He got choked up talking about his grandpa, remembered his first game against his favorite player (next to his father), and recited a laundry list of defensive greats – players and coaches – he’ll miss squaring off against.
Peyton Manning made his retirement official on Monday. From the moment he sat down to listen to Denver Broncos luminaries, including GM John Elway, laud him, Manning’s eyes were full and his mouth compressed into a tight line. When it was his turn behind the podium, he tried several times before he got the words to come.
Manning recalled completing his first pass to Marshall Faulk, his first TD to Marvin Harrison, and watching Dan Marino make “the damndest throw I’ve ever seen.” Later in his rookie season, he remembered shaking Johnny Unitas’ hand. Unitas told him, Manning said, to stay at it.
“Well, I did stay at it,” Manning said. “I stayed at it for 18 years.”
There is no doubt Manning will be missed, by the game, its competitors, and its fans. In saying goodbye, Manning displayed the aw-shucks humor and humility that has endeared him to and made him millions.
My favorite moment of Monday’s press conference came when Manning related how his grandpa – his Paw-Paw – used to call early in his pro career and ask if John Madden and Pat Summerall - Paw-Paw's favorite announcing team - would be calling Manning’s game that Sunday. The Colts, and Manning, were far from what they would become then, and Manning told his grandpa that they didn’t yet rate the likes of Madden and Summerall.
When they finally did, in a victory against a Dallas team still loaded with star power, Manning knew he’d arrived.
My least favorite moment came in Manning’s somewhat disingenuous response to the elephant-in-the-room issue that a female reporter had the gumption to address. While the praise heaped upon Manning in his retirement is well-deserved, a question about the HGH and sexual harassment allegations Manning has had to deal with in the twilight of his career was appropriate and necessary.
Manning, saying it was “sad” that some didn’t understand the truth and the facts, said: "I did not do what has been alleged, and I'm not interested in re-litigating something that happened when I was 19 years old." Then he dipped a bit too deep into the seemingly bottomless well of his down-home charm, adding, “Like Forrest Gump said, that’s all I have to say about that.”
It’s hard to understand facts and truth when they’re sealed by court order- a court order Manning himself seems to have flaunted by bringing the facts in question up in a book.
That lone question demonstrated why, health issues both considered and aside, Manning had to retire after five league MVP awards and a slew of NFL records, including career touchdown passes (539) and career passing yards (71,940). Though an afterthought on Monday, those issues weren’t going to go away. Whatever future developments come, Manning does not want to face questions about them behind a podium on a weekly basis.
His final turn in the spotlight as an NFL quarterback was largely pitch-perfect. He thanked his native New Orleans, the University of Tennessee, teammates, coaches, and fans – and his agent. He thanked his family – “There is no way to express what a family like mine can mean” – and listed everything he’ll miss about playing, from post-game steak dinners to “figuring out blitzes with Jeff Saturday.”
Props to the QB who mentions the center who snapped the ball to him for 13 seasons.
Manning’s commitment to his teammates and his craft were always clear. His film study was legendary, and he made reference to those “bleary-eyed” sessions on Monday, saying all the after-hours, unseen work he put in was about “one thing: reverence for the game.”
“There were other players who more talented, but there was no one who could out-prepare me,” Manning said.
There is no question that, on the field, Manning gave everything he had, returning from a neck injury that many thought would end his career to win his second Super Bowl and cement a first-ballot legacy.
“When someone thoroughly exhausts an experience, they can’t help but revere it,” Manning said. “I revere football. I love the game.”
The feeling, for 18 years, was mutual.