Todd Helton always felt his future was in baseball.
As a junior at the University of Tennessee, where he was listed No. 1 on the depth chart at quarterback, Helton's belief was confirmed.
That's when freshman Peyton Manning arrived.
"The first time I saw him throw," Helton said of the moment when he knew his professional future was on a baseball diamond, not a gridiron. "He was special."
Two decades later, nothing has changed. Manning is still special, and Helton is still impressed.
Helton's 17-year big league career with the Rockies came to an end last September, when the left-handed-hitting first baseman announced his retirement.
Manning's career, however, is still going strong.
After spending his first 14 years in the NFL with the Indianapolis Colts, Manning has revived his career, following two neck surgeries, with the Denver Broncos. And on Sunday, Manning, who won a Super Bowl with Indianapolis in 2006, will be behind center in the Broncos' first Super Bowl appearance in 15 years.
Helton? He will be in the stands, unconcerned about the weather, admittedly pulling for Manning and the Broncos in their showdown with the Seattle Seahawks.
"It's one thing that may not happen again," said Helton. "The Broncos in the Super Bowl in New York City and [my] buddy's the quarterback. I don't know about [the forecast for] cold. I'm used to hunting. I'll be the guy up there [in the stands] with the camouflage on."
Helton's allegiance is no secret.
"I am very excited for Peyton," said Helton. "I'm excited for everybody on the team. It's a great time to be a Denver Broncos fan. The whole city is excited and looking forward to the Super Bowl. I just hope they keep playing the way they have been."
There is no way to camouflage the relationship Helton and Manning have developed over the years. Manning regularly visited Helton at Coors Field when Manning was with the Colts, and he has done so more often since joining the Broncos.
Helton and the Rockies are one of the key reasons that Manning has been able to prolong his career after undergoing the two neck operations following the 2010 season. In the spring of '11, with the NFL in a lockout, which prevented Manning from having access to the Colts' trainers and facilities, Helton arranged for Manning to use the Rockies' facilities at Coors Field under the direction of trainer Keith Dugger.
There were anxious moments. When Manning and Helton first started to throw a football, Manning's initial tosses couldn't cover 10 feet. Manning said he had to learn to throw "all over again."
The Colts may have decided it was time for Manning to call it quits after the 2011 season, but Manning was eventually signed by the Broncos and has been reborn. An All-Pro in both seasons with Denver, he led the NFL with 5,477 yards this season, and his 115.1 quarterback ranking was second-best in the NFL.
It's been an impressive comeback.
Helton, however, isn't surprised.
"If he only had a one-percent chance that it could be done, I'd have bet on him because of how much he wanted it," said Helton. "What you know about Peyton is he is going to do all the little things to get better. He isn't going to shortchange himself. He never has. It's why he's been a winner everywhere he's been.
"I would have never guessed he would have one of the best years ever for a quarterback, but the fact he could come back and take his team to an upper level isn't a surprise. It is what makes him great. "
Helton got an early glimpse at the greatness. When he hurt his knee during his junior year at Tennessee, it was Manning who got the call to take over the starting job, and he never gave it up -- not in college and not in the NFL.
Helton knows firsthand about the challenge of an elite athlete facing a career-threatening injury. In his final years with the Rockies, Helton battled back problems, which resulted in surgery. He had to deal with the fact that he could still be an asset to the Rockies, even if he couldn't do things he did at an earlier point in his career.
"Your body does have limitations," said Helton. "You have to be patient with it. That's the hardest thing everybody deals with. Your mind tells you that you are OK, but you have to give your body time to heal.
"That's the frustrating part that any athlete goes through trying to recover from a big surgery."
Manning has pushed the frustrations aside.
He has made it back in a big way.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less