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Manning to the PFHOF: The time we thought No. 18 played his last game as a Bronco

Chiefs at Broncos, November 2015. It would come to be a monumental moment in Peyton Manning’s Hall-of-Fame career...but not for the usual reasons.

Kansas City Chiefs v Denver Broncos Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

This weekend will mark the official beginning of the 2021 NFL season as the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers will play tonight in the annual Hall of Fame game.

It will also mark the final NFL accolade for one of the Greatest Of All Time players - former Broncos (and Colts) quarterback Peyton Manning, who will be enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame Sunday night as a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer with the Class of 2021.

So in honor of the man who gave the Denver Broncos four years of greatness and one of our most exciting Super Bowl seasons, I decided to repost three of my favorite articles about Manning.

Many of you know that I came to Mile High Report via my ‘Dear Mr. Manning’ post that Kyle highlighted in MHR before brining me on staff (that will forever be my favorite outcome from writing that open letter, which started as a just a post on my Facebook page - lol).

This first choice may surprise you. Rather than going with the obvious “letter” to Manning after the Super Bowl 48 loss, I wanted to highlight one of my personal favorites - the story I wrote after Manning was benched against the Chiefs following four interceptions. I was at the game, enjoying box seats with TJ Ward’s family because I was there to write a feature about his “Boss of the Month” winner (also a good story if looking for more nostalgic reading material), so I witnessed the benching firsthand. I think it made me sadder than watching him suffer through SB48.

So with most things about that 2015 season and Peyton Manning, knowing how it all eventually turned out makes it easier to go back and remember the heartbreaking moments.

This game was one of them.

—-

When No. 17 steps on to Soldier Field today, he’ll be one number - and years and years of experience - short of No. 18.

But while Brock Osweiler doesn't have the hundreds of comebacks, the five NFL MVPs, the 14 Pro Bowl appearances or the 539 touchdowns that Petyon Manning has, he does have the starting job for the Broncos today.

And maybe for a lot more.

That potential fact is creating all kinds of consternation in Broncos Country this week. Fans who came to the Broncos with Manning or fans who have embraced him since he joined the Mile High franchise in 2012 are finding themselves at a crossroads with their loyalty, buying into some false narrative that they can’t be happy about Osweiler because it means the end of Manning.

Broncos Country, I understand your conflicted feelings, and I’m here to tell you it’s going to be OK.

I am the world's biggest Peyton Manning fan. That fact is well-documented. And frankly, "fan" doesn't even come close to describing my admiration for the man.

So it isn’t - and wasn’t - easy to watch the future legend and current icon have the kind of game he had against Kansas City - four interceptions and just five completions, bringing the season stats to just nine touchdowns but 17 picks. The fact that it came on the same day Manning broke the all-time passing yards record in the NFL was just cruel irony.

The mortality of Manning

If it were any other quarterback on Sunday, we’d all have been furious about the result on the scoreboard and would have had varying levels of disgust for the play on the field. We most certainly would have been happy about benching the starter.

But in Manning’s case, watching one of the greatest quarterbacks in all of NFL history reveal his mortality so obviously, so quickly and so publicly just hurt.

Even Broncos fans who have not been on the Manning bandwagon this season - as well as many fans of teams who have no love for the cerebral quarterback who too often dissected their team like a frog in biology lab - felt a pang of anguish as they watched a G.O.A.T stand alone on the sidelines.

Manning has had such a far-reaching impact on the teams he has played for, the entire NFL, football in general and sports as a whole, that it was hard last Sunday to separate the man from the football player.

Very few athletes can say that about their time in the spotlight. And Manning has enjoyed more time in the spotlight than most spend in a professional sport ever.

So as I watched his starting job for the Broncos possibly fade away on a beautiful Colorado Sunday afternoon, it was difficult to define my emotions. While I was happy as a Broncos fan to finally see some life in our offense, I’ll admit there was a part of me that didn’t want Brock Osweiler to be too much more successful than Manning that day. It wasn’t that I wanted Brock to do badly. Quite the contrary, and it was definitely exciting to see the potential of future success under Oz.

