Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos has made amazing comeback despite loss to Baltimore Ravens

Brandon Stokley was looking for a place where the secret would be safe.

The wide receiver needed to find a spot where no one would see Peyton Manning throw passes during his highly publicized visit to the Denver Broncos last March, when the former Indianapolis Colt was in the midst of an exhaustive search to find a new team after being released.

There still were questions about whether Manning could return after his third and fourth neck surgeries forced him to miss the 2011 season, but Stokley, his former Colts teammate, had a feeling he was in far better condition than most had suspected.

Stokley had scouted out a park near his home in the Castle Rock section of Denver. No good.

"It was a Saturday morning, and we pulled up to the field, and there were so many lacrosse players and soccer players, we had to scratch that idea," Stokley said this week from the Broncos' training site. "In my neighborhood, there's a little field, so we went there and snuck a workout in for about 30 to 45 minutes. Had to dodge a few bikers, and a few joggers, but nobody recognized us. Nobody knew Peyton Manning was throwing passes in their neighborhood."

But it was during that workout -- and a few previous sessions at Duke University, where Manning was rehabbing under the watchful eye of his former offensive coordinator at Tennessee, David Cutcliffe -- that Stokley knew Manning would be fine.

More than fine. Stokley was convinced that Manning could regain the form that made him one of the most dominant quarterbacks in NFL history.

"I saw him throwing the ball, and he looked good to me," said Stokley, who signed with the Giants in 2011, suffered a knee injury and was released early in the season. He signed with the Broncos in 2012 after Manning agreed to a five-year, $96-million contract.

"He wasn't quite where he is now, but I knew the work he was going to put in. I knew he was only going to get stronger and stronger and better and better. There was no doubt in my mind he'd be ready to go at a high level."

Stokley may have been more convinced than Manning, who expressed reservations early on about how far he'd make it back from his neck problems.

But look at him now. Manning, 36, is coming off one of the best seasons of his career and might wind up winning an unprecedented fifth Most Valuable Player award. He also might win Comeback Player of the Year honors, although Vikings running back Adrian Peterson might challenge for both awards.

It is a remarkable turn of events for Manning, who led the Broncos to a 13-3 record and the top seed in the AFC playoffs. He threw for 4,659 yards (only 11 short of his career high), completed a league-best 68.6 percent of his passes and had 37 TD passes and only 11 interceptions.

On to the postseason, where the Broncos hosted the Baltimore Ravens in Saturday's 38-35 divisional playoff loss.

And yes, Manning is appreciative of every moment of one of the unlikeliest comebacks in NFL history. He thought back this week to his emotions last year after undergoing another surgical procedure on his neck.

"It's been different checkpoints," he said. "I remember one year ago, I was in a hospital bed watching opening day, so there's a reminder of how far I've come. And then certainly in December, when I got cleared to start throwing. And when I was allowed to walk as part of my rehab for October and November ... kind of reminders of where I was.

"It just reminds me of how grateful I am for the people that helped me along the way. I certainly do remind myself of how hard I've worked, but I've also received a lot of help."

But there still are reminders -- if not outward ones, because he can still make all the throws and is as accurate as ever -- that he isn't quite the same player he was. At least physically.

You'll notice him wearing a glove on his right hand, which he'd never done. Why? Because he doesn't have the same grip on the ball because of the surgeries.

"I certainly don't think I would have had to wear the glove had I not been injured last year," he said. "It's part of my injury, some things that I've had to adjust ... I'm in a different body. Some things are different for me, so I've had to adjust."

It has been one of the most amazing adjustments you'll ever see. Manning has overcome injuries in a way few people could have ever expected. "You see all the work, all the commitment that he has, and everybody feeds off of that," Stokley said. "You know you have to step up your own game if you want to be successful, because he demands a lot from you. But the payoff, the reward, is that if you put in that work, great things can happen for yourself and for the team."

(Contact Bob Glauber at bob.glauber@newsday.com.)

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