At dawn on the Monday of Super Bowl week, Peyton Manning's banner photo remained prominently displayed on Lucas Oil Stadium's facade, dwarfed only by the massive Super Bowl XLVI logo printed next to it.
The man most responsible for building this place was visible on the outside, but won't be playing on the inside. And according to Jason Cole of Yahoo! Sports, sources close to the situation fear Manning will never play another down in the NFL.
A season's worth of troubling health news has cast a shroud of sadness and uncertainly not only around Indianapolis, but throughout a state that counts the beloved quarterback among its favorite sons.
Spend any time walking Indianapolis' downtown corridor and Manning's No. 18 jersey is commonplace on the street, outnumbering those worn by his Colts' teammates by a huge margin.
Drive 12 miles out of town and you'll find the Peyton Manning Children's Hospital -- only one of the long-lasting footprints that took Indianapolis from an aging Midwest rust-belt town to a Super Bowl destination.
Sunday's high-profile match-up between the Giants and Patriots will be housed inside a massive $720 million football house of worship many locals refer to as The House That Peyton Built. When Indianapolis was awarded the bid for Super Bowl XLVI, Colts fans fully expected Peyton Manning -- not brother Eli -- would be the star attraction.
But even without the Colts playing a central role this week, the elder Manning's impact can be felt everywhere.
It is here -- in a state defined by its Hoosier Hysteria brand of basketball -- where Peyton Manning has helped make Indiana an NFL mainstay.
"This town has embraced this guy like nothing I have ever seen before," Kevin Brinegar, the president of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, says. "He is the heart and soul."
Michael Hopson, better known in these parts as the Colts' Super Fan, can attest to that as well as anyone.
Hopson has called Indianapolis home since 1987 -- three years after the Colts arrived from Baltimore and 11 years before Indianapolis selected Manning with the No. 1 overall pick of the NFL Draft.
Hopson has endured the bad and the good, ranging from a 1-15 finish in 1991 to a pair of Super Bowl berths in the past five years. Manning has guided the Colts to 11 playoff appearances and a Super Bowl championship in 2007.
But when the star quarterback missed this season after undergoing a series of neck surgeries, the Colts stumbled badly, losing their first 12 games before finishing 2-14. The losing ways pre-dated Manning's arrival and threw Colts' fans into a tumultuous tailspin.
"It was rough," Hopson says, dressed head-to-toe in a full ensemble of Colts blue and white that he's pieced together during 13 years. "But you figure when you roll so good so long, sooner or later, the scales will balance out.
"We just hate to see them balance out like they did."
Now Colts fans are bracing for an even more unimaginable reality: Life without Manning altogether. And that's especially odd because life before Manning was basically non-existent. There were the Hoosiers, the Pacers and ... Jim Harbaugh.
Manning's prime was timed almost perfectly to the decline of the Reggie Miller era in Indy. Now what? Who will fill the void? Manning was paid $18 million this season without playing a down. He would be owed a $28 million bonus should the Colts keep him on their roster.
Fans are torn.
Yes, it's time to move on. Yes, $28 million is a lot for a guy at the end of his career. But still.
"I think it's going to be rough for the next few years if Peyton's not back with us," Hopson says. "I'd like to see him play again, but I’d also like for him to be healthy, too."
For the media and fans around the country, the soap opera between Manning and Colts owner Jim Irsay is great watercooler material. Who's right? Who's wrong? But here, where Manning led a franchise from the shadow of Baltimore moving trucks into a literal palace, it's not about spats and headlines. It's about an era of good feelings, closing quickly.
Fans see the four-time NFL Most Valuable Player as genuine and loyal and believe Manning is trying to do right by a city that suddenly has football cred.
"This probably is Peyton's town," says an Indianapolis street musician known around town as The Horn Man.
Horn Man has spent 15 years playing a saxophone on street corners after moving to Indianapolis from Chicago in 1995. As much success as Manning has brought to the Colts, Horn Man sees Manning as a role model who has found a way to give back to his Indianapolis in a way that can't be quantified.
The musician will continue to cheer for Manning should he land elsewhere next season, and he will pull for the Giants in Sunday’s Super Bowl because Eli is Peyton's brother.
But other fans that call Indiana home aren't yet ready to move on.
"We love him," says Sheila Anderson, who lives in suburban Plainfield, Ind. "I'm hoping they can kind of settle their differences and just go forward."
Anderson wore her Manning jersey during a Monday visit to downtown Indianapolis, where she snapped photos of fans posing in front of Super Bowl banners. She can see both sides, characterizing Irsay as "loyal" but referring to Manning as "our superstar."
Like many Colts' fans, Anderson isn't accustomed to losing, having become spoiled during Manning's time. She would like to see the Colts return to form next season -- even if projected No. 1 pick Andrew Luck is playing quarterback.
"I'm open to whatever is best for the team, but we'd like to see (Manning) be part of that," Anderson says. "So we'd like to see him make a comeback."
Brinegar, the chamber president, believes Manning's return could also impact the city and state's economic well-being -- even if the winning doesn't follow. He estimates one of every two Colts jerseys worn to home games bears Manning's name and number.
"People realized (Manning) was important to the team and the franchise," he says, "but I don't think anyone really fully realized until we went 0-12 and then 2-14 how much of an impact one player can make.
"Unfortunately, there is a crossroads coming up here with this $28 million payment. You can't have someone on your team just because you really, really like them.
"From a business standpoint, you can't shell out another $28 million if indeed they’re never going to play again."
That's the cold reality, and fans know Irsay grasps it. They watched Green Bay cut the cord with Brett Favre and win a Super Bowl in relatively short order. Luck or former Baylor quarterback Robert Griffith III are probably just as likely get the Colts back to the Super Bowl as Peyton Manning.
"For what Peyton Manning has done for Indianapolis and for the state of Indiana, he deserves to come back if he wants to," says Bob Cox, a lawn equipment salesman from Waynetown, Ind. -- a town of 958 an hour west of Indianapolis. "He’s the one that turned Indiana into an NFL state.
"It would be very sad if Peyton has played his last game. Because my gosh, all of the babies here are named Peyton.
"He has been Mr. Indiana."
-- Jeff Arnold can be reached at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @jeff_arnold24.
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