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When the clock hits zero in Santa Clara—after the legendary Peyton Manning barks his last “Omaha” and tosses his last pass; when the Super Bowl post-game interviews end and The Sheriff leaves the stadium in his suit and tie, likely for the last time as a player—win or lose, let’s capture all we can of that precious sunset dew.
When he came to us, he was already The Great Peyton of Indianapolis, a man with seemingly as many dangerous weapons (Reggie Wayne, Marvin Harrison, Dallas Clark, Brandon Stokley, et al.) as devoted fans. He had a ring on his finger. He had The House That Manning Built (otherwise known as Lucas Oil Stadium). He already punched his ticket to Canton, regardless of what was to transpire at Mile High.
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It was a second chance for him, but it was a welcome fresh start for us, too. After years of quarterbacking mediocrity (Brian Griese, Jake Plummer, Kyle Orton) and unmet signal-calling potential (Jay Cutler), not to mention the unrealistic hype over Tim Tebow, general manager John Elway realized that a gamble on Manning was the quickest and likeliest route to another Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Yet since he moved to town, Manning’s legend has been tested: There have been countless attempts to throw shade on the last chapters of his career narrative. First it was Peyton, of Glass Neck. Then, after the Seahawks’ Super Bowl drubbing in 2014 and again following the loss to the Colts in last year’s playoffs, it was Peyton, of Choke Neck. More recently, it’s been Peyton, Slinger of Lame Ducks; Peyton, The Change-Up Quarterback; Peyton, Frozen Geezer in Slightly Cold Weather.
But anyone who bleeds orange and blue would be hard pressed to find a guy who’s molded more in the likeness of a helicoptering Elway than The Sheriff himself. Because essentially, the city got its wish when Manning chose the Broncos—if faithful Denverites wanted an Elway reincarnate, they got that, plus some.
Well, almost. On February 7, the Peyton leading the Broncos onto the field at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara will be a shadow of The Great Peyton of Indianapolis. He is even a shadow of the still-recovering but sturdy-looking signal-caller that Elway signed fresh off of multiple neck surgeries in 2012. The current version of Peyton is a player who relies more on grit and an Einstein-esque football I.Q. than on tight spirals and pinpoint fade passes.
At 39, he’ll be the oldest QB to ever take his team to the big game—usurping that title from the 38-year-old Elway of Super Bowl XXXIII—and he no doubt faces the season’s greatest test in the second-ranked, and loaded, Carolina defense.
Thus the Super Bowl hopes of football-crazed Denver fall upon the shoulders of a guy who—and this is said with genuine veneration—could pass for a middle school math teacher with his Everyman persona.
But such is the subtle regality of Old Man Manning: He’s still the legend we know him to be, even if he can’t hit the 50 in the air from his own goal line anymore. And despite his aw-shucks, humble nature, we know there’s a burning determination to make sure the critics can only call him one thing when he leaves Levi’s Stadium: A (two-time) Super Bowl champion.
So Broncos fans, let’s embrace Old Man Manning. Relish him. Savor his every awkward trot to and from the sideline, try not to dwell too much on each wobbly throw, and soak up the qualities of professionalism and leadership that he’s embodied for almost two decades in the league. Because this guy is a savvy future Hall of Famer with a twinkle in his eye who just might—with the considerable assistance of the Broncos’ first-ranked defense—ride off into the sunset with one final piece of hardware, and the venerable title of the oldest quarterback to win a Super Bowl championship.