Peyton Manning shares a laugh with Yankees Manager Joe Girardi during batting… (Justin Edmonds / Getty Images )
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Peyton Manning threw passes in the cavernous belly of a military plane flying 30,000 feet above Pakistan, and stood on the observation deck of an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf, watching screaming fighter jets land and launch.
Back home in the U.S., the Broncos quarterback made a hole in one at a golf course outside Denver, shot a 77 last weekend at Augusta National, took a group of 30 teammates to a Yankees-Rockies game, and made several surprise visits to Colorado schools.
Manning is enjoying his first relaxing off-season since 2009, the spring before his Indianapolis Colts played the New Orleans Saints in the Super Bowl.
"That's the stuff he loves to do," said Cooper Manning, his older brother. "Sitting there in a training room or a hospital bed, that stuff is for the birds. He's appreciating his health, appreciating the position he's in. He's excited about the off-season moves, and I would say he's as hungry as ever."
The NFL's only four-time most valuable player had the first of several procedures on his neck in the aftermath of that Super Bowl loss, then missed the entire 2011 season after undergoing four more neck operations. Last off-season was all about rehabilitating, answering his own doubts about whether he'd be able to continue his NFL career, and finding a new team after the Colts let him go.
From a bench overlooking the team's practice fields, Manning, 37, sat and talked about his globe-trotting off-season, and his ever-increasing comfort with the Broncos, his teammates, and how he emerged from a cloud of uncertainty to be chosen 2012 comeback player of the year.
"The biggest issue for me was performance: Can I perform the way that I've been performing over 14 years?" Manning said. "You've only done it one way — you've thrown one way, the ball felt one way in your hand since you were 15 years old playing quarterback. All of a sudden, when things feel a little different, there are some questions and some unknowns: How will it hold up in different types of throws, touch passes? I've got to put one in there in some weather, whatever it may be.
"Not that I feel as comfortable as I did in my eighth year in Indianapolis, but it's a heck of a lot more comfortable than I was last year."
Manning, who had his second-best statistical season in 2012, was edged in the MVP race by Minnesota's Adrian Peterson, who ran for 2,097 yards less than a year after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
Broncos Coach John Fox thinks what Manning did was even more impressive.
"No disrespect to Adrian, because I love him and he's a great player," Fox said. "But I think an ACL is a little bit more understood in the National Football League than a surgery on your neck that affects your nerves. I still marvel at what [Manning] was able to accomplish. It was with a different team, and at a position that mentally is just so hard. In history, I don't think anything's ever been done like that, and not even counting the fact that he didn't play the year before."
John Elway said that, in retrospect, Manning had more doubts than he voiced when Denver signed him in March 2012.
"I was probably more confident in his arm than maybe he was," said Elway, the Broncos' executive vice president of football operations. "There were a lot of unanswered questions for him. He was going to a new place. He'd been in one place for 14 years, and it was a brand-new transition for him. The year that we had last year — the year he had — answered a lot of those questions. I think he'll be that much better this year."
Manning is always looking for an edge, a way to further perfect his craft. This off-season that meant honing his leadership skills, and that was one of the many reasons he participated in a six-day USO tour in March, visiting troops in Afghanistan and Europe, and aboard the USS John C. Stennis, an aircraft carrier positioned near Iran.
"I'd always wanted to go on a USO tour as a current player," said Manning, who was joined on the trip by fellow NFL players Austin Collie and Vincent Jackson, and retired major league pitcher Curt Schilling. Manning said his father, former NFL quarterback Archie Manning, "went on one as a current player, went to Thailand in 1974, Vietnam was kind of down the homestretch. I remember him talking about it. I always wanted to go, but I never really quite met the right person to tell me how to do it."
Through Clyde Christensen, a longtime Colts assistant, Manning was introduced to Navy Adm. James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who accompanied the players on the tour.
"I was so impressed with Peyton's intensity, and his clear and sincere desire to make everything around him better," Winnefeld wrote in an email to The Times. "We can relate to that as military leaders, and we were both amused and impressed that he tried to make us better . . . and he did."