ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) – Peyton Manning‘s big moment is almost here, not that you’d know it by looking at him or listening to him.
The maestro on the football field is also a master of masking his emotions. So, if the four-time MVP who’s coming off four neck surgeries is eager or edgy or excited about his return from last year’s forced sabbatical, he’s certainly not tipping his hand.
Manning makes his Denver debut this weekend when the Broncos host the Pittsburgh Steelers. Asked Wednesday if he thinks he’ll have butterflies for his first game in 611 days, Manning said it’s “hard to give a prediction” about how he’d feel at kickoff.
Check back with him, he suggested, after the game, and he’ll have a better answer.
Receiver and close friend Brandon Stokley has an inkling that Manning will be awash in emotions.
Stokley said that when he came back from a ruptured Achilles tendon in 2007, it all hit him at once and he found himself reflecting on his long road back, how the game he loved had nearly been taken from him. He was left with a newfound appreciation for the game.
Stokley figures Manning will have a similar reaction Sunday night when he trots onto the field for his first real game since Jan. 8, 2011.
“When I was in that situation, being out for a whole year and you come back for that first game, there’s no better feeling because you realize what you had,” Stokley said. “And I’m sure he’s going to be feeling that same way and excited and just playing the game that he loves again.
“I’m sure he’s going to be really fired up.”
Manning spoke in generalities after practice, saying only that opening day “is always an exciting time.”
“I’ve always felt that it’s as close to a playoff atmosphere as you can get in the regular season, and playing a tough team like Pittsburgh, playing on prime time, at night, is certainly going to add to the atmosphere,” Manning said. “So, the fans will be excited.”
Manning was reflective after his first preseason game last month, saying he took a moment to think about how far he’d come and all the people who helped him get his career back on track, from his trainers and doctors to his new coaches and teammates.
He showed during the preseason that his arm strength isn’t an issue anymore and that he can take a licking and bounce right back up. Now, with his comeback beginning in earnest, he’ll begin answering the bigger questions, such as those about his durability or his rustiness.
Manning allowed that even he has some unanswered questions about his comeback.
“Yeah, I have some things that I deal with myself,” Manning said, “but I kind of keep that between me and the trainer.”
Manning has insisted for months that his rehab, like his transition to his new team, will be a season-long proposition. He’ll never declare himself 100 percent healthy or completely comfortable.
“He looks the same” as he did all those years in Indianapolis, Stokley said, “and he’s been looking like that since the beginning of training camp and even before that. But Peyton, he’s the type of guy that’s always going to say he’s got more work to do and he needs to get better. So, that’s just the way he is.”
Manning’s makeover may be a work in progress, but a lot is expected of him and the Broncos this year, not only from the front office but also at the box office.
“I don’t really carry that burden,” Manning said of the high expectations outside the huddle. “I know how hard I’ve worked to get back to this position and how much time I’ve put in to rehabbing and how much time I continue to put in and how hard I’ve worked to try to get comfortable in this system.
“I’m going to play as hard as I possibly can, so that’s really all I know to do. I understand that the Denver Broncos football fans expect a lot out of their team, and that’s the kind of environment you want to play in, but I’m also a realist that in a 16-game season, there is a chance we could lose some games this year,” Manning deadpanned.
It’s hard to say whether Manning cracked a half-smile after that one. Either way, that’s about as much emotion as you’ll get out of him this week.
Notes: The Broncos’ captains for 2012 are Manning, G Chris Kuper, DE Elvis Dumervil, CB Champ Bailey and WLB Wesley Woodyard on special teams. RB Willis McGahee will serve as interim offensive captain while Kuper recovers from a fractured left forearm. Woodyard is the first Broncos player since Hall of Famer Floyd Little to serve as a team captain his first five years. … In a conference call with season-ticket holders this week, VP John Elway said the Broncos will only activate two QBs on game day. Who will that be? Caleb Hanie won the backup job, but rookie Brock Osweiler has the strongest arm for an end-of-game prayer pass. … Former Broncos S Brian Dawkins has joined ESPN as an NFL analyst.
By ARNIE STAPLETON, AP Pro Football Writer
(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)