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Peyton Manning adds touch of humor to documentary series on 100 years of the NFL

Peyton Manning, Mike Ditka
Peyton Manning, right, hangs out with legendary Bears coach Mike Ditka on the Chicago River.
(Sam Farmer / Los Angeles Times)

There’s a reason why Peyton Manning was named the NFL’s most valuable player a record five times, and it went beyond what he accomplished on the field as quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos.

Manning was also an uncompromising leader who demanded the most of his teammates, particularly the young offensive players. He didn’t want to have to stop and explain everything. They needed to be able to speak his language.

So he assigned them extra film study.

“It was a new generation,” he said. “It was Austin Collie, Curtis Painter, the 2009 [Colts] rookie class. I sent them on a homework assignment. I said, `'I want you to go watch “Caddyshack,” “Stripes,” “Vacation,” “Fletch” and “The Jerk.” Watch them so you kind of know what I’m saying.’”

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Manning wasn’t kidding. He takes his comedy seriously.

That was abundantly clear earlier this summer when Manning spent a jam-packed day in Chicago shooting multiple segments of his new 30-episode documentary series, “Peyton’s Places.” It was one of his many stops around the country for the ESPN+ show, a mostly irreverent look at the history of the NFL through conversations with players, coaches and other key figures as the league heads into its 100th season.

Produced by NFL Films in collaboration with ESPN+, the network’s direct-to-consumer streaming service, “Peyton’s Places” debuted this week and will be presented in five chapters, each consisting of six episodes.

Peyton Manning, Virginia McCaskey
Peyton Manning interviews Chicago Bears owner Virginia Halas McCaskey at Wrigley Field, where the Bears played from 1921-70.
(Sam Farmer / Los Angeles Times)

It’s also a resurfacing of one of the most popular athletes of this era, someone who largely had flown under the radar during the past three-plus years since his retirement. Manning had his pick of opportunities. He could have gone to the broadcast booth or been a studio analyst, but those doors will always be unlocked for him. He wanted to do something different, and that meant telling some of the hidden, curious and comedic stories in his own style.

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“It’s everything that I thought it was going to be, and just the little things that I’ve gotten to be a part of,” he said. “I just knew that I was never going to get to do this again. It’s been worth the travel and the time.”

Manning has been all over. He was at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco, onetime home of the 49ers. He went to Dallas to better understand Sammy Baugh and what it meant to be a two-way player, with Deion Sanders putting him through defensive back drills. He checked out the field in Pittsburgh where Johnny Unitas played for $6 a game.

At the Rose Bowl, Manning tried to re-create the “Immaculate Reception” — even though it happened in Pittsburgh — but also sat with legendary Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw and discussed his Super Bowl victory over the Rams on that field.

“He’s basically telling us, `'Yeah, I hit [Lynn] Swann here on the post,’ ” Manning said. “He remembered where his parents were sitting. We’ve got this great clip of him kind of pointing to his family sitting right where they were.”

In Los Angeles, he met with Eric Dickerson and they chatted about the Hall of Fame running back’s all-time rushing record. Manning met with Jim Brown too.

“Talking about Cleveland, I asked Jim Brown, ‘Jim, what was better, winning the championship in ’64 with the Browns or doing a love scene with Raquel Welch?’ ” he said. “He said, ‘Hey, Peyton, I thought you were a smart quarterback.’ ”

Even in retirement, Manning runs his life the way he ran a two-minute offense. There’s always a plan, and he seldom stops moving. It can drive his wife crazy.

“I kind of have my next year planned, more so than Ashley would like,” he said. “I asked her the other day, ‘On Feb. 3, what are we doing?’ She’s like, ‘I’m just dealing with today.’ I have a planner; I’m a year out.

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“I may have missed my calling. Maybe I should forget this staying-close-to-football thing and just become what I was meant to be: an event planner.”

The spin through Chicago was frenetic. First stop, Wrigley Field. Everyone knows it as the iconic home of the Chicago Cubs, but that’s where the Chicago Bears played for nearly 50 years, from 1921-70.

