NFL

Peyton Manning wants to savor every moment of Super Bowl 50, whether it's his last NFL game or not

Peyton Manning is playing in his fourth Super Bowl. He's been the NFL's most valuable player five times, and holds the league records for career yards passing and touchdown passes. He has hosted "Saturday Night Live," and played catch in the belly of a military plane flying 30,000 feet above Pakistan.

But until two weeks ago, there was something Manning had never done.

The star quarterback had never set foot in the spacious luxury suite he's had since joining the Denver Broncos four years ago.

But this is a stop-and-smell-the-roses season for Manning, who turns 40 in March. So after a divisional playoff victory over Pittsburgh on Jan. 17, when he finished his postgame news conference he stepped into an elevator at Sports Authority Field and pressed the button for Level 2, where about 50 friends and family members were celebrating.

He liked the experience so much, he did it again last Sunday after Denver's victory over New England in the AFC championship game, the victory that set up the Super Bowl 50 showdown between the Broncos and Carolina Panthers.

"I don't know why it took me all this time to realize: What if I just pop up there?" Manning said, standing with a reporter on a Broncos practice field this week. "I told [my brother] Eli, 'You're going to be playing a lot longer than me. That's a good one to remember.' You've got some high school buddies up there, and you don't get interrupted. You don't get somebody coming up to you. You get to visit with some people."

Manning is taking all the mental snapshots he can these days, savoring the sweetest moments, such as spending time individually with his 4-year-old twins in the immediate afterglow of the win over New England. First came Mosley, who wanted to go see her dad on the field as the glittering confetti rained down. Her grandfather, Archie, brought her to the field.

"The first thing she said when she came down there, she said, 'Daddy, we're going to the Super Bowl!'" Peyton said.

Minutes later, as Manning stood at a lectern in the interview room and answered questions, his son, Marshall, stood behind him and fidgeted with a newly minted conference championship hat, finally deciding to wear it backward.

"He was ready to go," Peyton said. "You go through a game and a full press conference, you're pushing four hours. He was ready to go home."

Manning isn't nearly as impatient. He's determined to live in the moment and block out all the talk that Sunday might be the last game of his storied career. Speculation about his future came to a boil last week when a video of him after the AFC championship game went viral. He was on the field, encircled by reporters, cameras and microphones, and getting hugged and congratulated by New England's Bill Belichick. A microphone caught the exchange.

"Hey listen . . ." Manning said as they leaned in close. "This might be my last rodeo, so it sure has been a pleasure."

Manning, although intensely private, shrugs off the fact that comment went public. He has long since given up the fight to limit microphones on the field.

"It's real, and it's not going to change," he said. "I used to try to talk to the people who were broadcasting the games, encouraging them to talk while we were up there [at the line of scrimmage.] 'Don't stop and listen. Say whatever it is you say when we're calling a play out.' One of the guys told me, 'Hey, it ain't changing. Producers are telling us to quiet down so they can pump up the volume on what you're saying.'"

More irked is Archie, who didn't like that his son's private exchange with Belichick is a few mouse clicks away for anyone who wants to eavesdrop.

"I'm not a real high-tech guy," the elder Manning said. "I'm all for improving the game, and the way the media has improved. But that shouldn't have been captured."

Regardless, Peyton said he hasn't made up his mind on anything that happens after the game clock expires Sunday night. He is living life minute by minute.

"Only somebody who has been in that moment can speak for themselves," he said. "Even today, we did those promos for CBS and they said, 'What are your emotions going to be like during the national anthem?' I said, 'I can give you a great answer next Sunday night.'

"That's been a theme for this team, just to stay in the moment and not assume something is going to happen based on the current circumstances."

Manning's lone Super Bowl win came as quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts at the end of the 2006 season, when he directed his team to a 29-17 victory over Chicago.

In the week leading up to that game, Tony Dungy, then coach of the Colts, had quietly made the decision to retire if his team won. He was sure of it. In his den, he has a photo taken the Friday before the Super Bowl. It's a shot of Dungy sitting alone on the practice field, leaning against a goal post and, by the look on his face, lost in his thoughts.

"I was sitting out there long before the players came out," Dungy said by phone. "The guy taking it didn't know, but I was sitting there thinking, 'This is probably going to be my last practice of my career.' That was my definite intention. My wife thought that and everything."

But when the Colts won that game, Dungy's mind began to change.

"I went to our victory party and our celebration with that in mind," he said, "but then you start talking to guys and it's, 'Hey, let's come back and defend this,' and, 'We can be better next year,' and, 'What teams in history have won two in a row?' A lot of things happen after you win."

He wound up coaching the Colts for two more seasons before retiring.

Manning, who didn't know the tale of that particular photo, nodded and smiled when apprised of the back story.

"I know exactly what Tony is saying," he said.

Maybe the person who understands best what Manning is feeling these days is Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway, Broncos vice president of football operations. He closed his career with back-to-back Super Bowl wins.

"The thing is, it's hard," Elway said. "You can step up to that retirement line and be right up at it, and that one little last step of saying, 'OK, I am done,' is much harder than getting to the line. It's taking that last step over that line and really kind of admitting it to yourself.

"Because you'll try to justify it to yourself forever and ever, that you can still play, that you want to play, that you want to come back. You can handle the media, you can continue to do the off-season work that it takes. . . . But that last step is really hard."

As for Manning, he didn't know if he could continue his career after the four neck surgeries that sidelined him for the 2011 season. He didn't know if he was done this season, when the torn plantar fascia in his left foot kept him out of six of the last seven regular-season games.

He's not taking that last step. Just the next one.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on February 01, 2016, in the Sports section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Super savorer - Manning isn't saying this is his last game, but he's definitely smelling the roses" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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