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Helton happy for SB-bound friend Manning

Rockies superstar was Univ. of Tennessee QB alongside football legend
MLB.com @TracyRingolsby

The criticism burned Todd Helton.

"It's hard to listen to people kick a man when he is down," said Helton. "People love to see the best fail. I guess that's human nature. But it is tough to listen to. It kind of makes you mad to hear people in Denver ever say some of the things that were said."

The criticism burned Todd Helton.

"It's hard to listen to people kick a man when he is down," said Helton. "People love to see the best fail. I guess that's human nature. But it is tough to listen to. It kind of makes you mad to hear people in Denver ever say some of the things that were said."

Helton took it personally. And he wasn't even the target.

Peyton Manning was.

The best thing, for Helton, two years into his retirement from Major League Baseball, is that his longtime friend Manning, even at the age of 39, has answered the critics.

With Manning back in the starting lineup at quarterback, the Denver Broncos knocked off both Pittsburgh and New England in the playoffs, claiming the AFC championship, and now are getting ready for a Super Bowl 50 showdown with the NFC champion Carolina Panthers.

It hasn't been an easy season for Manning, but he has made it memorable.

"It is hard to see good people go through bad times," said Helton. "To me, he is the greatest quarterback of all time. And the cool thing is, he is a grinder. If he was a baseball player, he would be a cage rat. He'd be in the cage every day, working to be a better hitter, never satisfied."

Helton knows what he is talking about. This relationship didn't just pop up because Helton played ball for more than 16 years in the same city where Manning happened to relocate to finish out his NFL career in March 2012.

The two first crossed paths more than 21 years ago at the University of Tennessee. Helton was a junior quarterback who assumed the starting role when Jerry Colquitt was injured in the season-opening game, and Manning was a freshman who wound up stepping in to take over when Helton suffered a knee injury himself in the fourth game that season.

Manning never came out of the Vols' lineup, which was no surprise to Helton, who in that spring of 1995 decided to forgo his senior season at Tennessee to sign with the Rockies as a first-round Draft pick.

Helton never lost contact with Manning, and it's been even easier to stay in touch over the past four years, with Manning joining the Broncos after 14 seasons with the Indianapolis Colts. In fact, during the NFL lockout in summer 2011, Manning was coming off neck surgery and still with the Colts, and Helton arranged for the QB to work out at Coors Field.

That personal relationship has made what has transpired for Manning this year so satisfying for Helton to watch.

"I have to think it is a pretty special experience for him," said Helton. "He knows he is in the twilight of his career. He's a smart man. He knows he is 39. He knows he is the oldest quarterback to appear in a Super Bowl."

But Manning also still knows how to win the big games, even in a year when others may have had doubts. After guiding Denver to victories in its first seven games of the season, problems with the plantar fascia in his left foot flared up.

The Broncos lost their next two games, and then Manning spent six games sidelined by the injury. He returned in a reserve role in the regular-season finale, coming off the bench to rally Denver to a 27-20 victory over San Diego that gave the Broncos the AFC West title and home-field advantage in the playoffs.

That sparked a short-lived debate on the talk shows as to whether Manning should start off as the backup in the postseason.

Such talk didn't last long. Manning was given the chance to return to the starting lineup for the postseason wins over the Steelers and Patriots. Now he gets his chance to earn a second Super Bowl ring to go with the one he received Super Bowl XLI.

Times are good again for Manning.

Oh, Manning is two months shy of his 40th birthday. He's not as quick as he once was. The arm isn't as strong as it used to be. But the know-how and want-to is as good as ever.

And Manning is headed to the Super Bowl again -- looking for a second victory in his fourth visit.

It is football's World Series -- an experience Helton enjoyed only once, when the Red Sox swept the Rockies in 2007 -- and then some.

"I don't think baseball players understand what going to the Super Bowl is like," said Helton. "It is a different status. Football is that big now, and to be a starting quarterback in the Super Bowl ... you are the leading actor. You are the starting pitcher and the closer. All eyes are on you, and win or lose it's you."

Maybe that's why Manning has the same type of respect for baseball that Helton does for football.

"I love everything about baseball," Manning said during one of his visits to Coors Field. "It's such a different mentality than football. And having the connection and friendship I have with Todd makes it very special."

It's that connection and friendship that lets Helton smile at what Manning has accomplished this year, turning the doubters about his ability back into believers, and taking the Broncos to the Super Bowl.

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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