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In Denver, 18 should have stayed retired

Denver Broncos Introduce Peyton Manning

ENGLEWOOD, CO - MARCH 20: Quarterback Peyton Manning poses with his uniform after the news conference announcing his contract with the Denver Broncos in the team meeting room at the Paul D. Bowlen Memorial Broncos Centre on March 20, 2012 in Englewood, Colorado. Manning, entering his 15th NFL season, was released by the Indianapolis Colts on March 7, 2012, where he had played his whole career. It has been reported that Manning will sign a five-year, $96 million offer. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

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As he always seems to do, Peyton Manning said all the right things on Tuesday, both when he was stiffly reading from notes and when he was more loosely responding to questions from the media.

Regarding the questionable decision to unretire No. 18 so that Manning could wear the number that he wore for 13 seasons in Indianapolis (in his 14th season, he never put on a uniform), Manning tried to say all the right things. But nothing he said on that topic would have been truly right.

“I’m going to wear No. 18 for the Broncos,” Manning said. “I had the privilege of speaking with Frank Tripucka this morning. It really goes against everything I believe in being a guy who appreciates the history of football and I believe when a number is retired it should stay retired; but in talking to Frank Tripucka, I feel he really wants me to wear his number. It was a very humbling conversation and I am honored to wear his number, being another quarterback for the Denver Broncos as Mr. Tripucka was back years ago as the first quarterback to play here. It truly is an honor for me and I’m really following his wishes to wear it because that’s what he wants me to do and I’m honored to do that.”

If it goes against everything Manning believes in, then he should have politely declined. I’m sure if Manning had been wearing No. 7 since 1998, John Elway would “really want” Manning to wear Elway’s number, too. That doesn’t make it right.

Indeed, it flies in the face of the entire concept of retiring numbers. If a number is retired, it’s retired. The person for whom the number was retired should have no say in the matter; part of the honor is that the topic of unretiring the number should never be broached.

In this case, the skids were greased last week, when reporters began contacting Tripucka and asking him about whether the number would be dusted off for Manning. What would anyone expect Tripucka to say? “No, it’s mine . . . and while we’re on the topic get off my lawn”?

To his credit, Tripucka acted charitably. But he never should have been placed in that position.

In the end, the Broncos are the custodians of the team’s numbers. And the burden was on the Broncos to make it clear from the get-go that the number was retired, and that if Peyton were going to play for the Broncos he’d need to wear a different number.

The Broncos surely realize that they’ve opened themselves and Manning up to legitimate criticism. Why else would the team have sent out a press release with quotes from Tripucka in which he says he “would be honored” to have Peyton wear the jersey?

So while Tripucka comes out of this looking great, the Broncos and Manning don’t. The topic never should have been broached by either the team or the player, which would have kept Tripucka from having to do the only reasonable thing a person whose jersey has been retired can do when someone comes along with his sights set on unretiring it.

And to those of you who think that Tripucka has manipulated this situation merely to get his name back into circulation after nearly 50 years of obscurity, keep two things in mind. First, he’s 84. Second, he has Alzheimer’s.

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