Last game in Denver?
Possibility that Manning played his final game in Denver on Sunday is very real.
The moments started during training camp, when 4-year-old Marshall and his twin sister Mosley attended training camp practices, watching from under a tent as their father practiced, then joining him on the field for postworkout hugs and giggles. The moments were sprinkled throughout the season, when Marshall joined his father and his father’s teammates for stretches and warm-ups before games, and when Marshall joined his father to only witness warm-ups when he was injured. But the biggest moment, the most telling moment, came when the two were alone Sunday night.
Minutes after the Broncos punched their ticket to Super Bowl 50 by defeating the New England Patriots 20-18 in the AFC championship game, Peyton Manning sat at his locker, still wearing his game pants and still with a headset on, talking football. Slowly he dressed while talking on-air with a local radio network.
Peyton Manning, the usual Peyton Manning, was all business. All football. All focus. Sort of. Nearly 10 feet away sat Marshall, wearing an orange No. 18 jersey and sketching stick figures on the locker room whiteboard. He finished in time to show off his masterpiece to his father, who whipped out his freshly pressed AFC championship ballcap and placed it on his son’s head.
After tucking the game ball into his leather suitcase, Manning led his son out of the locker room and to the podium where, together — Marshall clinging to his father’s leg and nearly toppling the AFC championship backdrop — they addressed the media.
At age 39 and due $20 million next season, the possibility that Peyton Manning played his final game in Denver on Sunday is very real. And signs of him realizing it were hard to miss. “It’s not something that you take for granted, no matter how old you are, if you’re Gary Kubiak, Wade Phillips or Taurean Nixon, our rookie corner who just got activated this week in time for the AFC championship and Super Bowl,” he said. “So to enjoy that and soak it up is the game, the fans and the moments with your family after the game as well.”
For months, Manning has made a point to “stay in the moment” while recovering from a foot injury that cost him six games and subjected him to choruses of boos and weeks of doubts. A prevailing view was that he was washed up and that his time as the face of the Broncos’ offense had expired. Peyton Manning was done. So it was said.
“They always look at his age, how he’s played and maybe injuries, but sometimes when something is important to you, you’ll do whatever you can to make it right or get it done,” said outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware. “He got hurt and they sort of ruled him out. I saw him in the training room the whole time getting ready, and I can see it in his eyes like, ‘You know what, I can’t wait to get back on the field.’ When he got that opportunity to get back on the field and all the crowd — the 12th man in the Broncos stadium — I can see it in his eyes like, he’s back. From that point on, I knew he was ready.”
But while staying in “the now,” Manning also made a point to appreciate all the moments — good, bad, in between.
Nearly three hours before kickoff, Manning sauntered out onto the field, in his usual all-blue sweats for his usual pregame passing routine to his usual receiver, Jordan Taylor. But before assuming his spot at the makeshift line of scrimmage, he stopped to say hello to familiar faces and friends.
Off to the side stood Brandon Stokley, Manning’s former receiver who loaned him his ear and his home when Manning visited Denver in 2012 as a free agent. Stokley, who retired in 2013 at age 37, watched the Broncos’ victory with his eldest son, Cameron, and with Manning’s father, Archie, in the Manning family’s suite at Sports Authority Field.
Stokley watched, thinking back to that whirlwind trip in 2012 when the two played catch at a park in Castle Rock before Manning ultimately decided to sign with Denver.
He watched, thinking that maybe, maybe Sunday was the last time he’d see Manning play catch as a Bronco at home.
“I definitely think about it,” Stokley said. “Without a doubt, you think that it could be, not knowing for sure. I think every game, when you get to be that age, could be your last and I realized that playing into my mid-30s.”
When the final whistle blew Sunday, Manning stood amid a sea of orange-and-blue confetti and eager cameramen and reporters. All were awaiting the obligatory handshakes and hugs from opponents. Patriots star Tom Brady, the counterpart in their storied quarterback rivalry, arrived first, staying for a lengthy embrace and an exchange of words.
Then came Bill Belichick, the Broncos’ hooded nemesis. The New England coach, in true Belichick fashion, refused to divulge his comments to Manning when asked about it afterward. But the visual of their hug and accompanying nods of appreciation said enough.
When it was all over Manning, with friends and family at his side, walked off Sports Authority Field, stopping briefly to pick up some confetti and pose for a photo. Another moment remembered. “There is no question this is a sweet day, this was a sweet victory,” he said.
igned with them four years ago. The team’s next game is Super Bowl 50 in two weeks.
Peyton Manning gets a hug from brother Cooper Manning after the Broncos defeated the Patriots 20-18, winning the AFC championship. John Leyba, The Denver Post
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