Peyton Manning, Joe Maddon, Kris Bryant
Peyton Manning, left, chats with Cubs manager Joe Maddon and third baseman Kris Bryant at Wrigley Field.
(Sam Farmer / Los Angeles Times)

Manning had a sit-down interview with 96-year-old Bears owner Virginia Halas McCaskey — she clearly found him polite and charming — then a walk around the park with Cubs manager Joe Maddon and third baseman Kris Bryant. They talked about the challenge of wedging a football field into the ballpark, which was nothing compared with cramming a football team into the venue’s musty and microscopic football locker room.

Manning might have loved to stay and chat, but he was off to Navy Pier to meet legendary Bears coach Mike Ditka for a boat ride on the Chicago River to the site of the passenger ship Eastland disaster, where in 1915 the ship rolled on her side while tied to a dock, and 844 passengers and crew drowned. A young George Halas was supposed to be aboard but showed up late. Halas would go on to found the Decatur Staleys, then move them to Chicago and change their name to the Bears. He was among the NFL’s founding fathers.

Ditka, for one, wasn’t delighted to be on a boat.

“He hates them,” confided his wife, Diana, who was along for the ride. “He would only do this for Peyton.”

The sight of Manning and Ditka at the I’m-the-king-of-the-world bow of the boat caused quite a stir among the people on shore and the passengers of passing boats. Suddenly, Second City was Doubletake City.

Manning, meanwhile, was nailing his lines on the first take. He doesn’t like to waste time, not his own or that of the production crew. It’s clear he has done his homework. To a large extent, he treats this assignment in the same serious way he approached football.

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“You’ve seen examples of other people take on something in that role, and they go, ‘Whoa, I didn’t know it was going to be this,’ ” he said. “I guess it’s because of my respect for the profession and the game, because I know what it is. It’s not two feet in, it’s your whole body in. It’s a full plunge.”

The final stop of the day was Soldier Field, where Manning donned a Walter Payton jersey and shot a “Da Bears” skit with George Wendt and Robert Smigel, the superfans from “Saturday Night Live.”

Peyton Manning, George Wendt, Robert Smigel
Peyton Manning, left, shoots a “Da Bears” skit with George Wendt and Robert Smigel at Soldier Field.
(Sam Farmer / Los Angeles Times)

“Peyton’s just naturally funny,” said Smigel, known for his “TV Funhouse” cartoon shorts on “Saturday Night Live” and for being the puppeteer and voice behind Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. “I know a good commercial director can get a lot out of even a non-pro — I’ve seen athletes from Marv Throneberry to Hakeem Olajuwon seem to exhibit perfect timing and comic takes. But Peyton’s done it so many times.”

Manning’s older brother, Cooper, who does his own irreverent football segments on Fox, said he doesn’t think of Peyton as a born comedian as much as an observer who appreciates and takes keen note of the craft.

“I would say his comedy skills are similar to his singing skills,” Cooper said. “He appreciates other people’s talent, but I wouldn’t say that Peyton’s a really funny person. But he does appreciate comedy, and he understands what’s funny and what’s not, and the timing of it.

“He can tell stories, and he likes the uncomfortable things that happen and can translate it to a crowd of 10 or an audience of thousands. But he’s not a comedian by any stretch.”

But there are those classic comedies that all three of the Manning brothers regularly quote. When Eli left for college, Peyton gave him VHS tapes to study — the same ones he later assigned to his Colts teammates.

“Peyton and I come from the same era, and my dad loves the movie ‘Vacation,’ ” Cooper said of Archie.

“This is probably the worst decision my parents ever made, but they moved a pretty nice-sized TV and a VCR into my room at a very young age. That altered my acceptance letters in college. Too much useless information. The fact that I know Lumpy from ‘Leave It to Beaver’ is Frank Bank is not something I’m proud of. I watched too much television.”

Peyton Manning
Former NFL quarterback Peyton Manning films a segment of his new ESPN+ documentary series in Chicago with comic Robert Smigel.
(Sam Farmer / Los Angeles Times)

Peyton is clear about this: He’s not looking to become a full-time comedian.

“I’ve always kind of kept the, ‘Hey, I’m a football guy doing these commercials,’ ” he said. “Don’t insult the word ‘acting’ by saying I’m good at acting.

“I’ve always tried to stay in my lane.”


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