Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, who seems to always find time to sign… (Jack Dempsey / Associated…)
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Peyton Manning has had dozens of signature moments in his football career that the outside world didn't witness.
Since childhood, Manning has jotted handwritten thank-you notes, and for years he has maintained a tradition of sending them to various NFL players retiring from the game.
"I don't know who qualifies for a letter, necessarily," Manning said. "It's probably just somebody I played against for a long time. I don't have to know you real well. The other guys on my list now, I've got [Baltimore center] Matt Birk, [Green Bay receiver] Donald Driver, and [Tampa Bay cornerback] Ronde Barber; guys who played the game the right way."
(Manning spoke to The Times before Chicago linebacker Brian Urlacher had announced his decision to retire.)
Former All-Pro safety John Lynch said he treasures the letter he got from Manning upon his retirement in 2008.
"I was so touched that the very first letter I got when I retired was from Peyton," Lynch said. "It was a handwritten note that meant more than the gift ever was. He sent a case full of Silver Oak. It meant so much to me because of the respect I have for him. I still don't drink it, so there's a case of Silver Oak in my wine cellar to this day from him."
Manning said the habit of writing letters, as opposed to relying exclusively on email, is a holdover from childhood.
"My mother sent me an article one day on the fact that the handwritten letter was becoming a lost art in the text-messaging and email world," he said. "My mother writes handwritten letters. Her parents, my dad's mother was a legal secretary, so she was always writing personal letters.
"My mom, it started with, 'Hey, just so you know, sending a thank-you note if someone hosted you at their home, or a wedding gift, or a thank-you gift, an email is not acceptable. A handwritten letter is what you must write. So I've got to give credit to her."
When Manning was in high school, he was flooded with recruiting letters from college coaches. The first thing he would do when he read a hand-signed one was lick his thumb and rub the signature to see if it smeared, checking if the autograph was penned or stamped.
"I remember when I got my first handwritten letter from [former Florida State coach] Bobby Bowden, telling me he really enjoyed watching me play," he said. "Boy, it had a big impact on me. He took the time to write that letter. I knew it wasn't his assistant" writing it.
Manning's older brother, Cooper, said the three brothers, he, Peyton and Eli, would often try to wriggle their way out of writing thank-you notes but to no avail.
"We lived in New Orleans, and most of our grandparents and aunts and uncles lived in Mississippi, so you got a lot of packages in the mail," Cooper recalled. "I remember all of us kind of begging, 'Can we just call? Is it really imperative that an 8-year-old knock out a thank-you note for a whatever, a little piggy bank or something?' My dad was kind of a stickler on that."
During a recent visit to Peyton's home in Denver, Cooper noticed a stack of notes written by his brother.
"He had a bunch of pictures and envelopes," Cooper said. "He was writing notes to his children [2-year-old twins], 'You're 18 months here. This is what you're doing. This is what's going on.' And he's just filing them away to give to them later on.
"I'm like, great. I didn't even write anything when my kids were born."
As for the notes to retiring players, Manning considers that a way for him to give them an appropriate send-off.
"So few NFL players get to retire as much as they are retired," he said. "All of a sudden nobody calls, and that's kind of it. It's on a Wednesday in the middle of May, on the ticker: 'So-and-so, after 15 seasons, has retired.' And that's kind of it.
"It's just so sudden. . . . I kind of want to let the guy know that, hey, it's your career, I have a great appreciation and respect for it, and it's more than just a little ticker there. I know his family is telling him that, but I want to let him know there's some outsiders thinking that too."