Every time Peyton Manning sets foot in the locker room lately, he comes across No 18 shirts that other members of the Denver Broncos left for him to sign.
Nothing out of the ordinary. Happens all season. Except nowadays, instead of asking him to donate an autograph for some sort of fund-raising endeavour, teammates are eyeing a personal keepsake.
No matter that Manning, 37, has made plain he has no intention of retiring right now, whether his Broncos win or lose against the Seattle Seahawks in Sunday night’s Super Bowl.
“A lot of them had a note: ‘Sign this for me’. So I must have signed 10 jerseys for my teammates,” Manning said. “That makes me think they think I probably should be out of here after this game.”
As he spoke, Manning jutted out his right thumb, using the universal symbol for “Take a hike!”
“I feel,” he said, “like they’re dropping hints to me.”
The anecdote was told with a chuckle, part of Manning’s amused take on all the questions he has received lately about his “legacy” and his future.
“All these hints at, like, retirement,” Manning replied when a reporter wanted to know about post-playing plans. “I guess everybody’s trying to get rid of me.”
Manning noted that he has not “thought a whole lot about” what he wants to do when he decides to stop suiting up.
When Manning returned to the NFL after a series of neck operations that sidelined him for the entire 2011 season, there was plenty of talk about when – and even whether – he would get back to the level of play that earned four MVP awards and one Super Bowl title with the Indianapolis Colts.
He ignored others’ voices. But he acknowledged he could not ignore his own questions then.
“I certainly had my concerns that entire time,” Manning said.
“The doctors just couldn’t tell me anything definite. They wouldn’t say, ‘You’re going to be back at this time, at 100 per cent strength level’.
“They couldn’t tell me. So when the doctors can’t tell you that, how do you really know?”
Manning recalled what some said as he prepared to move from the Colts to the Broncos.
“There was a lot of ‘narrative’ out there on what I couldn’t do,” he said. “Such as ‘he can’t throw to the left’. And, ‘He really struggles throwing to the right’.
“I’m like, ‘How do they know? I’ve been throwing in private the entire time’.
“At the time, throwing to the left was about the only thing I could do well. So there was a lot of misinformation out there.”
As it turned out, Manning would be just fine.
Last season he led the Broncos to the play-offs, earning NFL Comeback Player of the Year honours.
“I kind of joked, ‘I never wanted to be eligible for that award’ ... I’ve got to call it more of a second chance, second opportunity,” Manning said.
John Fox, the Broncos coach, called Manning’s immediate success in Denver “truly remarkable”.
“To build on that,” Fox said, “and to have the kind of season he’s had to this point this year, I think is unprecedented.”
From the very moment it began in September – on opening night, Manning threw a record-tying seven touchdown passes in a victory over the reigning champions the Baltimore Ravens – this season has been all about Denver being Peyton’s Place. In Year 2 of his second act, Manning threw for 55 touchdowns and 5,477 yards, both records.
If the Broncos win tonight, Manning will become the first starting quarterback to lead two franchises to Super Bowl titles.
“He’s one of the best – if not the best – quarterbacks to ever play the game. One day, I want to be like him, in terms of the way he thinks,” said Russell Wilson, the Seattle Seahawks quarterback.
Manning is not inclined to discuss his own standing in football.
“I’ve been being asked about my legacy since I was about 25 years old,” Manning said. “I’m not sure you can have a legacy when you’re 25 years old. Even 37.
“I’d like to have to be, like, 70 to have a legacy. I’m not even 100 per cent sure what the word even means.”
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