Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning throws a pass against the San Diego… (Justin Edmonds / Getty Images )
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — All Peyton Manning wanted was a haircut. Somewhere between his Denver home and the barber, he got lost.
That's right, the NFL's premier traffic cop on the field, a guy who does commercials for cars that talk back to him, had to call his wife for directions. Mr. Manning was Mr. Magoo.
"I'm calling Ashley all the time, 'Now, how do I get here again?'" he said. "She's got an unbelievable sense of direction. I don't."
The Indianapolis transplant, now star quarterback for the Broncos, eventually reached his destination — and found a bright side.
"Those reminders are good," said Manning, 36. "You're in a new place. Let's keep working hard. Take it slow."
The Broncos aren't taking it slow. They're rolling with their new quarterback, winners of five in a row with a three-game lead in the AFC West. Manning has the AFC's most passing touchdowns, 24, best completion rate, 68.5%, and top passer rating, 106.2.
The league's only four-time most valuable player, who sat out the entire 2011 season recovering from four neck procedures, is on course for MVP No. 5.
"What Peyton is doing, in my brain, is not just remarkable, it's freaking historical," Broncos Coach John Fox said. "To be where he is, off of what he just went through. Just look at it, his life got turned upside down.
"He's been in one place for 14 years, and he never imagined he'd be anywhere else. To have a real serious injury, where at one point you weren't real sure you were ever going to throw again. To be where he is right now? He's doing it in a completely different part of the country, with a completely different organization. I'm loving it, but I think about it and I'm like, 'This is kind of bizarre.'"
Manning, standing with a reporter in an otherwise empty corridor outside the locker room at the practice facility, detailed his improbable and sometimes uncertain ascent back to the top of the game, and the help he received from an old friend.
That friend was Duke Coach David Cutcliffe, who was Manning's offensive coordinator at Tennessee and his younger brother Eli's head coach at Mississippi. Cutcliffe, who a year earlier had worked with Eli during the lockout, was Peyton's coach of choice during his arduous comeback.
"Going to a private college, where the gates are locked, there's no spectators, and you can get concentrated work, that was big for me," said Peyton, who had made at least four trips to Duke last winter before the media caught wind of it.
Manning lived with the Cutcliffe family during those visits. Just another kid in the stately, lodge-like house, with his own room and a pile of laundry every day.
"He and I both really got to go back in time," Manning said. "I was a junior in college again. He was my coach. He coached the hell out of me. He yelled at me. "Faster! Faster! Faster!" I can remember that same feeling I had in college. I'd get mad at him.
"We'd go at it. It would be intense. But I'd always caught a ride home to his house that night, had dinner with him, and spent the night at his house. So we couldn't get too mad at each other."
Cutcliffe, who speaks in a rich Southern drawl, calls himself a "drills maniac" and says that stems from his childhood in Alabama, when he would throw his way through a pasture by "completing" passes to specific limbs of trees.
He had Manning do all the traditional drills, and some different ones, such as Manning making precise throws while equipment managers hammered away at him with heavy bags.
"We call those distraction drills," Cutcliffe said. "One of the more critical things for a quarterback to prove to you is that his eyes stay downfield. We're making him make decisions. We'll have two targets down there and we'll immediately try to lean toward one of them and make him make an accurate throw to the other target. At the same time, he's got big bags being thrown down at his hips, legs, across his face. But you know he's keeping his eyes downfield."
For Manning, the process was grueling. It wasn't just drills, but near-constant work on his strength, conditioning, flexibility, nutrition … everything. There were no guarantees he'd be able to return.
"Nobody knew, including me, how this would play out," he said. "I couldn't find anybody else who had the same injury. There was no model. [Former NFL safety] John Lynch said he kind of had something like it, but he can blow up guys with a bad, weaker arm. [Former NFL quarterbacks] Chris Weinke and Brad Johnson kind of had something like it, but it wasn't quite the same. So even these doctors, these respectable doctors, the top neuro guys in the world, are going, 'I don't know. It's kind of hard to say. Nerves are unpredictable.' That's kind of what I had to go on."
Manning's progress was measured in millimeters, not miles.