TAMPA — They are connected by their skill and the stage they once shared as the top quarterbacks in the NFL.
Tom Brady and Peyton Manning were divided as rivals from 2001-2015, competing each season for the AFC crown. Brady always with the Patriots, Manning with the Colts and later the Broncos.
Their matchup compares favorably to the greatest sports rivalries of all time, as legendary as Magic Johnson-Larry Bird, Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier or Phil Mickelson-Tiger-Woods.
It would have seemed fitting, then, for them to arrive at the Pro Football Hall of Fame together and watch as gold jackets were slipped over their shoulders.
But Manning, 45, retired after winning Super Bowl 50, 24-10 over Carolina, following the 2015 season. Brady, ever youthful at a just-turned 44, has won seven Lombardi trophies and is back to defend his Super Bowl 55 title with the Bucs.
Nonetheless, Brady will attend Manning’s enshrinement ceremony into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Sunday, flying to Canton, Ohio, on the Bucs’ day off from training camp to witness his friend reach football immortality.
Manning’s 2021 class includes Bucs and Broncos safety John Lynch, Steelers guard Alan Faneca, Lions receiver Calvin Johnson, Cowboys receiver Drew Pearson, Raiders/Packers defensive back Charles Woodson and Steelers scout Bill Nunn. Woodson and Brady were teammates at Michigan.
Brady isn’t the only member of the Bucs’ organization who will be there for Manning, coach Bruce Arians texted.
Also headed to the enshrinement ceremony Sunday with Arians, who was Manning’s first quarterbacks coach with the Colts, will be assistant Clyde Christensen, who coached receivers (2002-08) and was offensive coordinator (2009-11) and quarterbacks coach (2012-15) for Indianapolis; and Tom Moore, the Bucs’ offensive consultant and longtime Colts offensive coordinator.
“I think the thing that just stands out to me is they stayed on top for such a long period of time,” Christensen said. “They both played at such a high level. They both, for the most part, stayed healthy. And being in the AFC, people got to see it. There were 17 games between them, and people got to view the rivalry. It was just outstanding, which doesn’t happen in the NFL a whole bunch.
“I think they’re two absolute warriors that can go tooth and nail at each other and then shake hands, respect each other and start getting ready for the next time. At different times, they would say, ‘Hey, you got me this time, I’ll get you next time.’ And you always knew the next time was coming. You didn’t have to wonder. The country got to watch it, which doesn’t happen in the NFL a bunch.”
Even before Manning’s playing career ended, he was forging a close, personal relationship with Brady.
Christensen revealed that Manning and Brady met once for a few days during the offseason in Chattanooga, Tenn., when both quarterbacks were in their 30s. They would throw in the mornings, lift weights and play golf and talk football.
“There was no peer to talk to that understood what they were going through except each other,” Christensen said. “The demands, the lights, the pressure — all those things. They had a little summit where they worked out together and they threw together and they trained together and then they’d sit and talk, and they had a great list of topics they went through. How do you work out now? How do you handle blitz packages? How do you handle a difficult receiver? How do you handle the media?
“For the great ones, it’s about getting better and playing great, and they do bring that out in each other. Also, they’re willing to help each other. No one but Brady and Manning pull that off, and nobody knew about it.”
They renewed their rivalry on the golf course in “The Match” (a charity event) in 2020, with Manning and Woods defeating Brady and Mickelson at the Medalist Golf Club in Hobe Sound.
Manning and Brady played each other 17 times. Brady won the head-to-head matchups 11-6, but Manning won five MVP awards to Brady’s three.
Brady won the series versus the Colts (8-4) and the Broncos (3-2). But the postseason was a different story.
The quarterbacks met five times in the playoffs, with Manning winning three of them. In fact, all of his postseason victories over Brady came in the AFC Championship Game, where they met four times.
Manning won once with the Colts and twice with the Broncos over Brady’s Patriots to advance to the Super Bowl.
Of course, it’s only a matter of time ― maybe a lot of time ― before Brady will have a bust unveiled for him at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
It’s rare for players of Brady’s stature to attend an enshrinement before their own. But it shows how the foes have become friends in a very elite quarterback club.
“They were uber-competitive, but they kept a level of class and sportsmanship that was off the charts,” Christensen said. “I think that’s what people admired. It was really good for football.”