CANTON, Ohio -- One of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game received his immortal place in history on Sunday night.
In front of 17,021 fans at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium, Peyton Manning recalled his legendary career, acknowledged the many who helped him reach Canton, and indicated he's far from finished with his work in football.
It was impossible to not witness Manning's true love and appreciation for the sport that made him a legend. Beyond the expressions of gratitude to those who helped him on his journey, Manning's prevailing message was an impassioned one: His place in the game's history is cemented -- bronzed, if you will -- but he's just as focused on nurturing football's future as he was dedicated to obsessively preparing to dice up his next opponent.
Manning was firm in his request and directives for those in attendance and well beyond. Football brought them together in Canton this weekend, and it gave more than 350 of its former greats a permanent place in the Hall of Fame, but their existence, recognition and collective enjoyment of the game is nothing if they don't serve to fuel the sport's future.
"I don't know about you but I'm not done with this game," Manning said Sunday night. "I never will be. I'm committed to ensuring its future and I hope you will join me in that commitment.
"When we leave this stage tonight, it is no longer about us. It is about cultivating the game that has given so much to us. It's about nurturing football to live and thrive another day, another year, decade and another generation."
Manning's future was set before his birth. As the son of Saints quarterback Archie Manning, it was unlikely Peyton Manning would be headed for anything other than a future on the field. And with a mother "who could also break down a Cover 2 defense as well as any NFL quarterback," Manning seemed destined for football greatness.
What he did, though, was better than most likely imagined.
Manning starred at the University of Tennessee, led the Indianapolis Colts to two Super Bowls (winning one), set single-season passing yards and touchdowns records, won five Most Valuable Player Awards, earned seven first-team All-Pro selections and capped his career with his second Super Bowl victory. In between the start and finish of his career, he was one half of a generational debate pitting his merits against those of his chief rival, Tom Brady.
Brady was in attendance for Manning's enshrinement Sunday, and when Manning recognized him, Brady drew a smattering of boos from those in attendance who likely chose the Manning side of the debate back when both were in the prime of their legendary careers.
During his playing days, Manning was painted as a professional so intent on victory, he was almost robotic, especially in his preparation. But those who followed Manning during his career also learned he had a sense of humor, and he didn't shy from letting it show within his methodical speech. Manning opened by ribbing his fellow enshrinees before turning the attention back toward his occasional foil.
"The 2021 induction class wants to thank those previous inductees who gave long-winded acceptance speeches, forcing us to have a whopping six minutes to recap our football careers," Manning quipped. "I want to give a special thanks to my old rival, Ray Lewis, for being here tonight. Ray just finished giving his speech that he started in 2018.
"Next year, acceptance speeches will probably shrink to four minutes. And speaking of rivals, my good friend Tom Brady is here tonight. By the time Tom Brady is inducted in his first year of eligibility in the year 2035, he'll only have time to post his acceptance speech on his Instagram account."
Jokes aside, Manning took the time to thank his family, one built on a foundation of football. He recognized his brothers, Cooper and former Giants great Eli, as well as his wife, Ashley, his son and daughter, Marshall and Mosley, and finally, his parents.
Archie Manning presented Peyton for enshrinement Sunday, and the younger Manning became choked up when explaining his father's importance to his life.
"Football carved out a place for my favorite quarterback, my hero, my role model, my dad, Archie Manning, to pass on something he loved to me," Manning said. "Dad, there is no one I would rather have or be more appropriate than you to welcome me to this stage."
Thousands of fans turned out to see Manning take that very stage, where he closed by doubling down on his message of importance to everyone involved in America's greatest game.
"The audience here tonight is made up of die-hard fans who feel football deep in your bones," Manning said. "Now, we may have ignited the fire, but you have fanned the flames. Inevitably, those flames will be whipped by the winds of change but they don't need to smolder.
"The future of this game is ours to shape. We just need to take tomorrow on our shoulders as readily as we dawned our pads before each game. Let this moment become a cherished memory and then remember: A legacy is only worthwhile when there is a future to fuel. God bless you and God bless football."
Other notes and highlights from Sunday's enshrinement ceremony:
Drew Pearson's absolute elation was on full display with his evening-opening speech, and it began with a jab at his own past appearance.
"I had the biggest afro in NFL history," Pearson said while pointing at his bronze bust.
Pearson had to wait longer than all but one receiver to reach the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It was an emotional struggle that was not lost on Pearson, one he made clear Sunday evening.
"Strong hearts just keep going, and that's why I'm standing here tonight at the steps of the Pro Football Hall of Fame!" Pearson said.
