ENGLEWOOD | Peyton Manning got through the weekend thanks to hundreds of texts and calls from men he played against or alongside over his unparalleled 18-year NFL career.
He had to crack a few jokes to help fight back the tears at his retirement news conference Monday, when the words didn’t always come as easy as the emotions.
His voice cracking, especially when he mentioned his hero, Johnny Unitas, Manning said goodbye to the game he loved in an auditorium packed with friends, family and laughter.
Manning, who turns 40 this month, said the timing was simply right to call one last audible one month after winning his second Super Bowl trophy.
“I thought about it a lot, prayed about it a lot … it was just the right time,” Manning said. “I don’t throw as good as I used to, don’t run as good as I used to, but I have always had good timing.”
Manning came to Denver on March 20, 2012, for the chance to win another title in the twilight of his career. General manager John Elway had the blueprints.
Four years later, he hobbles away a champion, just like his boss did 17 years ago.
Manning is going golfing later this week with brothers Cooper and Eli — whose trip to Denver Monday morning was scuttled by a stomach bug.
Manning plans to travel to Indianapolis later this month for a lower-key goodbye, nothing like this one, and said he’ll still participate in his family’s annual passing academy this summer.
Aside from that, it’s anybody’s guess.
Maybe a front office or a broadcast booth beckons. He hasn’t ruled out anything other than this: he and his wife and 5-year-old twins won’t be moving out of Denver. They love it here.
“I’m totally convinced that the end of my football career is just the beginning of something I haven’t even discovered yet,” Manning said. “Life is not shrinking for me; it’s morphing into a whole new world of possibilities.”
Monday wasn’t a day to ahead but a time to take stock.
“When I look back on my NFL career, I’ll know without a doubt that I gave everything I had to help my teams walk away with a win,” Manning said. “There were other players who were more talented, but there was no one could out-prepare me, and because of that I have no regrets.”
Elway thanked Manning for coming to Colorado, saying he made his own job easier, noting that with Manning living here, free agents were basically asking Elway “where do I sign?”
It was through the eyes of a former QB and not those of a GM that Elway really enjoyed watching Manning, however.
“Peyton Manning revolutionized the game,” Elway said. “We all used to think a no-huddle was a fast pace, get to the line of scrimmage and get people off-balance. Peyton revolutionized it, and you know what, we’re going to get to the line of scrimmage, take our time, I’m going to find out what you’re doing and then I’m going to pick you apart.
“I can’t tell you how many times I said, ‘Dang, why didn’t we think of that?'”
Manning went 50-15 in Denver, leading the Broncos to four AFC West titles, two Super Bowl trips, one championship, and in 2013 guided the highest-scoring offense in league history. All after retraining himself to throw following a series of neck fusion surgeries forced him to miss the 2011 season and he was cut by the Colts.
Former Colorado Rockies slugger Todd Helton, Manning’s teammate at Tennessee in the 1990s, once told the story about how Manning’s right arm was so shot after his neck operations that he thought Peyton was goofing around when he threw a football and it fluttered like a wounded duck.
“He had nothing,” Helton recounted. “But I knew he’d come back and be Peyton Manning again because nobody else works that hard.”
Manning revealed last summer he still had no feeling in the fingertips of his right hand, and yet he threw 140 of his NFL-best 539 TD passes for the Broncos, including a record 55 in 2013.
Team president Joe Ellis told Manning, “If there is a list of achievements needed to attain greatness, you’ve checked every box.”
Elway was equally emotional when he walked away from the game after winning his second championship in 1999, and on Monday he said, “Having been through it, I know it’s a hard day for him.”
Indeed, Manning choked up several times, especially when he listed all the things he’d miss about football: deciphering defenses; the flights home after a big win; his teammates.
Coach Gary Kubiak recounted Manning’s journey through six weeks of rehab and his return to the field in leading Denver to a comeback victory over the Chargers in the regular-season finale that secured the AFC’s top seed.
“I know it was tough, and you were special along the way,” Kubiak said, turning to the five-time MVP. “So, it was only nine months for me, but I’ll remember it for a lifetime.”
Manning revealed after the news conference he had an “orthotics guru” who had also helped other NFL QBs take up shop in his garage last November to fit him with some orthotics that helped him get back on the field. He added the torn ligament near his left heel feels fine and won’t require surgery in retirement.
He informed Elway, Kubiak and Ellis of his decision to retire Saturday. The move gives the Broncos $19 million in cap space to try to sign several of their free agents, including Manning’s heir apparent, Brock Osweiler.
Manning also called each of the other coaches he played for: Jim Mora, Tony Dungy, Jim Caldwell and John Fox.
He also called Bill Parcells, Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, Tom Moore, Jim Irsay, Wes Welker, and Brandon Stokley. Then, he group-texted some former teammates with the Colts and Broncos, his high school buddies and his college pals.
He texted coaches he played against, telling them all they’d been a part of his football life.
All of the responses and conversations “kind of helped me through the last day and a-half,” Manning said.
Manning refused to let anything dampen his big day, declining to address in detail a recent rehashing of a sexual harassment claim from his days at Tennessee.
“This is a joyous day,” he said, “and nothing could overtake this day.”
Earlier, reciting from Scripture, he said, “I have fought the good fight and I have finished the race.”
“Well, I’ve fought a good fight,” Manning said. “I’ve finished my football race and after 18 years, it’s time.”