In December 2011, Peyton Manning arrived in Durham looking to rebuild his strength and revive his career. A series of neck surgeries had cost the star quarterback the entirety of the 2011 NFL season, and he faced an uphill slog to getting back on a football field on Sundays.
So Manning came to Durham, and leaned on Duke head coach David Cutcliffe—his offensive coordinator from his college days at Tennessee—for a series of workouts that lasted into March, honing in on mechanical tweaks, bulking up through weight-room exercises and physical therapy and studying film.
Manning's Denver Broncos will take on the Carolina Panthers and newly-minted MVP Cam Newton in Sunday's Super Bowl 50 from Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. But back in 2011, a return to football's biggest stage seemed highly improbable.
"He didn’t know if he had a future. That was actually more doubt there of ‘Was it over?’ than right now," Cutcliffe said last week. "When he first came back, he couldn’t be throwing it across this room, which is amazing. This is the second Super Bowl since that time, which is pretty bizarre."
Back then, Manning was still technically a member of the Indianapolis Colts, but he was soon released and wound up signing with the Broncos. He returned to the NFL with a splash, throwing for more than 4,500 yards and at least 37 touchdowns in each of his first three seasons in the Mile High City.
But then came 2015—though Manning guided the Broncos to an 8-0 start, he did not appear his usual precise self, and he was forced to the sidelines with a slew of injuries in Week 11 at Chicago. Backup Brock Osweiler thrived in his first few starts in Manning's stead, and started the rest of the Broncos' regular-season games.
Osweiler ran into difficulties of his own, though, and Manning stepped back under center in the third quarter of Denver's Week 17 win against the San Diego Chargers. After two wins against fellow icons Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady, the 39-year-old Manning now sits one win from a second Super Bowl title—and possibly the end of a legendary career.
"I don’t think a month and a half ago would anybody have put them in the Super Bowl with Peyton Manning being the quarterback," Cutcliffe said.
Since landing in Denver, Manning has made a habit of returning to Durham in the offseason to work out with Cutcliffe, as has his brother, New York Giants' quarterback Eli Manning. Some of Peyton's Broncos teammates have made the trip with him, working out in Duke's Pascal Field House. And some of Cutcliffe's Blue Devils have joined in on the action, opportunities that ended up paving their own paths to the NFL—and the Super Bowl.
Juwan Thompson was part of the backfield platoon that helped Duke capture the 2013 ACC Coastal Division title. Thompson rushed 64 times for 346 yards—not the eye-popping numbers that immediately capture the attention of NFL scouts. But Thompson saw Manning work up close in Durham, and got the chance to prove himself.
The Broncos did not use a draft choice on Thompson, but picked him up as an undrafted free agent. He got 54 carries as a rookie in 2014 and found the end zone three times, and though his touches have been limited this season, Thompson has been part of Denver's special teams unit, showcasing the versatility that Cutcliffe said has become a trademark characteristic of players to come out of his program of late.
Thompson is not Duke's only Bronco representative. Kenny Anunike—who spent six years in Durham after undergoing multiple knee operations—was part of Denver's pass rush in the Broncos' first 10 games before another injury forced the Galena, Ohio, native onto injured reserve in late November.
"Those guys represent what we do here extremely well—the kind of people they are, what they do in the community there, the kind of people they are for the program, that organization," Cutcliffe said. "[When] somebody who takes a Duke football player as an undrafted free agent and signs them, they’d better realize they probably have a pretty good shot at making their team. I’ve had many more than one pro organization call me we that comment."
Cutcliffe said he does not foresee coaching in Manning's future, whenever he decides to call it a career. Manning's preparation and film study has become one of his defining attributes as a signal-caller, and Cutcliffe said the two have talked about handling younger players who may not share Manning's expectations of the work week. But he was quick to point to his pupil's mentorship, particularly of young wide receivers.
"He assigns some of them old movies they have to watch to play with him. If you don’t get Caddyshack, then you don’t have any business playing with him," Cutcliffe said. "Those kinds of guys make organizations better, so it’s all about peer standards. I think that’s helped Juwan to understand how to be a professional football player.... Juwan had the benefit of seeing Peyton work before Juwan ever dreamed of being a Bronco, he understood the work ethic because he’s seen every bit of it."
With his time-tested bond with Manning and program ties to Thompson and Anunike, there's no doubt who Cutcliffe will be pulling for come Sunday evening—a choice that might be unpopular in the Tar Heel State.
"I’m going to go the ball game, and I don’t ever wear colors—I’m not going to show up in a No. 18 jersey," Cutcliffe said. "I don’t want to make all the Panthers fans mad, but please understand—I’m pulling for the Broncos in this one."
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.