Dear Mr. Manning -
Now that media hype over your retirement has died down and Broncos fans have moved on to agonizing over which quarterback will fill your shoes, I feel compelled to write you one final letter.
And all I really want to tell you is "thank you."
It's too simple a phrase for the magnitude with which your career has impacted so many, but I am saying it anyway because it's personal and remarkable - if only to me.
The word that came to your mind about fans was "grateful." That is how I feel about you and your time in the NFL - especially with the Broncos.
Some fans will focus on what you lacked in the final seasons. Some will allow baseless controversies to overshadow an impressive career. But most - like me - will look at the body of work and appreciate it as much for its impact on the game as for your impression on athletes, fans and people in general.
Among all the things you did on and off the field that people will talk about for decades, the three that will stand out as my favorite are three most Broncos fans would despise.
Broncos v. Ravens, Playoffs 2012-13
The first of a few heart-breaking playoffs losses with the Broncos, this 38-35 double OT loss could just as easily have been a Broncos' win. But it was the retiring Ray Lewis and his Ravens who got to move on to the next game, eventually becoming the Super Bowl champions.
It was as tough a loss as any player or fan has endured. And in spite of the heartache to that ending, you made sure to visit Lewis in the locker room long after the likely Hall-of-Famer finished multiple media appearances just so you could congratulate one of the best to play the game.
That small gesture of respect for the game and its players, surpassing any personal pride in favor of "doing the right thing," was the beginning of my Peyton Manning love affair. I had always been a big fan, but that move solidified in my mind your separation from so many other 'great' players.
Broncos v. Seahawks, Super Bowl 48
With a bad first snap, the game only got worse as the best offense in the NFL mustered only eight points. No Broncos fan will forget how "embarrassing" that game felt.
But when a reporter asked if you were "embarrassed" by the performance, you remained professional and polite but did your damnedest to build up your teammates despite the loss.
"It's not embarrassing at all. I would never use that word. The word 'embarrassing' is an insulting word, to tell you the truth."
That loss led pundit after pundit to spend days debating your "legacy" as though a Super Bowl loss was enough to taint its undeniable magnificence at whatever point you would decide to no longer put on a helmet and jersey.
They were shortsighted and incredibly insulting to a player who has given so much to a sport - both in championship-caliber performances as well as personal devotion to teammates, coaches, fans, communities.
I wrote a post to "educate" those so-called analysts on what a true legacy means and share with fellow Broncos fans a genuine admiration for you as a player on the field and the ultimate professional off of it. As it turned out, I was not alone in my view.
Broncos v. Chiefs, November 2015
Fast forward to last November when Broncos hosted the Chiefs in Week 10. My two boys and I flew to Denver for our "annual Broncos game adventure" just to watch our favorite team take on our favorite divisional rival.
I know you remember that game. Lesser players would want to forget a performance like that - five interceptions and just five completions. And rather than pouting or hiding on the bench by the water cooler, you stood - alone - watching your backup quarterback do what you were unable to do.
You made no excuses after the game and you faced the media with incredible poise even though you didn't have to talk to reporters.
I was sad for you and even a little conflicted about cheering as our beloved Broncos finally scored on the Chiefs. You remained the consummate team player over the next seven weeks - helping Brock break down defenses as he started in your place, giving him hints about the opponent's weaknesses, even sending in a play while watching from the equipment room.
When you were called back in halfway through the final regular season game against the Chargers - and all the way to that miraculous Super Bowl win - you proved over and over that my "letter" from 2013 was never more true:
It matters that you're professional in the way you talk to reporters.
It matters that you give credit to others - coaches, teammates, mentors.
It matters that you don't give up in a bad game and keep fighting, no matter the odds.
It matters that you take time to write notes to fans and sign autographs â even after crushing defeats.
It matters that you know the difference between being embarrassed by your team's performance and just not being the best team on the field that day.
And it matters that you meticulously prepare to play the game ... and encourage everyone around you to do the same.
Whether you win another game, your accomplishments in football are nothing short of remarkable - alongside many other outstanding players. But it's your character that sets you apart from so many of your predecessors and peers.
And that's a legacy that matters.
Thanks to you, my boys witnessed in person at that KC game a professional athlete handle failure and an uncertain future with grace, accountability and resolve.
As good examples go, you just can't beat that.
Thank you, Mr. Manning
So many fans will have a major football milestone of yours as their favorite "Peyton Manning moment" - winning four AFC championships and two Super Bowls, getting a record 55 touchdown passes in 2013, throwing your 509th touchdown pass at Mile High, breaking NFL record after NFL record, any number of comeback wins in 18 years - just to name a few on a long list of so many good choices.
But mine will always be our two-second "conversation" after Super Bowl 50.
This time around, I got to watch your post-Super Bowl news conference live - even asked a few questions. Nearly three months after painfully watching you get benched, I saw you hoist the Lombardi. That was special - but not even close to my favorite.
As you were leaving the locker room, met immediately by an entourage of reporters following your trek to the bus, I blurted out a simple, "Congratulations Peyton!" because it was about the only thing I could think of in that split second.
You turned to me and said, "Thank you very much. Thank you."
I only regret not thinking to say, "No, Mr. Manning, thank you very much."
So I'm saying it now.