It was just that this wasn’t the storyline I had hoped for Manning. Although every fan wants the Lombardi, and so many of us believe Manning deserves one, my hope for Manning was different. I hoped he’d play well, the team would compete well and no matter how the season ended (because there are too many factors beyond your own control that shape the end of the season), Broncos fans would be able to cheer the Sheriff into the sunset - with or without a trophy.

The beauty of Manning

I was prepared, of course, for a struggle this season and figured there’d be rough waters in Denver near playoff time when patchwork wins of the regular season just wouldn’t cut it. I was not prepared for a meltdown in Week 10 at home against a team Manning has owned practically his entire career and definitely as a Bronco. And while I was as disappointed as Manning in his performance, I have been more disappointed in the narrative that has surrounded a man who has done nothing but try to improve himself and those around him.

I didn't want to admit it could be No. 18's play - and not the Chiefs' defense or the running backs' ineptitude or the offensive line's constant holes - preventing the Broncos from doing anything right last Sunday.

But the more removed I’ve gotten from the picture of Manning on the sidelines watching his replacement take over, the more I can appreciate that even though this wasn’t my story for Manning, his story will always be remarkable.

And I got to be part of it. We all got to be part of it.

We all got to be part of it

In fact, the beauty of Manning is that so many - from his own fans to fans of not just football but sports in general - appreciate all he has come to mean in the NFL and professional sports.

As a grad student at Alabama, I watched Manning tear apart my Crimson Tide more than once. Still liked him.

As a Broncos fan, I had to endure Manning and his Colts ending our playoff hopes too many times. Still admired him.

Now years later as a Broncos fan, I’ve gotten to experience Manning revive our franchise both by his own skill as well as the reputation that preceded him, allowing the Broncos to bring in top talent year after year. Will always appreciate him.

And as a humanitarian fan, I’ve witnessed the genuine care Manning has for the communities in which he plays. Love him.

I can’t think of another player who has left such a lasting impact everywhere he has gone - beginning with college and continuing at every team he has played for and every city he has lived in...even after leaving.

It is for this reason more than most that it is hard to separate the man from the player and be able to accept the transition from legend to heir.

But at some point it must be done, and Manning above everyone else, understands this.

In some very unfair way, having Manning’s time in the NFL possibly end unceremoniously - but still so graciously - is fitting. Because if there were ever a player who could appreciate the game more than himself, it is Manning.

With wins, he highlights others. With losses, he points only to himself. With records, he insists one man does not earn them. When he broke the NFL passing record against Kansas City, he wasn’t happy that the NFL stopped the game to recognize him.

In the face of defeat, he has always been the bigger man - congratulating Ray Lewis for a fantastic career just moments after the Ravens snatched away a Broncos comeback victory in 2012 or checking on Richard Sherman's injury after a Super Bowl that saw Manning and his Broncos get crushed in abominable fashion.

So when all-time NFL passing yards record-holder was relegated to the sidelines Sunday in favor of a guy who has never played a full regular season game, he didn’t show any disrespect on the sidelines or give a list of excuses in the press conference. Instead he accepted that he hadn’t played well enough to keep the job.

This is no obituary for Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning.

This is his biggest fan saying that while the situation on Sunday was hard to accept, it needs to be accepted. For how long is yet to be determined.

I believe in Manning. I always have.

I am rooting for Manning to make one more miraculous comeback

Whether he comes back as the starter or never steps on the playing field again, I believe his story will end well because Manning will make sure it does. He’ll compete as much as he can and try to win - win his job back, win the game, win the trophy. And if none of that happens, he’ll thank the Denver Broncos, thank his fans, thank the NFL for giving him 18 years to be the best quarterback he could be.

He won’t feel sorry for himself. He won’t complain. He won’t point fingers. And he won’t stop being the Peyton Manning we all have come to admire.

So neither should we feel sorry or complain or point fingers.

I am rooting for Manning to make one more miraculous comeback to get the sendoff from professional football he has undeniably earned.

But if it turns out I did witness Manning’s last game in the NFL when I sat at Mile High last week, I won’t remember it for the loss by Manning.

I’ll remember it for all we won just by having Manning.

...And then I’ll go cheer for No. 17.