Tom Flores is another member of the 2021 class who had to wait quite some time to reach Canton, which means he had plenty of it to come up with a good joke to open his speech.
"The reason I'm second on the program is I'm 84 flippin years old," Flores quipped. "I've got to go to bed at nine o clock. Where's my pillow?!"
Flores reflected on his unlikely path into football, setting aside a future as a teacher to instead pursue gridiron glory. It began with a career in the American Football League's Oakland Raiders, who started their existence by playing in San Francisco.
"We were just a bunch of guys who didn't have a home stadium," Flores recalled. "Most of the guys in training camp didn't know where Oakland was. I had to tell them."
Tell them he did, just as he'd informed his mother he wasn't headed to the classroom, but the field.
"My mother cried when I told her I was going to play professionally instead of coming home to be a teacher as I'd studied for in college," Flores said. "But in the end, she was the proudest of all, because I followed my passion. And that's what brought me to this stage tonight."
"When you talk about passion, you're looking at passion on this entire stage tonight."
John Lynch was going to play professional baseball -- that is, until Bill Walsh called him to tell him he was the best defensive player on Stanford's team.
Nearly three decades later, Lynch was wearing a gold jacket in Canton. In accepting his lifetime achievement, Lynch had to acknowledge another coach who was pivotal to Lynch's professional career: Herm Edwards.
"Herm, you were also the first to tell me that I could have a bust someday in Canton, but only if I believed it," Lynch said. "We're here, Herm."
Lynch also gave a nod to a former teammate who he believes will one day join him in Canton.
"Ronde Barber, your time's coming, man," Lynch said. "You're gonna be here."
Johnson spoke of the pain he battled during his NFL career, which stretched beyond his physical limits, and sent a message to those in the same daily fight.
"My journey through the pain began to reshape my view of the world. It gave me more empathy and understanding for those who suffer and deal with pain on a daily basis," Johnson said. "It also motivated me to be someone who's focused on making a change on the issue. There's so many people living in our world with pain right now and I want to speak to you for a moment. I want you to know that I see you and you matter and to fight and do your best and never give into the pain."
Johnson made great efforts to impart his wisdom and use his platform to help others both during his career and afterward. He delivered a similar message by directing those watching to follow his lead.
"The legacy I've left behind thus far is a direct reflection of the moments my family and friends have poured into me. And my understanding that excellence alone does not come from wishful thinking or God-given ability, but one's availability to channel those wishful thoughts into action, to achieve a desired outcome.
"In closing, I ask that you all join me in leaving your own legacy by helping to improve the quality of life for others in whatever you can because moments, people and legacy matters. Before I end, I would like to tell you, you know I never was one to celebrate. But all things come from above and every time I scored that touchdown, all I did was point up to the sky 'cause that's where all good things come from. And this right here, this is a good thing."
Faneca's presenter, former Steelers teammate and great Hines Ward, might one day join him in Canton.
In the meantime, Faneca had his own message to deliver. The guard said Sunday he was first introduced to the possibility of playing in the NFL when he was 15 -- the same age at which he learned he had epilepsy.
That didn't stop him, and he wants his bronze bust to serve as a reminder that such hurdles shouldn't have to keep anyone else from their dreams, either.
"I never want any health challenge to define us," Faneca said. "We define ourselves."
"Be resilient. We all get knocked down in life, but it's how we get up that matters."
Charles Woodson's mother, Georgia, presented him for enshrinement, and Woodson returned the favor by opening his speech by singing a bit of Boyz II Men's "A Song for Mama" to his mother. He then started to cry.
"I think I lost a bet," Woodson said, wiping tears from his eyes. "I love you, momma."
"They say, 'a woman can't raise a man,'" Woodson said. "I call (expletive). My momma raised two of them."
Woodson learned many lessons in his career, but one stood above all, which he relayed to those in attendance Sunday night.
"I leave you with this: Be unique, innovative," Woodson said. "Learn discipline. You own undeniable respect. Love everyone, give everything, never doubt, build your legend. Thank you. We in the Hall of Fame, baby."
The Hall honored the late Steelers scout and former newspaperman, who for three decades worked to direct NFL attention to players from historically black colleges and universities, with a special video memorial that included his recognition at a separate, previously held ceremony for deceased enshrinees. The Pro Football Writers of America also further honored Nunn's legacy by placing his name on its award given to a reporter who has made a long and distinguished contribution to pro football through coverage.
Newsday's Bob Glauber received the award in 2021 and was recognized in between enshrinees on Sunday.