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SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Peyton Manning got up in front of the Denver Broncos on Saturday night, on the eve of Super Bowl 50. He said his goodbyes.
He didn’t explicitly say he was retiring. But he probably didn’t need to.
He made some jokes as he spoke, because that’s who Manning is, and Manning said he needed to crack jokes so he could hold it together. He joked that he thought Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, Chris Harris and Aqib Talib would all win a share of the Super Bowl 50 MVP, because he wanted to see them all share the car given to the winner.
Then he talked about the ups and the downs of the season, for him and the team. The 39-year-old had his worst season, by far, and missed seven starts due to injury. He talked to the team about praying, and believing. He started thanking everyone. Players. Coaches. Even the video staff, trainers, and the rest of the support staff. Manning said he thanked everyone for just letting him be a part of the journey. He was emotional.
The rest of the Broncos players started looking around the room and noticed that many others were in tears.
“It was a pretty emotional deal, I got emotional as well,” guard Louis Vasquez said.
“I got emotional,” linebacker Brandon Marshall said. “I love Peyton. I told him before the game, I want to win this for you.”
“[Saturday] night, it was touching,” receiver Demaryius Thomas said. “He has gone through a lot of stuff this season.”
“I started crying a little bit,” cornerback Bradley Roby said. “That’s our leader.”
The players hadn’t heard Manning speak like this before. For all of Manning’s talk about taking things one week at a time, all the way back to when he was benched and was rehabilitating a foot injury, it’s impossible to believe he didn’t think about the possibility that Super Bowl 50 would be the last time he played a sport he loves.
“He was so at peace with himself, and whatever comes along tomorrow, if it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be,” receiver Emmanuel Sanders said. “And it was meant to be.”
Was it ever. The 24-10 win over the Carolina Panthers wasn’t pretty for Manning or the Broncos offense. The defense carried him to the finish line. But Manning has had plenty of days when he was the best player on either team, his team didn’t win and he took all the blame. The football gods owed him one, giving him this last, improbable title when he was a broken-down version of himself.
Manning wouldn’t say after Super Bowl 50 if this was his last game. He said he didn’t want to make an emotional decision. But there were a few times when he’d drop pretty clear hints, like immediately after the game when he told CBS a Super Bowl win was a great way “to cap it off.”
Only one other Hall of Fame quarterback has finished his career with a Super Bowl win, and that was Manning’s boss, John Elway. Manning said he didn’t tell the team Saturday night that he was retiring, because he didn’t want to put the focus on himself, and he also insisted he doesn’t know the answer yet.
“I’ll let this sink in,” Manning said, when talking about if he’d retire. “It was an emotional week, it was an emotional night, and the night is just beginning.”
The past couple weeks seemed like a victory lap. He called his old high school coach Tony Reginelli and his old coach at Tennessee, Phillip Fulmer. Manning called or texted all of his NFL head coaches. He was loose all week when he met with the media, seeming to enjoy the entire experience.
His parents Archie and Olivia were with him after the win. He talked about sharing a moment in the locker room after the game with his brother Eli, and said it reminded him of being with his brother after Eli’s first Super Bowl win. He saw his wife Ashley and hugged his kids. Manning’s young son Marshall ducked under the podium as his dad talked to the media, chewing gum. Even when Manning was done with a second round of interviews in the locker room, after he met with the media in the interview room, he thanked reporters who wanted to thank and congratulate him.
It would be a huge surprise if Manning ever played again. And if this was it for one of the game’s legends, he went out in style.
“I took it all in tonight,” Manning said. “I’m glad I had a chance to do that.”
The NFL’s ultimate perfectionist probably won’t even need to critique his film off this game, because there are likely no more games for him to play. He won’t worry about getting stripped on a third-down sack in the fourth quarter, almost throwing a third-down interception to Josh Norman in the fourth quarter, how he missed defensive end Kony Ealy dropping when he threw an interception right to Ealy, or any of the other errors he made. This of course wasn’t anywhere near the same player who won five MVPs earlier in his career. Heading into a Week 17 game against the San Diego Chargers, Brock Osweiler was the Broncos’ starting quarterback and nobody knew if Manning would ever take another NFL snap.
A little more than a month later, he got the type of sendoff — if this is in fact the end — that everyone hopes for.
“I plan to drink a lot of beer tonight, Jim,” Manning told CBS’ Jim Nantz at the trophy presentation on the field after the game. “Budweiser.”
There will be more debates about Manning’s legacy, and certainly winning another Super Bowl won’t hurt. It’s hard to deride a guy for not winning enough when he is just one of 12 quarterbacks to win multiple Super Bowls as a starter. He’s the first to win a Super Bowl as a starting quarterback with two different teams.
Manning has many records, multiple rings and will go down as one of the titans of the sport. And it’s likely that we saw the last of him on Sunday.
“It’s very special,” Manning said, wearing his new Super Bowl championship hat and a content smile.
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