Indy, Peyton Manning in awkward place

INDIANAPOLIS -- Three blocks from a brick monstrosity affectionately known as "The House That Peyton Manning Built," there is a smaller, much older place where Manning goes to decompress. It would be wrong to call it a hideout, though Manning does know the secret elevator code and often inconspicuously arrives through a side door. "THE EAGLE HAS LANDED" is the text sent among the staff at St. Elmo Steak House to alert them when Manning comes. On Sunday nights, back when the Indianapolis Colts were dominating, Manning would head off to St. Elmo after leading his team to victory and hunker down in the wine cellar. He'd study the rest of the day's football games on a flatscreen, installed just for him, dine on a filet and a Bud Light, and stay until the final game was over.

St. Elmo has been around for more than 100 years, and there is so much history between Indianapolis' favorite steakhouse and its favorite athlete. This is where Manning, a baby-faced rookie, reviewed his very first contract in the late-night hours before training camp.

This is where, 14 years and 11 playoff appearances later, all the celebrities and NFL bigwigs will hobnob this week when the Super Bowl comes to a small-market city made big by its franchise quarterback.

"It's a football town for sure," St. Elmo's owner, Craig Huse, said as he scrambled to make final preparations for the biggest week in the history of Indianapolis. Huse stopped and thought for a second.

"We hope it stays a football town."

It's a strange and uncertain time in Indianapolis, and if Huse wasn't sifting through hundreds of reservation requests, maybe he'd wax philosophical about the irony of this new chapter of the city's history beginning when Manning's is ending. There is a palpable excitement downtown, where the streets are being blocked off for a weeklong party. There is a sadness and uneasiness everywhere else.

When Indianapolis won the bid to host the Super Bowl four years ago, it never could have imagined this: That the big event would be played in the backdrop of a miserable 2-14 Colts season, with its seemingly unbreakable quarterback out with a neck injury and now presumably on his way out of town.

Is Peyton Manning done in Indianapolis? That -- and not the merits of the two Super Bowl teams -- was the big news last week. The Colts aren't saying anything except for an occasional statement that assures the masses all is well on West 56th Street. But change is thick in the air, from the firing of coach Jim Caldwell and vice chairman Bill Polian to the draft day that is looming with young phenom Andrew Luck waiting with the No. 1 pick.

"I think the mourning process has begun," said longtime Indianapolis Star columnist Bob Kravitz, whose lengthy and rare interview with Manning last week revealed a quarterback who is obviously uncomfortable with all the change.

"I think as the Super Bowl arrives, and as geeked as people are, there's this cloud where people are starting to come to grips with the very real, not just possibility, but the likelihood that Peyton Manning is not going to be on that team anymore, that he's played his final down as a Colt."

Back at St. Elmo, Manning's friends are still holding out hope. They're big on continuity here. There's a guy who has been waiting tables since 1976 and a day porter who started in 1969 and is still on the payroll. If you're happy, why would you go anywhere? But in Manning's case, the decision is far more complicated and involves $28 million and medical terms such as "cervical neck infusion."

Huse visited Manning at his downtown condo a week ago, shared some wine, and steered away from talk about his neck or the future. Of course Manning will be around town this week. His brother Eli, quarterback of the New York Giants, is playing against the New England Patriots in Sunday's big game.

Peyton has a children's hospital in his name, but perhaps the most immediate indicator of how important he is in Indianapolis can be found in the city's rooting interest for this game. They are, unquestionably, pulling for the Giants, for Peyton's little brother. But they're also rooting against a team that became one of the Colts' biggest rivals in the Manning era. That's what Manning did here. He made football relevant.

"I'd like to see Peyton stay here a couple more years," Huse said. "I mean, there are a lot of intangible benefits from having a great football team in town. People used to drive in from their homes and get here 20 minutes before kickoff. Now it's an all-day event, the tailgating is huge, and it's all those things the other football towns do."

Shaping a city's growth

Indianapolis wasn't always a football town. And for many years, it certainly didn't look like a suitable place for a Super Bowl. For a history lesson, David Frick suggests that you view some aerial shots of downtown in the 1970s.

"At best," said Frick, a former deputy mayor, "there were two downtown hotels and the rest were motels."

But the city had a plan to reinvent itself through sports. It built a dome under much public debate, and eventually added the NFL team and the NCAA offices to a landscape that was once limited to the Pacers and the town's signature event, the Indianapolis 500. For decades, basketball was king in Indianapolis. The Colts didn't do much to change that sentiment when they arrived in 1984 and languished through a decade of mostly losing seasons.

"As a kid growing up, I think my best days were those days where the Indianapolis 500 and a Pacers playoff game would happen on the same day," Butler basketball coach Brad Stevens said. "Everybody would listen to the radio to all the pre-race talk, and then get ready to watch the Pacers in the playoffs. Days like that best summed up the experience of being an Indianapolis sports fan."

But things were about to change. In 1998, the Colts were coming off a 3-13 season when they picked Manning over Ryan Leaf with the first selection of the NFL draft. By his second season, he led them to a 13-3 record. And the city covered itself in blue jerseys.

Today, football is very important in Indianapolis, Stevens said. And Manning didn't just become the face of the franchise, he helped shape the growth of the city. For all of the fights the city's leaders had to wage to build the Hoosier Dome back in 1982, the pitch for Lucas Oil Stadium, which came with a $700 million pricetag, was much easier, Frick said.

