DENVER — Peyton Manning, who is nothing if not prepared, didn't want to practice his retirement speech too much. He didn't want it to come across as memorized or over-rehearsed.
But every time he went through a dry run, he couldn't get through the parts about meeting Johnny Unitas, among his football idols, or about his maternal grandfather being proud of him without a fist-sized knot forming in his throat.
Manning, the NFL's only five-time most valuable player and one of its all-time greatest quarterbacks, publicly announced his retirement Monday in a news conference at Denver Broncos headquarters. And, just as it did in those occasional practice sessions, his voice cracked and trembled at the most poignant parts.
"I revere football," said Manning, who retires as the all-time NFL leader in passing yards and touchdowns. "I love the game. So you won't have to wonder if I'll miss it. Absolutely. Absolutely I will."
He touched on his early years with the Indianapolis Colts, who were 3-13 in his rookie season, and called the team's struggles "agonizing."
"My grandfather would call me weekly to ask if his favorite announcers, John Madden and Pat Summerall, would be broadcasting the game," Manning said. "'Paw Paw,' I'd say, 'We're only 2-8 right now. We're playing the 3-7 Bengals. Madden and Summerall don't broadcast those kinds of games."
"I called Paw Paw," Manning said, his voice weakening with emotion. "'Guess what, Madden and Summerall are broadcasting the game.' He said, 'I can't believe it.' He was elated and he was very proud, and we beat the Cowboys that week, and we let the world know the Colts had arrived."
Manning, who so adroitly pulls off those "Saturday Night Live" skits and has made a career of staying cool under intense pressure, struggled to keep his voice from wavering. In an informal meeting with a small group of reporters after the event, he explained that he tried to mix in humor in an attempt to keep his emotions in check.
He joked about setting the rookie record for interceptions, and how he long pulled for a series of first-year quarterbacks to break it — Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, Matthew Stafford, his brother Eli, anyone — but that no one had.
In the days leading up to Manning's announcement, while he was assembling his speech with a personal assistant he has worked with over the years, he kept his phone at the ready so he could make voice notes to himself, observations and don't-forget-to-mention-this moments.
On Saturday, once his decision had been made, Manning began a methodical process of making calls to the people who meant the most to his career, informing them of his plans. First he called John Elway, Broncos vice president of football operations and a hall of fame quarterback who certainly understood the difficulty of the decision.
Manning then called Bill Parcells, who would have coached him had Manning left Tennessee early and been drafted No. 1 by the New York Jets. After that, he phoned each of his NFL head coaches in order: Jim Mora, Tony Dungy and Jim Caldwell of the Colts; John Fox and Gary Kubiak of the Broncos. Manning would later marvel that no one leaked the information — or at least word didn't get out to the scoop-hungry media.
Dungy's phone had barely any battery left, so he asked Manning if they could talk in two hours. No, Manning told him, this couldn't wait, and that he'd say what he needed to in a minute or less, if necessary. The phone tree rolled along, and the meticulous Manning wasn't going to break his pattern by going out of order.
That's an indication of the type of player Manning was — one devoted to painstaking planning and execution.
"We're going to hear about the numbers and the wins and the awards, and all those things are amazing," Elway said. "But to me, the thing that's most amazing is the way [he] went about it and the work ethic that he took about it; the way he went about his film study, on the field and how much it meant to him."
He called New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, his on-field rival for a decade and a half, and had a talk with Patriots Coach Bill Belichick.
Manning dialed up Madden too, telling him the story about his grandfather.
After the Saturday calls came a massive round of text messages by Manning on Sunday — after the news was public — including personalized messages to each of his Broncos teammates. He has a group-text collection of other friends from the Broncos, one from the Colts, and one composed of a collection of NFL coaches. He reached out to inform and thank all of those people.
Manning, who turns 40 this month, is coming off a tumultuous and controversial 18th season. A foot injury sidelined him for seven of the Broncos' final eight regular-season games, allegations surfaced in an Al Jazeera report that he used human growth hormone — something he has vehemently denied — and a 1996 incident involving a female trainer at the University of Tennessee resurfaced. That trainer accused the quarterback of placing his exposed genitals on her face during an examination; Manning said he was "mooning" a nearby teammate.
The retirement ceremony took place in a relatively small auditorium, with Manning's family, friends and teammates from the Broncos and Indianapolis Colts filling the first two rows. Behind those were fewer than 100 media members, all sitting in assigned seats, almost unheard of for an NFL news conference.
His parents, Archie and Olivia, were there, as was his older brother, Cooper. Younger brother Eli, quarterback of the New York Giants, had planned to be there but came down with the stomach flu and did not attend. Also in the front row were Manning's wife, Ashley, and their twin 4-year-olds, Marshall and Mosely. Manning nearly broke down when referencing them.
"Our children are small now," he said. "But as they grow up, we're going to teach them to enjoy the little things in life, because one day they will look back and discover that those really were the big things."
Manning listed some of those little things in his life, the memories he savors: a steak dinner at St. Elmo's in Indianapolis after a victory; figuring out blitzes with then-Colts center Jeff Saturday; picking out game balls with the equipment staff on Fridays; recapping games with his dad; and — a catch forming in his throat when he said this — calling Eli when both were on their team buses.
In the end, at the close of his news conference, Manning couldn't resist injecting humor. He leaned into the microphone and, apropos of nothing, uttered one word football fans will forever associate with him:
And with that, the biggest chapter of his life came to an end.
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer