Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning is still a beloved figure in… (Doug Pensinger / Getty Images )
INDIANAPOLIS — The Circle City is suddenly the Full Circle City.
Peyton Manning is coming home Sunday to play the Indianapolis Colts for the first time, leaving this a town torn.
A common sentiment here, where Manning won a Super Bowl and an unprecedented four NFL most-valuable-player awards, is a desire to see him throw five touchdown passes for the Denver Broncos — and lose.
Manning is still beloved here and, although he has sold his sprawling home in the suburbs, has kept his condominium in a quaint brick building downtown. Indianapolis has a very blue-and-white perspective on the world, so it's bizarre to see the orange No. 18 Broncos jerseys prominently displayed in a sporting goods store in the Circle Centre Mall.
"There's a lot of people who think that Lucas Oil Stadium wouldn't have been built without Peyton, and without Lucas Oil there is no Super Bowl, there's no doubt about that," Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard said. "He meant so much to the city."
There aren't many examples of superstar quarterbacks coming back to their old cities to face their former teams. Brett Favre went back to Green Bay when he was playing for the Vikings. Joe Montana played San Francisco when he was with the Chiefs, but that was in Kansas City.
For his part, Manning doesn't know what to expect, and he's not interested in guessing.
"I think I'd be wrong to try to predict or guess," he said. "It's certainly a unique game. Somebody asked me earlier, 'Is it the same as playing against [younger brother] Eli?' And I said, 'I guarantee Robert Mathis hits a heck of a lot harder than Eli does.'"
The city is not replete with shrines to Manning or prominently displayed mementos at every turn. Since his tearful farewell news conference 11/2 years ago, when his neck injuries left his football future uncertain, Manning has moved on and so has Indianapolis. He's on his way to a record-breaking season for the 6-0 Broncos, and the Colts are hanging tough at 4-2 with quarterback Andrew Luck constructing his own impressive legacy.
There was even a hint of irritation from some players in the Colts' locker room this week, players who want to treat this as just another game on the schedule. Of course, the Colts have generated some of that hubbub by inviting back former Manning teammates Marvin Harrison and Edgerrin James.
"With all the cameras and stuff, all the pub and the media, yeah, it's going to be different," receiver Reggie Wayne said. "I don't see this many people unless it's a playoff game.… I'm just ready to play, ready to get it over with. It's like Ringling Brothers."
That's not bad for business. Chris Gahl, vice president of Visit Indy, said hotels are at 99% occupancy for Sunday night, far more filled than they would be for a typical Sunday night game, an effect Gahl has coined the "Peyton Ripple."
"If this was a normal Sunday night game," Gahl said, "sure, it would be sold out, and sure, we would have national media and a bump in tourism, but not to the degree that we're seeing now with a virtual sellout of a hotel core. That is not typical of a Sunday night football game in Indianapolis."
There is a low-key element to Manning's return too, one some people attribute to the famed Hoosier hospitality, as if fans don't want to insult Luck by doing back flips over Manning's homecoming.
"I'd definitely like to see Manning have a big game, but a Colts victory coming out of it would be fine with me," said Myles Smith, whose family owns and operates a corn maze in Waterloo, Ind., that depicts Luck throwing a football.
The maze is massive — 12 acres, to match Luck's jersey number — and takes some people as long as three hours to navigate. The Smiths got the design approval of the Colts and Luck before starting, and did it in response to the Colorado farmer who made a similar one of Manning. (And no, the Luck maze isn't blue corn.)
"We have had people come up and say, 'You should have done a Peyton Manning maze,'" Smith said. "We're still Peyton Manning fans. If it's anyone else but the Colts playing, we'll root for Peyton. But we wanted to show Andrew our support."
Longtime Colts defenders might get a tinge of that confusing feeling when they first position themselves across the line of scrimmage from Manning, who for years wore a red jersey at practice, meaning he was not to be touched. But they are not conflicted at all about their intentions.
Said safety Antoine Bethea: "I'm pretty sure we are going to love to get our chances to get P on the ground a few times."
Clearly, that's the key to beating the Broncos. Through six games, Manning is on pace to break single-season passing records for touchdowns (he has 22; the record by Tom Brady is 50) and average quarterback rating (128.8).