Former Indianapolis Colts tight end Marcus Pollard caught Peyton Manning's first game-winning touchdown pass in a 24-23 win over the New York Jets on Nov. 15, 1998. It was a 14-yard score that also gave Manning his first career victory.
The first thing Pollard remembered about Manning's first game-winning touchdown pass was that it was the only reception the former Colts tight end made in that contest. The Colts were trailing the Jets late in a home game played on Nov. 15, 1998. Indianapolis had opened the season with six consecutive losses, and the Jets already had thumped them on the road three weeks earlier by the score of 44-6. So when Pollard lined up with less than a minute remaining in the contest, he understood the magnitude of the situation. This was a moment when the Colts -- and Manning -- could prove how much they had grown up.
Manning called a play that required Pollard to run a 5-yard out route in order to draw the attention of the cornerback. If the cornerback jumped on the pattern, then Pollard was supposed to work his way back inside, where there would be ample space for Manning to find him. As Pollard said, "It started the way we wanted, but the way they played it forced us to do something different."
Manning dropped back and waited for the play to develop, but Jets cornerback Otis Smith grabbed Pollard as soon as the tight end made his cut. In order to break free from Smith, Pollard spun sharply and charged toward the middle of the field. Manning remained calm and focused, tapping his feet rapidly, holding the ball as long as possible. "He stuck with me all the way through the play until he found me coming back over the middle," Pollard said.
Once Pollard snatched Manning's pass, he raced toward the goal line and dove into the end zone. Pollard didn't think about how significant that moment was to Manning's career after the play ended. Since he had family in the stands, Pollard jogged toward the crowd and excitedly handed the ball to his mother. Seconds later, he was swarmed by Manning and other teammates, all of whom knew the Colts finally had earned a sorely needed win.
Pollard didn't know at the time that Manning eventually would set the record for career touchdown passes, but he did know the Colts had something special. "I was always impressed by how hard Peyton worked," Pollard said. "People talk about his film study, but he goes after it just as hard when it comes to taking care of his body. When we did conditioning or lifted weights in the offseason, my attitude was always that I didn't want to let a quarterback beat me in anything. Peyton's attitude was that he was the leader of the team, so he always had to work his tail off in everything he did."
Pollard actually didn't recall the Colts calling the play that led to the game-winning touchdown pass against the Jets at any other time that season. It seemed that the opportunity never presented itself again. He did remember exactly when he saw Manning grow into the player he is today. It happened in Manning's second season, when the Colts went from 3-13 to 13-3 and Manning began dissecting opposing defenses on a weekly basis.
"The guys gravitated to Peyton from Day 1," Pollard said. "He stepped into the huddle and commanded respect right away. There are a few guys that have the ability to make that part of the game look easy, and our players saw that he was destined to be a great player in this league for a long time."