-- IT'S EASY, IN sports, to fall in love with beginnings.
Beginnings are hopeful, the best antidote to the inevitable disappointment of reality. Even the most moribund and tortured franchises are fueled by the endless reservoir of beginnings. In 1998, when Peyton Manning made his NFL debut for the Indianapolis Colts, he was a gangly and awkward football prodigy, his jersey and pads draping off his bony shoulders like an ill-fitting winter parka. He looked far more apt to play the role of Clark Kent than Superman, but he was no less mesmerizing. All that mattered then was who he might be.
Endings, on the other hand, are always more difficult to process. This is true in life -- death, divorce and retirement haunt us -- but it's particularly true in sports. Athletes, especially the great ones, approach their jobs with such single-minded, isolating fury that endings can be brutal, complicated affairs. They hang around for too long, making those around them uncomfortable, for the same reasons mortals spend billions on Botox, kale, Viagra, HGH and sports cars -- to delay and hide the inevitability of being done, of having to confront what's next.
So much of this season seemed like it might be just that for Manning. He took a well-publicized pay cut. He looked hobbled and weak when the season began. He played poorly for long stretches and needed to be rescued by his defense. He was injured before Denver was forced to assess whether it might be better off benching him. We'd love to believe, as we soak up beginnings, that every great athlete deserves a cinematic exit, a final wave to the crowd, a tip of the hat and a standing ovation. That endings are often messy -- John Elway, Bill Russell, Pete Sampras and Ray Lewis among the exceptions -- never dulls our longing for the uplifting coda.
But then something inexplicable happened. As Manning was limping toward the exit, he got healthy. He earned back his starting job. He won a few games, including an unlikely AFC Championship Game against an old foe, and along the way, he threw the ball like a man not quite ready to be yanked off stage with a cane. It was one of the more inexplicable twists in recent sports history.
Still, the season was a reminder of how different Manning is at age 39 than he was at the height of his powers. His brain remains a marvel -- he can still assess a defense like he's solving a physics proof -- but his body can no longer keep pace. He's not the primary reason Denver beat Carolina 24-10 in Super Bowl 50 at Levi's Stadium. He was one small cog in a much larger drama. He threw an ugly interception, he was stripped in the fourth quarter, and he finished with just 141 yards passing. But when C.J. Anderson plunged over the goal line with 3:08 remaining, essentially putting the game away, Manning pumped his fist and raised his arms into the air with as much exuberance as he'd shown all season. In all likelihood, it may have been the last act of pure, unrestrained joy in the remarkable career of Peyton Williams Manning. It may go down as one of the most satisfying either way.
We still don't know if this is the actual ending. He said nothing definitive after the win. "This has been a very emotional week, an emotional night, and I got a couple of priorities in order," Manning said. "I want to go kiss my wife, kiss my kids. I want to go celebrate with my family and teammates, and I'm going to drink a lot of beer tonight. And those are my priorities at this point. I'll take some time to reflect on the other." But if you've been paying attention, he has been leaving us clues all season long that this is most likely it.
The people closest to him insist he has not shared his future plans. They've called reports he has already made up his mind everything from "false" to "hogwash" to outright lies. "Peyton's always had a theory about this," said his father, Archie Manning. "There are guys in the locker room who always seem to be planning their second career, which is sometimes smart, but he always felt like some of those guys ought to be studying their plays a little more and maybe playing a little better on Sunday."
Friends, family and former teammates, however, are not bound by those constraints. And many of them can't help but wonder how the second act of Manning's life will unfold. Football -- from the time he was a little kid chasing his father around the locker room when Archie was the quarterback of the Saints -- has shaped his entire existence.
If this is the end, what now?
IT'S HARD TO overstate the impact Manning has had on football culture over the past 18 years. He has, more than any player, been the face of the way the league has changed in the past two decades. The exponential growth of fantasy football, which has played no small role in the growth of the NFL, owes him a tremendous debt. NFL quarterbacks have thrown for 4,000 or more yards in a single season 142 times in league history, and 111 of those seasons have occurred during Manning's career. He has done it an NFL-record 14 times. That he didn't win as many Super Bowls as Tom Brady is certainly part of his legacy, but Manning's impact on the game has arguably been greater. His frustration with defensive backs not being flagged for illegal contact was a big reason the NFL opened up the passing game in 2004. That he no longer puts up video game statistics hardly seems relevant. He helped to change the way we follow football. How do you follow that up?
"You know, it's such a weird thing," says Cooper Manning, Peyton's older brother. "Think about being 40 and saying 'Now I need to go find out what I'm going to be when I grow up.' It's a great position to be in, but it's also kind of peculiar because you don't really know what to do."