The Colts were a huge success by then, and the city wanted what was best for its team. They knew the facility could lead to bigger things.

"If it wasn't for Peyton and the Colts' success, the decision to build the stadium probably wouldn't have happened," said Frick, who led the negotiations to bring the Colts to Indianapolis.

"Football plays such a predominant role in the psyche of a city. When we win, everybody goes into work energized and in a good mood."

A profound impact

Indianapolis fans are proud. They know their city isn't New York or Seattle, but most years, they're confident that their sports teams can beat anybody's. Indianapolis fans are loyal. They went into 2011 with the hopes of having a team good enough to play for a Super Bowl on their home turf, and watched the Colts start 0-13. But here's the thing: Indianapolis never gave up on its team. Every week, the fans still wore their jerseys on Blue Fridays, and they still packed the stadium on Sundays.

Last week, as workers put the finishing touches on downtown, a group of friends who train truck drivers sat down for lunch at the Shapiro's Deli near Lucas Oil Stadium. Shapiro's, with its long lines to the door, its old-school floor tile and no-nonsense menu, in some ways represents Indianapolis. There is something here for everyone. The men at the table were talking about the death threats that were issued against the San Francisco 49ers' Kyle Williams after his two special-teams gaffes in the NFC Championship Game helped doom the 49ers. That would never happen in Indianapolis, the men said. People here are too friendly for that.

So they showed their support here last fall, throughout that unforeseeable season, and kept cheering. Their reasoning was simple. The Colts are their team.

It could've gone so many other different ways. Without Manning, Kravitz says, the Colts could be in Los Angeles right now. They could be dealing with blackouts instead of sellouts. They most certainly wouldn't be in this week's spotlight.

"His impact is profound in all the obvious ways," Kravitz said. "Peyton means a lot to the people here, not just as an athlete, an icon or a philanthropist. He sort of represents our better nature in our city. To think he won't be under center for the Colts … It's just hard to come to grips with."

On Saturday, a group of foster kids from Child Advocates in Indianapolis was downtown playing at the NFL Experience because of Manning's donations. Manning has given his time and money to the charity since arriving in 1998, and the first time he met Cindy Booth, the organization's executive director, he came armed with a legal pad full of questions. Manning does this with everything he's interested in.

He asked if he could speak to the kids alone, and Booth said sure.

"It was his first year, and things weren't going so well, if you remember," Booth said. "He was relating that to the kids. He said, 'I'm in a city where I don't know anybody and things aren't going so well. I know it's not the same as being in foster care, but I really support you guys and I want to be involved.' "

Last summer, Manning took some of the kids to an Indianapolis Indians baseball game. He partook in a jalapeno-eating contest. He had no idea, at the time, if he'd play in 2011, let alone ever again. The foster kids gathered Saturday at the NFL Experience event, and Manning was on their minds. They said they wanted him to be a Colt forever.

"It would be sad to see him go," Booth said. "He's been one of us."

'Everything is out of his control'

Jim Sorgi talks to Manning roughly once a week, but they do not discuss the future. Though Sorgi has a deep bond with Manning -- Sorgi was his longtime backup -- he wouldn't dare broach the topic. He says it's none of his business.

Sorgi had just started doing a local TV show last summer when word came down that Manning would not play in the season opener because of his neck injury. While Colts fans were optimistic he'd be back, Sorgi took a more somber tone. It's a sad day, he told them. He knew it was serious.

"I felt like all of us took it for granted," Sorgi said of Manning's career. "We may never be able to see that kind of quarterback play again in this city for a long time."

And Indianapolis certainly won't see that kind of continuity for a long time. Reggie Wayne, Robert Mathis, Pierre Garcon and Jeff Saturday will soon be on the free-agent market. Saturday has been Manning's center for more than a decade.

But life, especially in the NFL, is constantly changing. People close to Manning say he has changed too. He and his wife Ashley had twins this past year, a boy and a girl, and Manning has immersed himself in fatherhood. He still doesn't do anything halfway and meticulously plans everything. Ashley had a birthday last month, and Manning threw her a massive party.

He made a video complete with old childhood photographs and Dave Matthews and Darius Rucker singing to her. He got George W. Bush to speak on the video. It appeared as though Manning had worked on the video for months.

"He has chilled out," Kravitz said. "He's a control freak, but fatherhood has liberated him in a lot of ways. He's very much at peace with his life, with where he's at, and even with the fact that for the first time in his career, he really doesn't have control over anything -- his future, his health, his employment with the Colts, his legacy.

"Everything is out of his control, which would normally drive him crazy, but I really sensed when he spoke to me that, even though he expressed a lot of frustration, he was at peace that whatever happens, happens. It's a transformation of sorts."

Huse senses it too. Manning doesn't come by St. Elmo after games anymore. It's too hard for him. "With the type of mind he has, he doesn't feel like he's earned the luxury of a meal," Huse said. "That's just the way he's wired."

But in between making his downtown condo more kid-friendly, he is booking reservations at St. Elmo this week for the Super Bowl, in the hopes of another Manning victory. And Indianapolis is rooting for them too in this strange winter of mixed feelings. They hope for a scenario that includes both Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck. They know it probably can't happen. But in this little old city, they're supposed to dream big.

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com. Follow her on Twitter: @MerrillLiz. Follow ESPN_Reader on Twitter: @ESPN_Reader.