By CLIFF BRUNT, Associated Press
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Bert Owens is just one of the countless Colts fans with broken hearts.
"I'm sad I didn't get to relish his last games with us because I didn't know they would be," the 56-year-old Owens said after the Colts released Peyton Manning. "It's going to take some years for us to rise again."
The dismay stretched from the streets of Indy to the governor's office and beyond as Manning said goodbye, standing beside team owner Jim Irsay.
"I sure have loved playing football for the Indianapolis Colts," Manning said. "For 14 wonderful years, the only professional football I've known has been Colts football."
The move brings an end to a golden run in a city that Manning helped turn into an NFL power. He changed the sports hierarchy here after Indy for decades was known simply as the home of the Indianapolis 500 and the capital of a state that prized basketball over all else.
"I think in terms of the sport and the state of Indiana, he made football relevant in Indiana," former Colts executive Bill Polian said. "When he first arrived, Indiana was a basketball state. The pecking order was IU basketball, the Pacers, and then the Colts. Now, although IU basketball is back, and we're thrilled about that, and the Pacers are back, and we're thrilled about that, the Colts and football are at least sharing top billing, and that's all due to Peyton Manning."
Just before noon, the Indianapolis Colts Grille downtown was packed with customers waiting to watch the Manning announcement, some asking for towels and tissues in anticipation of the bad news. General manager Mike Duganier said all 66 flat-screen TVs were tuned to the news conference at full volume and the entire restaurant watched in silence.
When Manning finished speaking, the restaurant broke out in applause. Duganier quickly changed the channel to Big East basketball to lighten the mood.
"We're a Colts grille, not a Peyton Manning grille," Duganier said. "We're all Peyton fans, but this is a restaurant by the Colts for Colts fans."
Manning, who played his college ball at Tennessee and has family roots in Louisiana, has been a popular figure for years in Indianapolis. His work with kids became so prominent that St. Vincent Hospital renamed its children's wing in his honor, and his imprint there is everywhere -- autographed helmets, jerseys hanging, a painting of him in the lobby.
Manning shows up, too. Employees raved about how he comes and just walks around, no reporters in sight.
"He's contributed in ways people can see, like his children's hospital, but he has also done so many things that he insists no one know about," Gov. Mitch Daniels said. "There have been countless times that he has called me when we've had some kind of need and said, 'Governor, I want to help,' and he'll do everything but associate his name with it. We are going to miss seeing No. 18 under center for the Colts, but I am happy to hear he will continue to call Indianapolis his home. It's not a happy day."
Manning's departure was news many fans expected after he missed last season, yet hoped wouldn't come to pass.
"When the Super Bowl was here, everybody talked about our 'Hoosier hospitality,' and this is a part of it," said Melody Whitlow, 52, as she learned of the news. "He's one of our own, and he always will be."
Larry Bird, the most famous Hoosier of all from his storied prep days to Indiana State to the NBA, agreed.
"Peyton Manning is the best professional athlete to ever play in Indianapolis, truly a one-of-a-kind player, maybe a once-in-a-lifetime player," said Bird, now the president of basketball operations for the Pacers. "Being a small market, having a player like him come here and do what he did on and off the field is remarkable ... We wish him nothing but the best."
By restoring the Colts' once-proud tradition, Manning also helped Irsay make the case for a new stadium to local and state government leaders. Irsay later went to other owners and encouraged them to give Indy its first Super Bowl, which came off without a hitch just a few weeks ago as Manning watched his younger brother, Eli, win another championship with the New York Giants.
There seemed to be as many No. 18 jerseys in the crowds that week as anyone else's.