There’s a scene in "Peyton Manning’s Summer School" that captures the essence of No. 18 better than any game, any touchdown pass, any red forehead close-up, any signature double-fist-in-the-air celebration or anything else that came to define the future Hall-of-Famer over his 18-year NFL career.
It’s Manning meeting with Adam Gase and Greg Knapp prior to training camp in 2013 just after his flight to Denver - where he took notes of mini-camp film on his United Airlines napkins.
Tiny, hard-to-write-on drink napkins. On mini-camp film.
Until a flight attendant noticed he was out and gave him a menu to finish his note-taking.
That scene made an impression on NFL Films’ Chris Barlow who worked with Keith Cossrow to produce the "Summer School" documentary for its "Timeline" series that airs tonight at 8 EST on NFL Network.
"I was backed into a corner taping this film session and half paying attention until he pulls out notes he took on napkins," Barlow recalls in an exclusive interview with Mile High Report. "I was like, ‘You have got to be kidding me.’ But Knapp and Gase...it didn’t even shock them."
Make no mistake, "Summer School" is no highlight reel.
Instead it’s a film about a painstaking, mundane, routine process.
And it’s masterful.
In his retirement speech, Manning mentions teaching his two kids to appreciate the little things "because one day they’ll look back and discover those things really were the big things."
The entire purpose of "Summer School" is to delve into the "little things" Manning paid attention to his entire career that led to the big things - two Super Bowl championships in four appearances, one Super Bowl MVP award, five NFL MVP awards, 14-time Pro-Bowler, six-time NFL record-holder.
"As a story, it’s a little flat - but we embraced that," Cossrow said of their direction with the film. "It is all about meticulous preparation, routine and almost a redundancy. It’s not like ‘this is the moment that made his career.’ It’s a bunch of moments over all the years. Let’s just watch him work for 45 minutes."
If you’re a football fan, this is a fabulous watch.
If you’re a Peyton Manning fan, this is welcomed confirmation.
But if you’re a Broncos fan, this is not just a must-see. It’s required viewing.
We lived the highlight reel in 2013. This film shows us why it could happen, why we were the most fortunate franchise in all of football that year - even with its dreadful conclusion.
And having experienced a victory in Super Bowl 50, we now look back and see why it would happen.
"There’s nobody like Peyton," Cossrow said, noting that both he and Barlow were struck by Manning’s intensity after just one day of filming.
"You don’t meet people very often who love what they do like Peyton does," Barlow added. "I never got a sense that there is any part of his job that he dreads. There was nothing he didn’t love about being a football player."
The project - which Cossrow and Barlow nicknamed the "M&M Project" after Manning’s twins, Marshall and Mosley - came to be when the producers approached Manning about getting some "behind-the-scenes" footage of his "work."
"It had almost a mystical quality about it because it wasn’t documented," the producers said of the first Duke workout, pointing out what a rarity that was for Manning, a quarterback whose seemingly every move is catalogued.
The two heard about Manning’s workouts with David Cutcliffe at Duke before the 2012 season to prepare for his comeback with the Broncos, and it seemed like a good opportunity - even if they had no idea what kind of film it may - or may not - turn into.
Manning agreed to the filming and only asked that its intention - whatever that might be - have no publicity, that it just be said it is documentation for his kids to see when they are older.
And as far as Barlow and Cossrow were concerned, it might only be that.
Until they saw Manning’s retirement speech.
With 57 tapes documenting everything from Manning’s Duke workouts to his annual Manning Passing Academy with dad Archie and brothers Eli and Cooper, and all the way to training camp in Denver, Barlow and Cossrow knew they had exactly the right footage to make an authentic story.
A story about the little things that lead to big things.
As is part of NFL Films’ DNA to capture humor on film, the two producers had no trouble getting gems from Manning’s dry sense of humor that we’ve become accustomed to in his commercials.
Whether it’s joking with high schoolers who seem to take him at his word when he says his 40 time was "4.3 or 4.4, one of the two, just depends" or reminding them he "is still a dual threat - I can throw it right or I can throw it left," the humanity of such a super star is ever-present.
"Whenever you can make an audience laugh, you’v got them," Cossrow said. "Peyton gave us so many to work with. He’s a funny guy."
In fact, the scene with Manning and his brother watching film with Cutcliffe while Eli chomps on his chips went viral when NFL Films promoted it last month to kick off the NFL season.
But for both Barlow and Cossrow, their favorite scenes are the more mundane ones that show Manning in his element - leading a Q&A with University of Tennessee coaches that was supposed to be 20 minutes but lasted three hours, or the final minutes of a long day at the Duke camp where Manning has his three wide receivers running a two-minute drill with him.
"That last scene at Duke with the imaginary two-minute drill where Manning is calling out the linebackers who aren’t there...that’s my favorite," says Barlow. "It was the end of a long day, and there’s no place he’d rather be than right there. And he probably would have kept going."
Cossrow’s favorite scene was something that was supposed to be a few seconds worth of material. Manning told them it was a short Q&A with the UT coaches, so Cossrow didn’t even have his videographer bring a tripod.
"After 90 minutes, Peyton was still going and my camera guy was about to die," Cossrow laughed. "But it was so riveting. You could have heard a pin drop in there."
Cossrow even remembers seeing UT head coach Butch Jones immediately start writing after Manning mentioned that coaches who don’t take notes during a film session aren’t even watching film.
"I remember thinking, ‘I hope we got that,’" Cossrow said, adding that he mostly hoped an audience would find it as insightful as he did. "Peyton was delivering a masterpiece."
I can’t speak for the entire audience, but it certainly caught my attention too.
Watching #PeytonManning's "Summer School" via @NFLFilms, and I've gotten some great tips for my pump fake. My boys gonna love my skillz. pic.twitter.com/OXNMmlg5yg— L.Lattimore-Volkmann (@docllv) October 11, 2016
Barlow and Cossrow said they wondered if an audience would have the patience to watch Manning "work for 45 minutes."
But we can forgive them this transgression.
As Eagles (Barlow) and Steelers (Cossrow) fans, they haven’t come to appreciate the fruits of this "labor" the way Broncos and Colts fans have.
We appreciated the preparation that inevitably had to be there even if we were unaware of how deeply ingrained and how completely magnificent it was.
Near the end of the film, the producers juxtapose Manning practicing his routes with his three receivers - Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Eric Decker - with the exact same play in a game, the only difference being the latter is an amazing score while the former is the grind.
It’s the grind Manning always loved - as he reminded us in his final words at Dove Valley in March.
Remember Broncos Country - required viewing.