PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT ROGERS FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
VOLUNTEER FOR DUTY A win over Southern Mississippi was one of 11 that Manning orchestrated for Tennessee in his senior season. It was during Peyton Manning's sophomore year at Tennessee that people began asking him to give speeches. At first the requests were rare, but they gradually become more frequent and Manning, aware as he was—and still is—of his place in the universe, understood that this trend would probably continue. But there wasn't enough time to write new remarks for every occasion, so one day he sat in his dorm room and wrote one speech to cover everything. (As with so many things in Manning's life, this approach was influenced by his father, who always had an evergreen speech of his own at the ready.) With minor tweaks it could be delivered to a campus group, an elementary school or somebody giving him a football award. It touched on hard work and preparation, dropped a little humor and finished with a crescendo of optimism, always followed by loving applause. This is very much the person who retired on Monday, 18 years after entering the NFL, and 29 days after helping the Broncos win the Super Bowl in the last of his 293 games. Manning, the son (and brother) of an NFL quarterback, born with a mandate for greatness, did not so much try to conquer his football life as control it. He did not have a powerful arm by NFL standards, and his passes often wobbled. Yet his willingness to study opponents (he asked his father to teach him how to analyze film in high school) made him the paradigm of the workaholic quarterback whose mind was a weapon against whatever lurked across the line of scrimmage. "There was no one who could outprepare me," he said on Monday. When neck injuries threatened to end his career, he underwent four surgeries to continue on. When given the opportunity to sell goods to U.S. consumers, he birthed an accessible Everyman from his multimillionaire existence, chanting Cut that meat! Cut that meat! and humming an insurance company's jingle. With this approach, Manning became one of the two, three, maybe five best quarterbacks in NFL history. He threw for more yards (71,940) and more touchdowns (539) than anyone. It will take Tom Brady, 38, or Drew Brees, 37, three solid seasons to take down those records, and if neither succeeds, there is nobody on the horizon. Manning was the perfect quarterback for his time. Like Terry Bradshaw was suited to the era of the running game and the bomb and Joe Montana to Bill Walsh's West Coast offense, Manning fit snugly into a period of complex offenses designed to exploit increasingly liberal offensive rules. He was the programmer with the most powerful computer. Along the way Manning was named league MVP five times and won two Super Bowls, one with the Colts in 2006 and this year's with the Broncos. How Manning is fully remembered—the "legacy" question—will be dependent on how history recalls his defeats and mistakes and on news still unfolding. As a verifiably great college quarterback at Tennessee he couldn't once defeat Florida. He had a significant hand in both of his Super Bowl defeats, throwing a game-clinching pick-six to the Saints' Tracy Porter in 2010 and collapsing beneath the weight of Seattle's overwhelming defense in '14, a game in which the enduring memory is of an unnerved Manning missing a shotgun snap on the Broncos' first offensive possession of the game. Manning has long been regarded as football royalty. His reverence for the game—"God bless football," he said on Monday—is unquestioned. But now he finds himself the subject of an NFL investigation that he used HGH to recover from his neck surgeries and has been asked to address a 20-year-old accusation that he committed a lewd act against a female trainer while in college, an incident he has denied. Both issues remain murky. Both have chipped small pieces off the Manning mystique. Certainly neither issue will forestall what is likely to be a wildly successful and public postfootball life for Manning. It is an absolute certainty that he will be inducted into the Hall of Fame in five years, the minimum retirement period required for consideration. Trust that he will have a killer speech ready for that occasion.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
REIGN MAN In his ninth year as a pro, Manning finally got that elusive ring with the Colts' 29--17 win over the Bears in Super Bowl XLI.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY GARRETT W. ELLWOOD FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED SIMON BRUTY FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
OMAHA! In just four seasons in Denver, Manning became a Broncos icon—and following in the footsteps of his boss, John Elway, retired on top.