ENGLEWOOD Brandon Stokley was ready for a reunion, not retirement.
The 14th-year wide receiver rejoined the Denver Broncos and old pal Peyton Manning this offseason after missing almost all of 2011.
Stokley played in just two games for the New York Giants last year before a strained thigh led to an injury settlement. Instead of helping the Giants win another ring, he spent his winter back home in Castle Rock, wondering if his NFL career was over.
He kept in shape, and when Manning signed with Denver, the Broncos quickly brought back his sidekick slot receiver who played with the four-time MVP in Indianapolis from 2003-06.
Stokley, who played in Denver from 2007-09, said hes, well, stoked, to be back with the Broncos and Manning.
I wasnt really ready to be done, Stokley said. I still feel like I can play.
Stokley and Manning hooked up at a public park in Castle Rock to play some catch during the quarterbacks free agency whirlwind tour in March.
It was Stokley who let the sports world know that Manning looked strong and accurate after missing last season with a series of neck operations that led to his release by the Colts. Manning worked out privately for some teams, but Stokley was the first eyewitness to come forward and give the 36-year-old quarterback rave reviews.
At first, he was surprised by Mannings precise, powerful passes.
I was. I hadnt talked to him about it. I didnt ask him how he was throwing or even if he was throwing. So, when I went up there, I just wanted to have a clear mind and just see for myself. So, I was really impressed that first day, Stokley said.
And we ended up throwing for three straight days, and he was the only quarterback there, so he was throwing a lot of balls, and you never saw any drop-off. And when we threw a week or two later, he looked even better. That just showed me he is improving.
Stokley then made a tour of high school football fields around the Denver area with Manning and receiver Eric Decker to get back into shape and rediscover their rhythm.
Not long after Manning called John Elway and agreed to a five-year, $96 million deal, Stokley signed a one-year contract to return to the Broncos in what he views as the best of both worlds.
No, I didnt ever think Id have another chance to play with him, Stokley said. I dont want to say you kind of take him for granted, but then you move on, and you kind of realize what you had. And you kind of always hope that you get that chance again. So, for me, its been great, I think hes the best ever to play the position. So, to have a chance to play with somebody like that is pretty special.
Stokley, who will turn 36 next month, same as Manning, is healthy again.
I feel great. I feel 100 percent. I dont have any ailments or nothings bothering me. So, the bodys feeling good, and I feel good, he said.
Known as the Slot Machine, Stokley is the only Broncos receiver who has played with Manning before, and hes freely dishing out advice to his young teammates, some of whom hell be battling with for a roster spot and playing time.
Ive always looked at it like anything I can do to help out, Stokley said. I believe in my ability and what I can do, and if its good enough, then Ill be on the team. If its not, then I wont. But I dont think helping somebody else out is going to hurt me. Ive never looked at it that way. Ive always had older guys who have helped me out. So, whenever I get the chance, I try to help out whoever asks.
Stokleys first stint with the Broncos was best known for his Immaculate Deflection catch that stunned the Cincinnati Bengals in the 2009 season opener. Down 7-6 with 28 seconds left, Kyle Ortons underthrown pass to Brandon Marshall was tipped by cornerback Leon Hall and into the hands of Stokley, who raced for an 87-yard touchdown and a 12-7 win in Josh McDaniels head coaching debut.
Stokley said its been fun to see how far Decker and Demaryius Thomas have come since he played with them when they were rookies during training camp in 2010, before injury ended Stokleys first stint in Denver.
He said hes eager to see how much better Manning will make them, too.
Oh, I think its going to be huge, especially with what they had last year and the offense that they ran last year to what theyre going to have this year, Stokley said. I think the expectations are going to be a lot higher from the quarterback.
So, I think anytime you have that, it just makes the player work harder and want to do better. With Peyton, everything has to be so precise, detail-oriented, it just rubs off on everybody else.