CENTENNIAL, Colo. — On a Department of Tourism-quality Colorado summer morning, several thousand Denver Broncos faithful took leave of their everyday responsibilities to fill the small hill just beyond the Broncos’ second grass practice field. It was Day 5 of training camp — and more specifically the Peyton Manning Era in Denver — and for almost three hours, locals clapped and cheered as the team toiled through a mostly uneventful workout. It was a postcard of why we love sports, for their artistry and their escapism, fantasy and reality combining before our eyes.
A few hundred yards away, just past the far edge of the facility, James Holmes was being charged with 140 counts of actual and attempted murder. Twelve innocent people died two Fridays ago doing what the Broncos fans were yesterday, their escape from reality brutally terminated by a young man who seemingly got lost in his.
That juxtaposition created significant cognitive dissonance as the practice unfolded. It’s weird enough to see Manning wearing orange rather than white with his blue, with a different horse logo on his helmet, but his importance is undeniable. The NFL is huge business, and the Broncos are a region’s beacon. Manning represents a sea change here, the strapping 6-foot-5 embodiment of John Elway’s ambition to reclaim the franchise’s glory years he helped build as a player. In the sports world, a franchise legend importing a player at his position who may be better than he was is no small talking point.
Manning is the reason the Broncos went from 40-1 outsiders to win the 2013 Super Bowl to a current 8-1, according to Caesars’ race and sports analyst Todd Fuhrman. He’s the trigger for what could be career- (and income) changing paths for players like young wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, for continued redemption for veterans like running back Willis McGahee. Players know what he means.
“Priceless. It’s great,” said wide receiver Brandon Stokley, who played four seasons in Indianapolis with Manning and had a career year (1,077 yards and 10 TDs) there in 2004. “You know you got a guy who’s going to get you in the right play, and if you get open, more often than not, the ball’s going to be there for you, in the right place.”
Manning’s a reward for head coach John Fox doing whatever it took last year to wring eight wins and a division crown out of Tim Tebow’s limited stewardship. Perhaps most important, Manning was the golden ticket for Elway to escape from the Tebow Era and all the partisanship and conflicted analysis that went with it.
Simply put, no one complains that you landed Peyton Manning, Tebow fan or not, neck risk or not, mixed playoff success or not. At a position that has been populated by too many Brian Grieses and Steve Beuerleins and Jake Plummers and Kyle Ortons since Elway retired, you pay the $18 million a year and roll the dice with greatness.
But for all the media hanging on each play of an inconsequential practice, for all the fan applause, for all the self-unaware seriousness with which the NFL runs itself, the occasion was dwarfed by the undistinguished Arapahoe County Justice Center looming in the background. That’s where much of the car traffic was headed this Monday morning, to witness the next step in tempering a city’s profound pain.
As a very new resident here, it’s hard to process the complete impact of the shootings, but by any measure, this has been a dreadful summer in Colorado. Beyond the theater massacre, there were numerous devastating forest fires that destroyed parts of the state and left Denver cloaked in smoke. There was a policeman shot and killed after a jazz festival at a public park. There was a mass outbreak of food poisoning at a local shelter. It’s been the hottest July on record. So it totally makes sense that people would want to get out and cheer, to see their sporting heroes just yards away. The city needs an escape, needs to embrace a core cultural phenomenon that connects us as few other things do.
But then an errant ball would bounce away, and as a teenage staffer sprinted — there’s that seriousness again — to retrieve it like he were a Wimbledon ball boy, you’d look up and see the pink walls of the county jail, and think of James Holmes and what he has done. And while you listened to Fox dispense post-practice banalities about how the team was coming along, and how everyone — including Manning — was shaking off some rust, you think about what the victims and their families were listening to as a judge revealed the lengthy list of chilling charges.
So is it important that Manning underthrew an open receiver on a deep post midway through practice, or that he made amends on a similar play during a team drill late in the session? In the immediacy of the moment, absolutely. Manning represents hope — on the field, in the community, in the minds of every local who may now be afraid to go see a movie.
People can embrace the Broncos, now a Super Bowl contender. They can embrace the sport of football, which for many is as deeply religious a pursuit as any faith, and the inherent irony of fantasy football, a real endeavor built around fake teams of real players. They can embrace each other and revel in a 50-yard spiral settling softly in the hands of a receiver on the run. That’s the beauty of sports. They matter a ton, even if they truly matter not at all.
Dripping with sweat after a series of post-practice wind sprints, rookie quarterback Brock Osweiler paused on his way to the locker room to speak with the media. Still huffing a bit from the exertion, Manning’s understudy was asked what it’s like for him to learn from one of the game’s all-time greats. His reply, in a football sense, was pretty simple. In the context of everything that has happened in this city, though, especially thinking about the shooting victims and their families, it resonated.
“I think the biggest thing is to make sure,” he said, “that I’m not wasting a day.”
Andy Glockner covers college basketball for SI.com.