Quarterbacks Tom Brady of the Patriots and Peyton Manning of the Broncos… (Elsa / Getty Images and Charlie…)
SEATTLE — Two brothers from western Washington share a unique perspective on the greatest quarterback rivalry in NFL history.
Damon Huard was Tom Brady's backup in New England from 2001-03. His younger brother, Brock Huard, was Peyton Manning's backup in Indianapolis in 2002 and '03.
So the AFC championship game in Denver on Sunday — the 15th meeting between Manning and Brady — has special meaning to the Huards, who grew up in Puyallup, Wash., a half-hour south of Seattle.
The brothers will watch with great interest as Manning continues his quest for his second Super Bowl ring, and Brady tries to tie Joe Montana by winning a fourth. Theirs is a showdown for the ages.
"Brock and I kind of had a sideline view of history many moons ago when these were young bucks," said Damon, 40, who won two Super Bowl rings with the Patriots. "You fast-forward 10 years later, in an age when the game's kind of changing before our eyes, with these athlete quarterbacks and these up-tempo spread offenses, and these two guys are standing the test of time."
For the Huards, Brady-Manning went beyond holding clipboards on the sidelines. It was Damon's job with the Patriots to emulate Manning in practice. Brock was a fake Brady for the Colts.
In fact, Damon was so good as a faux Peyton that Patriots Coach Bill Belichick gave the game ball to him after New England beat Indianapolis in the 2003 AFC championship game. The Patriots went on to beat Carolina in the Super Bowl.
"I would run that big stretch play Peyton ran," recalled Damon, who preceded Brock at the University of Washington. "I had all the hand mannerisms down, the head nod. I'd get the audio from watching game tape, and I tried to use some of his language from back in the day. It was totally fun. I loved it. I took pride in it."
Asked how Brock performed as a bogus Brady, Damon couldn't help taking a playful poke.
"Not very good," he said with a laugh. "Brock was a big stiff dinosaur — there's some brotherly love for you."
He was quick to add that his 6-foot-5 little brother had a near-perfect release on his passes, and that he surely would have had a more illustrious NFL career had he not been injured so frequently. Brock, 37, now a sports radio host in Seattle, played two seasons with the Colts, sandwiched by two stints with the Seahawks for a total NFL career of six years.
"I had scouts at the end of my career tell me that no one threw a better ball than Brock," Damon said. "He threw the tightest, prettiest spirals. Brock can go to war in practice, throwing the ball in buckets, hitting the goal post, doing different things. And Brock would beat Peyton more often than not.
"Brock could spin it. And when a lefty spins it, and spins it special, it's sick. He could flat-out spin it. And Peyton, the ultimate competitor, would just get so mad that Brock would beat him at those games after practice. Brock's a humble guy. He won't talk about that. But that's Brock-and-Damon talk around the cooler in the off-season."
Manning might throw some wobblers, the younger Huard said, but he and Brady are exceptional in other areas.
"The one thing that never quite gets highlighted enough is how bright they are," Brock said. "Yes, they're tough. Yes, they're hard workers. Yes, they're all in. Yes, their presentation is different. But both of them are incredibly bright men."
As for which of the two is better, Brock said he and Damon have never debated that, "but it's almost just an appreciation for their gifts."
Said Brock: "Ultimately, what's undeniable is that in the marquee moments, Tom has been so good for so long. And unfortunately, with as many times as Peyton has put himself in that situation because he is so good, he just hasn't delivered in those moments. That's why the pressure is squarely on him, at his age and his tenure, and his resume versus Tom's, to make sure he gets this one."
Damon recalled how painstakingly thorough both quarterbacks were, sometimes to a tedious degree.
"Brock would tell me that Peyton would just have a notebook full of notes," he said. "Like, 'Really, bro? What are you going to do with those?' Meticulous, just writing notes on every game. And Brady, I can remember just sitting in a film room with him and Belichick for two hours straight.
"Bill might leave the room to get a cup of coffee, and I'm like, 'Tom, really? I'm sitting on the bench three years here. Does it help you watching this much tape when you go out there?' And he was like, 'Yeah, you know, Damon, I think more than anything, I just have the confidence that I've turned over every stone.' Both these guys go above and beyond to get that edge."
Both brothers said there are far more similarities than differences between Brady and Manning — their hyper-competitiveness, their determination to be over-prepared, and the love and respect they have for their dads.
And the differences? Geographical, mainly.
"Tommy's a California boy at the end of the day," Damon said. "Peyton's a Southern guy. Right there, those are two glaring differences."
Damon's NFL career spanned from 1996-2009, and he had brief bookend stints with Cincinnati and San Francisco. The bulk of his time was spent with Miami (where he played behind Hall of Famer Dan Marino), New England and Kansas City. He started 21 games in three seasons for the Chiefs, and the team won 11 of those, but Kansas City never fully committed to him as its long-term starter.
"If I didn't have my time in Kansas City and have a little bit of run there at the end of my career," he said, "my legacy might have been playing Peyton Manning in practice."
Which, considering the front-row seat to watch NFL history unfold, wasn't such a bad gig after all.