Peyton Manning wanted to believe everything was the same. So he arrived at Levi’s Stadium here Sunday afternoon wearing a blue sports jacket and orange tie, his cleats and gameday gear trailing him in a rolling suitcase, as usual.
He took to the field in his navy running pants about three hours before the Super Bowl kickoff to spray passes to practice-squad receiver Jordan “Sunshine” Taylor, as usual. And he wore a glove on his right throwing hand, as usual, though it was 70 degrees.
But before returning to the locker room to strap on his pads and uniform, Manning twirled around for a 360-degree view of Levi’s Stadium.
He needed one more look.
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Then he patted Taylor on the back and walked back to the locker room, his head down and his focus unwavering before returning to the field an hour later in full uniform ready for stretches and throws.
But there was nothing normal about this day.
Five hours later, Manning assumed his spot at midfield under a shower of gold confetti. He stood, with a gray Super Bowl 50 Championship cap on his head and with a smile he could no longer hide. Another Super Bowl ring would soon be engraved and added to his trophy case, his second, after what could be his last game of a storied career.
“It is very special,” he said after the Broncos’ 24-10 victory over Carolina. “This game was like this season has been: It tested our toughness, our resilience and our unselfishness. It’s only fitting it turned out that way.”
Manning completed 13-of-23 pass attempts for 141 yards and zero touchdowns. He was sacked five times and picked off once. He also lost a fumble. He was not the same Manning who took a beating in his previous Super Bowl, two years ago, but he left a victor.
“It was just awesome because he was on a team that could help him get a win,” coach Gary Kubiak said. “He didn’t have to go out there and do it all on his own and he knew that. I told him that I watched John Elway win a championship with 120-something yards passing, and he got one today. I’m just so proud of him.”
For the two weeks leading up to Super Bowl 50, Manning vowed to stay “in the moment,” while reflecting on many past ones and maybe, occasionally, thinking of future ones.
He vowed to embrace the journey and the victory, trying as it had been at times, because he knew – without publicly admitting it – it could be the last.
He called in his thank-yous, phoning his high school coach, and his former coach at the University of Tennessee. He spoke to all of his NFL head coaches.
“I just told him how proud I was of him,” Tony Dungy said of their call. “Do what he always does, let the moment happen and he’s going to be fine.”
But Dungy also doled out some advice.
“He called me and said, ‘I need to talk to you,’ because he got some good advice from Dick Vermeil and I think maybe Bill Cowher, as well, about not making an emotional decision, one way or the other,” Manning said. “And so I thought that was good advice, because it’s been an emotional week, an emotional night and the night’s just beginning.”
The night before Super Bowl, Manning’s checklist grew longer. He addressed his teammates, thanking them for letting him “be a part of the journey.”
In a rare moment over the last 18 years, Manning let his emotions take over. The “R” word was never uttered, perhaps because it didn’t need to be. He, and his teammates, were aware of the magnitude of the game, of this being possibly the last time he stepped on the field. They were aware for much of the season.
On Saturday evening, Manning also spoke to Dungy once again, first congratulating him on getting elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame and then again heeding his advice to not rush a decision about retirement.
“I have a couple of priorities first,” Manning said. “I want to go kiss my wife and my kids, I want to go hug my family. I’m going to drink a lot of Budweiser tonight, I promise you that. I’m going to take care of those things, and say a little prayer to thank the man upstairs for this great opportunity. I’m just very grateful.”
On game day, he shared personal moments alongside defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, his teammates and other coaches.
But when the show began, Manning resorted to what he knew best.
In the minutes before kickoff Sunday, the MVPs of the previous 49 Super Bowls were honored in a pregame ceremony, each walking out of the northeast tunnel in the stadium in front of a videoboard of their highlights. When Manning’s number came up, for Super Bowl XLI, the image of Manning, gulping a lime Gatorade while sitting at his locker flashed on the big screen. No smile. No glance toward the camera zooming in on his face. No break in routine.
Everything had to be same.
But he, and everyone else knew, it wouldn’t be. It couldn’t be.
Nicki Jhabvala: firstname.lastname@example.org or @NickiJhabvala