Even though Manning has politely deflected questions about his future, it hasn't stopped people from guessing and speculating. He has been an ubiquitous presence in our lives for so long -- whether it's his playoff triumphs and disappointments, or his pervasive presence in Papa John's, DirecTV and Nationwide commercials -- that his future plans are a curiosity that is hard to resist.
"I think there is a small chance he'll coach, there is a great chance he'll run a team, and there is a very high chance him and his family will own a team," says former NFL running back Marshall Faulk, who played with Manning briefly in Indianapolis, and has been a good friend for more than 20 years. "I think every player, once you play in this league, the ultimate dream is when you say 'Boy, I wish I could own a team.' I think he'll actually do it.'"
There is a part of Faulk, though, that would love to see Manning give coaching a shot before he becomes an executive or an owner. He's convinced Manning could be as good at wearing a headset as anyone in football.
"He has the ability to lead men," Faulk said. "He's the reason we know the Jacob Tammes, the Dallas Clarks, the Brandon Stokleys, the Marcus Pollards, the Ken Dilgers of the NFL. We didn't know who half those guys were, but somehow, someway, Peyton showed us 'Wow that guy can play.' That's what head coaching is about: Getting more out of a player than he ever thought he could deliver."
The coach he has been the closest to over the years, David Cutcliffe, isn't quite as certain. Cutcliffe, who was Manning's quarterback coach at the University of Tennessee and is now the head coach at Duke, doesn't think coaching would suit Manning's personality quite as well.
"I really don't [see him coaching]," Cutcliffe says, "but he could answer it differently and surprise me. I just don't know that he would have the patience and understanding. We all, at some point, have a hard time with it. 'Why wouldn't you do this? How can you not understand this?' I can't imagine the guy he's coaching. Your skin better be thick."
Archie Manning doesn't see his son coaching either, but for different reasons. "That's something Peyton would be good at; that's something he'd probably enjoy," Archie says. "But I'm not sure he'd do it. You play the game as long as he has, you see a lot of coaches come and go. It's not the most secure profession. I think he admires the profession, but if you really jump in it, you've got to be ready for a nomad life."
Broadcasting, on the other hand, seems like a more realistic transition. He could make good money, work hours that would allow him to spend time with his children and stay connected to the game. "Broadcasting will be offered," Archie said. "It already has. Some of the people in broadcasting have certainly mentioned it to me." If Manning is interested in appearing on television, diagramming plays on a screen like a football professor, there will likely be a network bidding war for his services. Some retired NFL stars don't transition well into television. They are stiff and uncomfortable on camera, don't work particularly hard on preparation and can't explain the nuances of the game in a relatable way. Virtually no one thinks that would be the case with Manning.
"What that guy sees interests people," says former quarterback Kurt Warner, who made the transition from retired star to NFL Network analyst. "I want to sit down in a room with that guy sometime and go 'What the heck?' I'll go back sometimes and watch his film and see him checking at the line of scrimmage, and I'll rewind tape and be like 'Nobody moved. I don't know what he saw. He saw somebody blink over there.' I'd love to know. I'd love to get into his mind a little, because that's what made him rare. I think he's the best to ever play the game in what he can decipher before a snap. I think he's shown how comfortable he is with doing media throughout his career. So I think all that would make him great on TV."
There will be opportunities outside of football, of course. He has appeared in so many commercials over the past decade that he has already earned the distinction as the quarterback your grandmother can identify. But he's also the rare athlete who has shown a gift for televised comedy, highlighted by how well he handled himself as the host of "Saturday Night Live" in 2007. Perhaps he could make occasional appearances on the late-night circuit.
"I think there was a decent sense in the writers room, prior to him showing up that week, that he would be comfortable in front of a camera, and that he might be a naturally funny person," says Erik Kenward, who has been a writer for "Saturday Night Live" for 16 seasons. "But right away, during the Monday writers meeting where everyone pitches ideas, you could tell he got things. He wasn't scared or nervous. He knew why jokes were funny, he knew how to land them. He's probably the best sports host of all time. There are sketches where you wouldn't even know he wasn't a comedian."
Most memorable among those sketches is still the United Way Digital Short in which Manning -- playing a roguish mentor to a group of grade-school kids -- pelts them in the face with footballs and berates them for their shoddy athletic skills. It frequently comes up in discussions about the funniest skits of the past 20 years. The sketch was written by Seth Meyers (at the time, SNL's head writer) but it's a little-known fact that Manning, after reading the initial draft, actually pitched a few jokes that Meyers loved and used in the final cut.
"I think there are certain people who would have second thoughts about 'Is this going to hurt my brand? Is this going to make me look like a jerk?'" Kenward says. "He understood right away that people would get the joke. Just being able to know that about yourself, and have that much self-awareness, is a rare thing for an athlete."
