INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Jacques McClendon spent most of his life following Peyton Manning.
Now, the Colts' rookie guard from Tennessee is adapting to his new role: lining up in front of his favorite player.
The stark reality hit McClendon like a 350-pound defensive tackle last weekend, hours after Manning spoke with Indy's new rookie class. Yes, the Colts brought him in to protect Manning, not admire him.
"He told us about the Colts expectations, to be champions," McClendon said with an excited voice. "That means a lot coming from one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, if not the greatest of all time. That's pretty cool."
Making the transition from college to the NFL is tough enough for most rookies, particularly those hoping to break in with an experienced offensive line that has to protect the league's only four-time MVP.
McClendon's challenges include mastering a new playbook, impressing the coaches and getting acclimated to the cadence of a quarterback he's been watching for more than a decade on television. Now, like the other two dozen rookies in Indy, McClendon also has to dispense with the thoughts and emotions that have emerged after all those years of watching Manning.
It's an imposing task.
"It is kind of hard to put it in perspective because that guy (Manning) is unbelievable," said linebacker Pat Angerer, Indy's second-round pick from Iowa. "He's pretty tall, too, taller than I expected."
Manning's shadow has grown increasingly larger because of the growing age gap between himself and each new rookie class. At 34, Manning has been around the NFL long enough that his youngest teammates were preteens when he first joined the Colts.
They've watched him evolve into the NFL's biggest pitch man and repeatedly tried to put themselves in Peyton's place during video game contests, long before they arrived for mini-camp.
That combination has created some awkward introductions over the years.
"I've had a couple of 'Mr. Mannings,' and I squelched those right away. I said, 'Call me Peyton,'" Manning said two years ago. "The strange thing for me is the autographs. I'm used to signing autographs for kids or friends or whatever, but they're coming up and asking for my autograph because they're a fan. I always say, 'You're not a fan, you're my teammate, and we need to be equals here.'"
Manning's words haven't exactly shrunk the club.
"I was a big fan of his starting off as a kid," said defensive end Jerry Hughes, Indy's first-round pick from TCU. "Who doesn't like Peyton Manning?"
Those who make it with Indy understand they can't allow those star-struck looks to affect their play.
So Manning has devised his own way to tamp things down. Before the rookies had their first meeting with coach Jim Caldwell last weekend, Manning and defensive captain Gary Brackett asked Caldwell if they could speak to the players.
"It was a unique moment," Caldwell said with a smile. "You could kind of see them all sit up in their seats the moment they walked in."
For McClendon, a native of Cleveland, Tenn., it was a scene he'd dreamed about for years.
Like Manning, he graduated from Tennessee in three years. Like Manning, he started pursuing a master's degree before he was drafted. Like Manning, he was one of the top students on Tennessee's football team, and like Manning, he landed in Indianapolis.
"I've got a Peyton Manning jersey, I've got his autographed helmet in my mother's house, so you know I'm a huge Peyton Manning fan," McClendon said minutes after he was taken by Indy. But he's also smart enough to know he can't his admiration of Manning prevent him from becoming Manning's personal protector.
"It's not hard for me at all to put those feelings aside," McClendon said. "I want to be the best football player I can. I want to learn from the best, so I want him to teach me."