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Stories abound about how Manning's demanding personality can rub teammates the wrong way. There's a video of Manning screaming at his longtime center, Jeff Saturday, during a 2005 game after Saturday had the temerity to suggest a different offensive tactic than the one Manning had chosen. Before the Super Bowl three years ago, Manning pissed off teammates when he had the Colts ban hotel-room visits from relatives and friends the week before the game. "I don't want any crying kids next to me while I'm trying to study," he said during a team meeting, according to Sports Illustrated's Michael Silver.
Manning is also known for lighting into his line when things go awry. "For a guy who doesn't get sacked a lot, you don't want to hear it when he does," says Meadows, who left the Colts after the 2003 season and retired in 2007. Meadows says that during the 2000 season he was diagnosed with pneumonia on a Monday and had lost 14 pounds by the time he was able to practice again that Friday. Still ailing, Meadows managed to play that weekend. But after the team lost at New England, Manning ripped his performance: "We're paying you to be better than that."
Anecdotes like those are usually marshaled to demonstrate Manning's competitiveness and will to win. He makes up with teammates afterward, buying presents for his linemen and hugging and thanking them after the Colts' next success, as he does with Saturday in the 2005 video. What has rankled teammates in the past, though, is an insensitivity to life beyond football. Meadows says that he and Manning were close during the quarterback's first two years in the NFL. Then the lineman had his first daughter; he didn't want to talk protection schemes or stay late to watch film. When Meadows left practice early to attend the birth of his second daughter, he says Manning asked why he couldn't have babies in the offseason.
But as Manning has aged—he's 33, though still childless—some teammates say he's mellowed a bit. The rep as an insufferable workaholic? "I think that's a misconception about him," says Denver Broncos wide receiver Brandon Stokley, who played with Manning from 2003-06. Stokley said he's "never been around" any player as hardworking, intense, and committed as Manning—or one who can remember and process information as quickly or thoroughly. Stokley says that's not all there is to the quarterback, though—he's also a locker-room prankster and fun to be around. "It wasn't like he was just all football, all the time," Stokley says.
Whether or how much Manning lets loose is almost beside the point. As with most obsessive geniuses, the players around Manning are willing to be driven a little bit crazy because they admire his talent, goals, and results; none of the Colts complained about their empty hotel rooms after the team won the Super Bowl. "I loved the fact that he stayed until 10 on Mondays watching film and talking to coaches," says Steve McKinney, who played on Manning's offensive line from 1998-2001. "I had to be a dad and a husband. I couldn't go home and start watching the plays at home for two hours. Not only that, I didn't want to. Ten hours a day is enough."
So while Manning could be "just like a robot" and "a little overbearing," McKinney says he wouldn't have wanted to line up in front of anyone else. "You're the quarterback, brother; I'll support you 100 percent. I love that you care so much. Because I've been on the other side. I've played with quarterbacks who were last one in in the morning, first one out at night," says McKinney, who spent six years with the expansion Houston Texans. "Guess what? We sucked. We didn't win." Meadows puts it this way: "Down by six, a minute thirty on the clock, on our own 10-yard line, I want to play with No. 18." When Manning retires, he says, "you can make a case that he was the greatest player who ever played." The greatest ever? Sounds like a genius to me.
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