That too will be part of his legacy. Every time you see a child drilled in the face with a football and you cannot resist laughing out loud, or you eat a chicken parmesan sandwich and you cannot resist humming the Nationwide jingle, you'll have Manning to thank. He will be with us long after he hangs up his cleats.
IT IS POSSIBLE this isn't the end. Manning might still get the itch to return. It's possible he could hang around for another year, that he could get the competitive itch this offseason and attempt to grind through another training camp at age 40. (It's likely, though, that he'd have to play for a team other than Denver; he's due $19 million if he passes a physical and is on the roster in 2016.) "Maybe I hit the fountain of youth, play the next 10 years," he joked this week. But all signs suggest otherwise.
It's hard enough to know when it's time for an ending, but it's even harder to actually end a career. Athletes who leave when they can still play are usually cast as quitters, their motives constantly in question. As a result, what other way is there to leave but limping over the line?
On some level, though, Manning understands he has already cheated retirement once. When he missed the entire 2011 season after he needed four surgeries on his neck, he was so weak that professional football seemed like a fantasy. He came to Cutcliffe riddled with doubt. Cutcliffe convinced him his entire throwing motion needed to be rebuilt. Every single throw would require the full strength of his legs and his torso just to get enough velocity on the ball.
"He didn't know if he had a future," Cutcliffe says. "People wouldn't believe that, but when he first came back, he wouldn't be throwing it across this room. That he's in a second Super Bowl since that time is actually pretty bizarre."
Cutcliffe says he doesn't believe reports that Manning has already made up his mind about retirement. "In my heart, I really don't," he says. "You don't get there, and don't do that to yourself, before you're getting ready to play a game. He's capable of keeping his mind open, and I think it's definitely open. What I hope is that he finds peace in whatever decision it ends up being."
If you're in search of clues, however, it's easy to spot a few that suggest he may be leaning in a particular direction. NFL Films caught Manning telling Patriots coach Bill Belichick after the AFC championship that he was grateful for their clashes over the years and that he thought this might be his "last rodeo." When reporters asked the quarterback about it later, he didn't deny or explain the remark. He merely lamented that privacy no longer exists in a world where we're all wired for sound.
Manning revealed in the week leading up to the Super Bowl that he'd heard from every coach he'd ever played for, either through a phone call or a text message: Tony Reginelli at Isidore Newman High School; Phillip Fulmer at Tennessee; Jim Mora, Tony Dungy and Jim Caldwell with the Colts; John Fox with the Broncos. They wanted to wish him luck, and in return, he wanted each of them to know they had shaped him in life and in football, molded him in ways he was just now starting to understand.
In the week leading up to the game, he seemed almost wistful at times. In one news conference, he mentioned that seeing so many of his teammates soaking in the atmosphere reminded him that he should take a moment and enjoy it as well. Broncos team president Joe Ellis told ESPN that when Manning addressed the team on Saturday night, he tried to explain how much football meant to him, and when he was finished, he had tears in his eyes.
The biggest clue, though, may have been right in front of us all season. When Manning's two children were born in 2011 -- twins Marshall and Mosley -- he generally tried to keep them out of the public eye. They made occasional appearances at the Broncos' team facility and were photographed occasionally, but for the most part, Manning tried to maintain a separation between his professional life and his personal life. He did not want them to grow up with a sense of entitlement, he told friends. Being inside an NFL locker room was a privilege. It was something that, however odd it might sound, he felt should be earned.
The past two years, however, those walls have eroded significantly. He wanted the two of them to have a few memories of his time as a football player, the way he has memories of his own father at the end of his career, and so the twins have been on the field more frequently this season. He held Mosley in his arms during the presentation of the Lamar Hunt Trophy after the Broncos won the AFC championship. It was the happiest he'd looked all season.
He also had Marshall accompany him to his postgame news conference that day. While Manning spoke with reporters about besting Belichick and Brady, Marshall fidgeted by his dad's side, dressed in a miniature version of his dad's jersey. He ducked behind his dad's back several times, then peeked out at the cameras from behind the podium. At one point, Manning placed a tender hand on his son's head as he tried to explain what it meant to return to the Super Bowl for the fourth time.
Archie smiled when he saw the video. People may not realize it, he says, but it has been years since the Mannings have been able to get their entire family together for a holiday like Thanksgiving or Christmas. The logistics -- three adult boys, all married with jobs and kids of their own, living in three different parts of the country, finding time to gather together with Archie and Olivia Manning in one place during a busy football season -- have rendered it virtually impossible.
That long-anticipated and long-awaited family gathering is coming, though. Everyone can sense it. It may not happen this year, Archie concedes. It's hard to say what the future holds. But for the first time, you can almost reach out and touch it.