When Brandon Stokley canceled his 10-year anniversary trip with his wife to spend a week in February with Peyton Manning, neither the wide receiver nor the quarterback could have imagined what would come next.
How could they, back in February, have pictured that come November theyd be connecting for touchdowns during a run toward the playoffs with the Denver Broncos?
Back then, Manning was an Indianapolis Colt and in the early stages of working back into playing shape after a series of neck surgeries. Stokley was unemployed, injured and on the verge of retirement. His wife, Lana, was telling friends and relatives Stokleys football career was over.
While Manning is an MVP candidate in his comeback season, Stokleys comeback is just as remarkable, if not even more improbable.
At 36, and with five regular-season games left, Stokley has 36 catches for 449 yards his best numbers since 2008 and five touchdowns. He has become the 11th player in NFL history 36 or older with at least 30 catches and five touchdowns in a season.
Stokleys most recent touchdown came two weeks ago in Denver, as he lined up in his familiar slot position, faked out a San Diego Chargers defensive back and sprinted uncovered to the end zone. It was an easy throw for Manning and an easy catch for Stokley.
As Stokley celebrated in the end zone, he looked up, seeking eye contact with his 8-year-old son, Cameron. Even through the crowd, Cameron was easy to find: He was the only kid so happy he was crying.
To see the smile on his face is priceless, Stokley said. Hes so emotional. Hes bawling his eyes out.
Moments like that, Stokley reminded himself, were why he chose to turn back from the brink of retirement.
It wasnt for money (he signed a one-year deal for the veteran minimum), and it wasnt to chase a title (he has two Super Bowl rings, one each with the Baltimore Ravens and Colts). Stokley wanted one more chance to play alongside Manning, in the city Stokley has adopted as home now that his kids are old enough to remember it.
When the final seconds expired on that win, Cameron and a third-grade buddy joined Stokley on the field. The boys took pictures with the Broncos mascot and followed Stokley into the locker room, where Cameron grabbed Stokleys team-issued iPad and started flipping through game film.
Stokleys favorite memories from his childhood are of the times he spent on the field and in the locker room with his dad, Nelson Stokley, the coach at Louisiana-Lafayette from 1986 to 1998. Nelson Stokley died from complications of Alzheimers disease in 2010.
Those are the best memories I have with my dad. Theyre all from football, and I want my son to be able to have those, too, Stokley said.
When the Stokleys returned to their home south of Denver, Stokley was able to share the moment with his other son. Carson, 6, is autistic and doesnt have the attention span to sit through a game. So he watches on TV and cheers for his dad. He doesnt understand the intricacies, but he knows the guy in the No. 14 jersey.
Hell say, Go, Dad! I guess he thinks Im on TV all the time, Stokley said. Nobody can put a smile on my face like he can.
The Stokley family chose to stay in Colorado after Stokleys release by the Broncos in 2010 in large part because Carson was enrolled at Denvers Firefly Autism school, which helped prepare Carson to start in a mainstream kindergarten program this year.
We wanted him to have the best possible care so he could try to be as normal as possible, Stokley said. Its great to see him overcome obstacles and watch him grow. The normal child picks things up so easy and so quick. What it might take a normal kid one day, itll take my son six months to pick up, but when he does, its so rewarding and nice to see because hes so proud of himself.
Stokley was settling into his role of ex-football player and full-time dad coaching baseball and flag football, driving the boys to and from school when Manning kick-started his comeback with that February call.
Manning promised Stokley tickets to the Duke-North Carolina basketball game if Stokley would come to Durham, N.C., to play catch. Stokley, after promising Lana they would reschedule the anniversary trip, accepted, even if he didnt feel like he had much to offer.
Stokley, who had 31 catches for the Seattle Seahawks in 2010, played in two games for the New York Giants last season before he suffered a torn quadriceps. He was released from injured reserve after reaching a settlement with the team, and he had given up on his intensive, NFL-level rehab by early December.
I hadnt run in three, four months, and the last time I did, it didnt feel good, Stokley said.
To his surprise, as Stokley ran through routes on the Duke practice field, he felt like an NFL player again, albeit one who was, he said, terribly out of shape.
Manning and Stokley reconnected a few weeks later when Manning made Denver the first stop on his free agent tour. Manning slept in the guest room at Stokleys house, and Manning, Stokley and Cameron went to a nearby park to throw and catch between visits with the Broncos.
I never thought I would be part of the deal. I really didnt. I never asked him for that, Stokley said.
Thats not why I wanted him to come here, so that I could come back. I wanted him to come here because I love watching him play, and I wanted my son to go to games and watch Peyton Manning play. I tried to sell him on the organization and the city, let him know its a great place to play football and raise a family.
Stokleys sales pitch obviously worked, with Manning picking the Broncos over Tennessee, San Francisco and Arizona. When voluntary workouts began in April, Manning helped bring Stokley back to the Broncos. Manning told Denvers coaches what he saw from Stokley in their workouts together.
The Broncos needed a slot receiver, and they needed help in teaching a young receiving corps about what it would take to play with Manning. As Stokley began working with the first-team offense in practice not long after he signed, soon it became clear that Stokley had come back to contribute, not just to be a mentor to Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas or a security blanket for Manning.
Brandon is one of my favorite teammates of all time, Manning said. For a guy his age to be able to keep his quickness is pretty rare for a wide receiver. He can be a matchup problem for teams.
Decker, who was a rookie when Stokley was in his last stint with the Broncos, keeps film of those 2003-2005 Indianapolis teams on his iPad, and he pays particular attention to Stokley. Decker said the Stokley he sees now for the Broncos looks remarkably similar.
Stokley appreciates the compliment from his buddy, but he said: I dont want to play good for a 36-year-old. I want to play good for a football player.
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