IF PEYTON Manning leads the Denver Broncos to another Super Bowl title in New Jersey this evening, it will be the culmination of a comeback that ranks alongside any in the history of sport.
After undergoing career-threatening surgery on his neck only two years ago, it is a wonder the quarterback is playing at all, never mind trying to scale the summit of his profession, for a second time, at the age of 37.
As ever, there are plenty of storylines to follow, from the sub-zero temperatures of an outdoor Super Bowl to the Seattle Seahawks’ trash-talking cornerback, Richard Sherman. But the contribution of Manning, with all his usual intensity, and that distinctive pre-snap routine, will blow the rest of them away, irrespective of the outcome.
Manning nearly gave it all up in 2012 after two major operations, one a spinal procedure. Some doctors questioned whether he would ever compete again, far less rediscover the form that made him one of the most impressive quarterbacks ever to perform in the NFL. He didn’t want to embarrass himself. He didn’t need the hassle.
As everyone else fretted about his future, Manning enjoyed what he describes now as an “inner peace”. He had his faith, his family and 20 injury-free years of high-school, college and professional football to be grateful for. In that time, he had won four Most Valuable Player (MVP) awards, led the Indianapolis Colts to their 2006 Super Bowl triumph and almost single-handedly put his adopted hometown on the map. He was in no position to demand more from the gods.
Manning was glad merely to have played professionally. His elder brother, Cooper, retired from the game at university after being diagnosed with spinal stenosis. When Peyton and his other brother, Eli – himself a Super Bowl-winning quarterback for the New York Giants – underwent tests of their own, the results were mixed. There was a curvature in Peyton’s neck, but it was stable enough for him to pursue a career in the game – for a while anyway.
As it turned out, some two decades elapsed before the weakness finally caught up with him. Between the ages of 15 and 35, Manning never missed a game through injury. He exploited every last second of the career that had been denied his brother and, in later years, played through the pain until he eventually succumbed, in 2010, to the need for surgery.
By September of the following year, he had undergone an operation to fuse the vertebrae in his neck, a procedure that left him unable to throw a dart, never mind an American football. Rehabilitation is not meant to be easy but, when a quarterback loses the power in his throwing arm, as well as the grip in that hand, it is a long road back.
The months that followed were difficult, mentally and physically. Manning’s first throw, performed in private, travelled only five yards. He had to learn all over again the action that had become second nature through years of repetition. For weeks on end, there was no sign of progress. Hit by the bullet he had dodged all those years ago, he wondered if it was time he accepted his fate.
That, though, was before his wife, Ashley, persuaded him otherwise. She reminded him that football was all he knew, that a playing career was short enough without bringing it to a premature end.
He had missed the entire season with Indianapolis, who released him in March 2012 but, within two weeks, the Broncos had agreed with him a five-year, $96m contract. Maybe he should set about repaying their faith in him. “Peyton, you’ve got to try,” she said. “You’ve got to try.”
So he did. And Peyton didn’t just try, he succeeded. In his first season with Denver, he took them to the play-offs and was named Comeback Player of the Year.
John Fox, the Broncos head coach, called that “truly remarkable”, but it is this, his second season, that has left commentators agape. On opening night, he threw a record-tying seven touchdown passes in a win against the Baltimore Ravens, who won the Super Bowl last year.
Since then, he has delivered a total of 55 touchdown passes and 5,477 yards, each a record-breaking tally for a single season in the NFL.
Now, he is ready to captivate a global audience in the showpiece game of the year, and not just because he shouts “Omaha” as a signal to his team-mates at the line of scrimmage, a mystery that has occupied far too many column inches this season.
Should he end up on the winning side at the Meadowlands, it will be enough for many to include him in an elite band of “greatest-ever” quarterbacks that includes Tom Brady, Joe Montana and John Elway, who is now the Broncos’ executive vice-president of football operations.
Manning would be the first starting quarterback to have won the Super Bowl with two different franchises. It would also silence those who question his post-season record, the only conceivable area for improvement on an otherwise flawless CV.
Whether he could then be singled out as a quarterback who has done more than any other is a different argument. Montana, Brady, Troy Aikman and Terry Bradshaw have all won more than two Super Bowls. They were not required to overcome adversity in the way that Manning was two years ago, but their relative good health ought not to be held against them. It is just one of the many variables that make a mockery of comparisons.
One thing is for sure. Manning will not have many – if any – more chances to climb the mountain and, in so doing, join the game’s exalted company. Few will be surprised if he announces his retirement after tonight’s game. Many of his Denver team-mates have already left No.18 jerseys in the locker room for him to sign. Manning has been dismissive of retirement talk, as he has been of questions about his “legacy”, a spurious concept that has somehow become part of the sporting vocabulary.
“I thought you had to be 70 to have a legacy,” said Manning. “I’m not 100 per cent sure what the word even means. I’m down the home stretch of my career, but I’m still in it. It’s not over yet. It’s still playing out.”
And that, whatever happens tonight, is his biggest achievement.