Colorado Rockies slugger Todd Helton, left, and Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning became friends while at the University of Tennessee and have stayed close over the years. (AP composite photo)
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Peyton Manning plans to catch Todd Helton's final home game for the Colorado Rockies next week so he can pay homage to his college buddy who gave him two big assists over the years.
The first came when Manning was a homesick freshman at the University of Tennessee in 1994 and Helton, already a star in both football and baseball, took him under his wing and helped him adjust to college life.
The second came when Manning was plotting his comeback from neck problems two years ago that nearly derailed his NFL career.
Manning was prevented from seeing his team doctors or rehabbing at the Indianapolis Colts' facilities during the lockout that offseason. Helton arranged for Manning to use the Rockies' facilities to work out.
After missing that 2011 season, Manning switched teams and rejoined his good friend in Denver, where Helton has played his entire 17-year baseball career.
Helton announced last weekend that he's hanging up his cleats at age 40.
"I'll be there next Wednesday to see his last game," Manning said.
After listing what he admires about Helton as a pro — consistency, toughness, dogged determination — Manning spoke about what his friendship has meant to him over the past two decades.
"He was nice to me as an 18-year-old homesick freshman up there in Knoxville," Manning said. "Todd was a big star when I got there already, a Knoxville legend, and so he took time to be nice to me, and I appreciated that."
Although Manning unseated Helton as the Volunteers' quarterback, they've remained close, attending each other's games when they've had the chance.
"A couple of years ago, during that lockout when I was in a strange and new situation, for him to get on that phone and call me and invite me out here to work out with the Rockies in private and use the Rockies' trainers, I'll always be indebted to him," Manning said. "Because I was in kind of a weird place, unknown, I had nobody to turn to medically because of the lockout."
Helton will make his last appearance at Coors Field when the Rockies play the Boston Red Sox on Wednesday night.
"I'm happy for him," Manning said. "I feel like he's at peace with it. I have communicated with him. I hope he enjoys these last games, but there won't be another one like him here, I can promise you that."