Rockies pulling for Peyton and Co. in SB XLVIII
Broncos star played football with Helton; trained at Coors Field during comeback
DENVER -- The aura of greatness that quarterback Peyton Manning exudes came over the Rockies in 2011. The club allowed Manning to use Coors Field for his rehab from the multiple neck surgeries that led to his exit from the Indianapolis Colts and, ultimately, led to his joining the Denver Broncos and eventually leading them to Sunday's Super Bowl XLVIII.
While rehabbing, Manning received a king's treatment in the form of a pair of lockers in the same corner of the clubhouse as Rockies icon -- and Manning's former University of Tennessee football teammate -- Todd Helton. Those lockers are usually reserved for a respected player. Matt Holliday and Brad Hawpe once dressed there. When the Rockies signed outfielder-first baseman Michael Cuddyer for the 2012 season, they set up his locker there. But Cuddyer admitted being a little sheepish, knowing Manning had used that valuable piece of clubhouse real estate just before him.
"I felt like I had stolen his locker," Cuddyer said. "When he came back to visit us, he would spend most of his time in that corner, with Todd. There are not too many people I'm in awe of, since I've been a big league player, but I admit I was in awe of him for while."
It's part awe of Manning, a big dash of community spirit and an appreciation for the quality of the hometown team that has the Rockies openly pulling for the Broncos against the Seattle Seahawks in Sunday's Super Bowl at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
Rockies manager Walt Weiss grew up in Suffern, N.Y., but he was such a big Miami Dolphins fan that he chose to wear No. 22 in honor of running back Mercury Morris. But having played for the Rockies during the Broncos' two Super Bowl-winning seasons and having settled in the Denver area, his family has been indoctrinated as Broncos fans. Weiss understands how baseball players who come from all over to play for the Rockies end up supporting the home football team.
"You see the atmosphere at the Broncos games, you see the excitement for the postseason games, and it's just a reminder of what a great sports town we have and how enthusiastic the fans are," Weiss said. "My boys -- well, most of them -- are Bronco fans. We watch games every weekend. We've been here over 20 years, and we watch together on weekends."
Manning, partly through his friendship with Helton, who retired at the end of the season after 17 years with the Rockies, has been a frequent visitor to the club, both at home and on the road. Back in 2000, Manning hit a home run to left field during batting practice at Coors. Manning also has visited the clubhouse on the road.
The team-wide admiration was solidified, however, when Manning was going through his career-threatening neck issues. Rockies players witnessed him during a period of doubt, when he had to turn his entire body to talk to someone because he couldn't turn his neck and wasn't sure if he could return to football.
"Your body has limitations," Helton said. "It's hard to be patient. That's the hardest thing everybody deals with. Your mind tells you things are OK, but you have to give your body time to heal. That's the frustrating part that any athlete goes through."
Manning accelerated his comeback before the 2012 season by going to Duke University to begin throwing under the watch of Blue Devils head coach David Cutcliffe, who worked with him at Tennessee and coached his younger brother, two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback Eli Manning, at Ole Miss. Helton, who was not far from reporting to the Rockies for Spring Training, joined Peyton Manning as a member of a motley crew of mostly young receivers.
The mutual Rockies-Broncos respect goes well beyond Manning, by the way. Wide receiver Eric Decker (once a Twins Draft pick) took batting practice, and offensive lineman Orlando Franklin also visited Coors Field during a Rockies-Yankees series late last April. Several other Broncos visited late in the season and took BP at Coors.
"It was really cool to talk to Peyton -- he gave us tips that helped our fantasy teams," said Rockies pitcher Tyler Chatwood, who appeared on MLB Network's Intentional Talk wearing a Broncos alternate blue jersey with Manning's number. "Before they played the Raiders, Duke Ihenacho and a lot of the defensive backs took batting practice and we got to talk to them. They told us about what they had to watch out for from the Raiders, and a lot of us went to that game."
During the run to the Super Bowl, Rockies front-office personnel have worn orange to work on Fridays in support of the Broncos' #unitedinorange campaign on social media. The Rockies commissioned a cake to be sent to the Broncos' facility before their Super Bowl send-off, and the Broncos tweeted a picture.
Dinger, the Rockies' mascot, showed up for a pep rally in downtown Denver on Friday and managed to get his mug on the Today Show on NBC, which set up a live shot.
In the face of all that, the Seahawks don't stand much of a chance for sympathies from the Broncos. Or at least no one will admit any.
But it's difficult.
Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson played second base in the Rockies' system in 2010 and '11 and batted .229 at two levels. It turns out infielder Josh Rutledge is the only player who has appeared in the Majors with the Rockies who was a teammate of Wilson's. In fact, the two were roommates.
Rutledge appeared by phone on MLB Network's "Hot Stove" program, and was good-naturedly diplomatic when pressed for a prediction by hosts Mitch Williams and Greg Amsinger toward the end of his interview.
"I think I'm just going to root for him [Wilson] … That's going to be a great game, with the Seahawks defense against the Broncos offense. It's going to be a fun one to watch," Rutledge said.
Cuddyer, influenced by the aura of Manning, wasn't shy at all about expressing his allegiance - which, it's safe to say, is the Rockies' official position.
"I'm not going to lie: for the last two or three months, I've been on the Broncos bandwagon," he said. "I hope that no one minds."
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. MLB.com columnist Tracy Ringolsby contributed to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.