INDIANAPOLIS - The zip lines are a huge hit, and Madonna seems to excite everyone. Hosting the Super Bowl has given local politicians a chance to puff out their chests, show off their beautiful new stadium, and declare this is a big city after all.
The biggest game in this town, though, wasn’t decided last night at Lucas Oil Stadium.
It has played out all week in a chess match that stirred breathless headlines and even more breathless conversation. The $28 million question looms, and the fate of Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts hangs in the balance.
The mere mention of his name by brother Eli drew cheers from fans that paid $25 to watch Super Bowl media day. The debate swirling around town - will he stay or won’t he - drowned out everything put out by the NFL’s gargantuan public relations machine.
The shadow of Peyton Manning over the big game looms so large that even commissioner Roger Goodell was forced to address it between talk of concussions and franchise relocation at his annual state of the NFL press conference on Friday.
“I don’t think it has distracted from the event,’’ Goodell said. “I think those are difficult decisions that the team and the player are going to be facing in the next few weeks, and I understand the interest.’’
Many think the decision has already been made. Jim Irsay, the eccentric owner of the Colts, has fired almost everyone except the locker room attendants in recent weeks, and the quarterback with the big bounty on his head surely could be next.
If so, he’s not going down without a fight. In the last few weeks, Manning has choreographed his campaign to remain the quarterback of the Colts with the same agility he uses to diagram a play at the line of scrimmage.
He trumped Media Day by meeting with reporters afterward to declare he had no intention of retiring. A few hours after Andrew Luck came to town on Thursday to talk about how wonderful it would be to play for the Colts, Manning’s doctors not so coincidentally released a report declaring him healthy after three neck operations and a missed season.
If that put a crimp into Irsay’s big Super Bowl bash later that night featuring rockers John Mellencamp and Stephen Stills, he got over it quickly. The owner sent out a tweet in the early morning hours, after the party at the Indiana State Museum, saying Manning hasn’t passed a team physical and hasn’t been cleared to play for the Colts.
Nothing personal, of course. Just last week Irsay declared he and Manning were close friends and that he wanted nothing but good health for the quarterback.
He declared it again Friday, and to prove it, released a photo taken at the party that showed Irsay, Goodell, Manning, and Mellencamp together. Colts fans surely noticed that Irsay’s arm was around Goodell, not Manning.
“Peyton Manning, Jim Irsay and the entire Colts family remain close and unified as we continue to work through all the options that relate to his future with the Colts,’’ Irsay said. “The present focus is on the Super Bowl and the great game that awaits.’’
In that game, of course, is Eli Manning, who would finally be one-up on his big brother if he wins a second NFL title - even sweeter, if he beats big brother’s archrival, Tom Brady of the Patriots, a second time. Usually Super Bowl quarterbacks are asked about their receivers or the other team’s defenses but, by one count, 35 of the 125 questions asked of Eli at media day involved Peyton.
His answers produced few headlines.
“I’m proud of Peyton. I’ve talked to him this week. None of that comes up,’’ Eli said. “When I talk to Peyton, he does a great job of trying to keep me relaxed. [We] talk a little football and talk about New England some. He’s supported me this week. I know he’s just working hard trying to get healthy and I’m going to support him on that.’’
There is no question this is Peyton Manning’s town. Thousands wear his No. 18 jersey and he’s arguably the city’s greatest athletic figure for turning a woeful team into a perennial playoff contender and Super Bowl champion.
The huge $720 million stadium on the edge of downtown wouldn’t have been built without his success and, without it, this extravaganza wouldn’t be played in Indianapolis.
Still, he’s risking damage to his pristine reputation by engaging in an increasingly open cat-and-mouse game with Irsay. Already a millionaire many times over, he could be seen as greedy for trying to claim a $28 million payment due March 8 when there’s no guarantee he will ever play again.
Last night Manning was at Lucas Oil Stadium, under circumstances neither he nor Irsay imagined when the game was first awarded to Indianapolis in 2008. At the time, they had dreams of the Colts being the first team to play in a Super Bowl in their home stadium. Instead, the only thing the team won was the overall No. 1 pick in the draft - perhaps Luck - for having the worst record in the league.
This Super Bowl may be remembered for what happened on the field in a titanic rematch of a thriller the Giants and Patriots played four years ago.
For now, though, Colts fans can only watch Irsay and Manning play their own game and wonder what might have been.