Peyton Manning mentioned plenty of legends during his 11-minute retirement speech Monday in Denver, but only one name mentioned had as much gravitas as Manning’s place in the game today.
That name was Johnny Unitas and Manning recalled meeting the Hall of Famer and Colts icon during his rookie season after a 38-31 loss back on Nov. 29, 1998.
“It was the first time that the Colts had returned to Baltimore since they had moved back in 1984,” Manning remembered. “We didn’t exactly get a warm reception that day. The fans were screaming at me, and I kept thinking, ‘Hey, I was only 8-years-old then, get off of my back.’
“I had met him once before, but when the game was over I had the chance to shake Johnny Unitas’ hand. He told me, ‘Peyton, you stay at it. I’m pulling for you.’ Well, I have stayed at it. I’ve stayed at it for 18 years and I hope that old No. 19 is up there with his flat top and maybe his black high-tops on and I hope he knows that I have stayed at it and maybe he’s even a little proud of me.
“There is just something about 18 years. Eighteen is a good number, and today I retire from pro football.”
Immediately, Buzz thought of one iconic piece of cardboard that’s nowhere near his collection — and probably never will be — a 1999 Donruss Elite Passing the Torch Autographs card signed by one of the greatest quarterbacks of different generations and two of the greatest quarterbacks ever. While there were 1,500 copies of the standard insert made, only the first 100 copies came signed by both players. Unitas on the front and the rookie on the back. And it’s a card that’s pricey — if you can find one. (Note that one’s carrying a key serial number, too.)
Unitas died just a few years later, Sept. 11, 2002, never seeing Manning become a Super Bowl winner or even a league MVP. In all those years since, Manning amassed five MVPs, two rings and threw for more touchdowns and yards than any other quarterback ever.
This card was the first pairing of the Colts on cardboard — one that’s barely been equaled since, signed or unsigned. It’s the only card they both signed together, while others (fewer than 10 with much lower volume per card) are creations made posthumously via cut sigs. Unsigned, they’ve appeared on football cards together fewer than 50 times, despite both being icons who’ll both be in Canton five years from now.
The idea of Passing the Torch in past Donruss (now Panini America) sets was to bridge the past to the present — or even the future. Today, though, the greatest newly retired QB in the game, passes the torch to no one. He’s clearly received the torch from Unitas and taken the position to new heights that few in the game today have a chance of someday topping.
It’s moments like that speech (and both of their careers, of course) that make cards like this one that much more special.
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