Peyton Manning shows off health to fans

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Derek Wolfe thought something was strange when he heard a roar as he emerged from the locker room at the Denver Broncos’ practice field.

Is this really how Denver fans treat the arrival of second-round draft picks at the start of training camp?

“[The fans] made a pretty big fuss,” Wolfe said. “I was like, ‘Why are they yelling so crazy for me?’ Then I looked behind me and it was [Peyton] Manning standing there.”

Manning’s first camp day as a Denver Bronco was met with unprecedented fan excitement. Some fans were in line to attend the free practice at 4:30 a.m. Thursday and the team announced a record crowd of 4,372 for a camp practice. The previous record was 3,103. A crowd of at least 75 reporters huddled around Manning after his first camp practice.

It’s real, Manning is a Denver Bronco. And he looked fantastic.

“He’s as accurate as he’s been in the past and I don’t expect anything less from him,” Denver cornerback Champ Bailey said.

Slowly, the focus is moving away from whether Manning can come back from a neck injury that cost him the entire 2011 season. He has made major strides throughout the offseason. Sunday, there were no signs of a quarterback struggling with his health.

ESPN medical analyst Stephania Bell told me she was impressed by the tempo Manning, 36, led Thursday. It is another sign that Manning is all-in and the team is not holding him back.

“The arm strength was there, his passes were on time,” said ESPN analyst Tom Jackson, who was part of the network’s coverage team. “He was Peyton Manning.”

For Manning, Thursday’s practice was another important step on his way back to the field. Manning remains methodical in his progression, but the idea of finally getting back in action for the first time since January 2011 spurs him.

“I have missed it, and I’ve never taken it for granted to be out there playing,” Manning said. “I had been playing for 13 years straight and never missed a game since I’ve been playing quarterback in the seventh grade. That’s a lot of consecutive games, a lot of Fridays or Saturdays or Sundays to be playing a game, so I’m glad to be back in more of a normal routine, in a practice routine.”

And so are the legions of his new fans in Colorado.