so sure [John] Elway liked that."
Manning was so tenured a star in Denver that he either wasn't able to be, or chose not to be, one of the guys.
"There's an element to Peyton Manning that he's not your typical teammate in the sense that—at least for me—I'd never played with anybody on that level of celebrity before," Dreessen said. "You'd sit with him at lunch, and he'd be somewhat guarded. The feeling I got was he doesn't just let anybody in."
Being Manning's teammate in the later years constituted a business relationship—and often nothing more.
"He never once opened up his house to his teammates or anything like that," said Dreessen, who noted that Manning "never once" attended the routine team get-togethers Dreessen held at his home. "He did orchestrate fun times for us, don't get me wrong, but as far as throwing a shindig at his house, it just never happened."
The fun times he did organize were—as one might expect based on the preceding tales—carefully programmed, causing teammates to wonder, as one put it, "why everything is so calculated with this guy."
"If he organized something fun for us to do as teammates, he had transportation lined up, he had a bus, team security going with us," the same Broncos player said. "It was fun and very thoughtful, but it was the fact that it wasn't organic that rubbed some teammates the wrong way."
But that same player fondly remembers one specific Manning-organized outing in which the quarterback hired a bus to take about 40 Broncos players gambling in nearby Central City, Colorado. En route, Manning handed out $100 bills to each player and had them put their jersey numbers on their respective bills. He then put all of the bills into a sack and drew 10, then he gave the 10 lucky teammates about $500 in gambling money.
"That was pretty cool of him to give away that kind of money to other millionaires," the player said.
He Respected His Teammates
Dreessen started 15 games as Manning's primary tight end in 2012, but soon thereafter—as he rounded the age of 30—Dreessen's body started to break down. He wasn't healthy in 2013, and the younger and more athletic Julius Thomas supplanted him. He says he could feel his job slipping away, and he knew his career was coming to an end.
But because he was still on the active roster 13 times in the 2013 regular season, the then-31-year-old was devastated when Fox called him into his office and broke the news that he'd be a healthy scratch for Denver's first playoff game, which was a divisional-round matchup with the San Diego Chargers.
"I was so upset," Dreessen said. "Probably as disappointed as I've been in my entire NFL career. I was getting my knee drained twice a week, the only way I was able to get through practice was a couple Percocet and a 5-Hour Energy, and this s--t was still so painful."
The night before the playoff opener, Manning gave a speech to the team.
"'There's a veteran guy in this room who loves football more than I do, and he's going to be inactive tomorrow,'" Dreessen remembers him saying. "'So just know that you guys have to play your ass off, because tomorrow you're taking his uniform away from him. If you're playing tomorrow, you get a uniform and he doesn't, so play your ass off.'"
"He never said my name," Dreessen said, "but everybody in the room knew that he was talking about me. It made me feel really good that when he had the stage, he had the microphone to address the team, he took a couple minutes to share what I was going through and help my teammates appreciate me."
That's only one example, but it's clear that if you worked hard and bought in, Manning—while often guarded, especially later in his career—would appreciate you.
"I think he liked me," Dreessen added. "I know that sounds funny, but I think he liked me as a football player because he saw how much I worked at it. He saw me keep him after practice to go run routes. He saw me studying and asking questions and being on top of my stuff in the meeting rooms.
"I think before Peyton will become your friend, he has to like you as a football player first."
He Fulfilled Special Commitments
When a team arrives at a hotel on the road, the players are greeted by local fans seeking to land autographs and show their support. But tight end Jacob Tamme, who spent seven years with Manning in Indy and Denver, noted that every time the Colts or Broncos arrived in a new city, Manning received special requests.
And every time, he'd come through.
"I'm not talking about the autograph-seekers outside and the fans at the ropes," Tamme said. "I'm talking about somebody who was usually going through something terrible and had gotten a hold of the Broncos and/or Peyton's people. Almost every time we went to a hotel on the road, there was someone in that city who was a huge Peyton Manning fan who had been affected by something terrible. He would kind of get swept to the side, and he would already have a plan to spend some time with these people.
"I saw that happen over and over and over, and it was always really encouraging to me that he would take the time to do that so often. His acts of kindness have been done in order to impact the people who he's done them for, not for publicity. For that reason, I don't tell a lot of the stories about the things that he's done because he doesn't really want it that way. I admire that, too, because I know why he does these things."
There was a time when Manning couldn't imagine combining the role of NFL quarterback with that of father.
Huard, who was starting his family when he backed up Manning in 2003, remembers asking him about the possibility of having children.
"'There's just no way. Not while I'm playing football. There's just no way that's gonna happen,'" Huard recalled Manning saying (and Huard had a sly response: "It's a good thing Archie didn't think that way.")
"I remember [Tony] Dungy's kids running around," Huard added, "and he was always like, 'Do we need kids in the facility? Is this what we're doing?'"
Huard chuckled at the memory when he saw Manning yukking it up with his four-year-old daughter, Mosley, at last year's ESPY Awards. And this is a shot of Manning after the penultimate victory of his NFL career, son Marshall by his side at work:
It also appears Manning developed his lighter side. But that's not something Huard remembers, and he and his wife still find it odd seeing their laser-focused friend star in comedic television spots.
But it wasn't just an act. Garcon recalled Manning leading the way as the veterans rested garbage cans full of water against hotel room doors in order to shock unsuspecting rookies, or as they filled up an assistant coach's car with popcorn.
And Rhodes still hasn't gotten over the time Manning broke into his phone and changed the system language from English to Spanish, causing quite the headache. (Rhodes got revenge by stealing his quarterback's flip phone and sending embarrassing messages to teammates on Peyton's behalf, which is also when he noticed Manning listed teammates in his contacts by their jersey numbers rather than their names.)
"When you get closer to him, you can joke more with him," Garcon said. "And when you win games, you can have a little more fun with him."
Fittingly for Manning, timing was everything when it came to fun and games.
"He's always had the perfect balance of humor and seriousness," Tamme said. "He gets upset with teammates in practices and games, but to balance that, he's the ultimate practical joker. When you're not working, during down time in the locker room, he really can be hilarious.
"You gotta have a certain amount of charisma to be able to do both, and you pull off being able to hold everyone to a high standard when you hold yourself to the highest standard. And that's how he's always been."
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.