(Peyton Manning photos courtesy of the Denver Broncos)
By Clark Judge
Talk of Fame Network
SAN FRANCISCO – There are billions of words spoken and written about the two teams in Super Bowl 50, but let’s be honest, people: This game is not about Denver, and it’s not about Carolina. It’s about Peyton Manning.
And here’s why: If this is, in fact, his last season, it’s his chance to end his career as Hall-of-Fame quarterback John Elway did 17 years before – with a Super Bowl victory. As Denver’s GM, Elway is Manning’s boss, the guy responsible for putting him in this position, and this is Manning's opportunity to do the improbable.
Pull an Elway encore.
“When you’re getting toward the end of your career,” said one Super Bowl quarterback, “and you see you’re getting close and have the ability to win a championship and hang ‘em up on a good note … and have it kind of be your last memory of your professional career … that would be pretty special.”
That quarterback should know. It’s Eli Manning, Peyton’s younger brother, and he’s here partly to promote Gatorade and the company’s new technology ... but mostly to support his brother. He had dinner with Peyton Tuesday night, has spoken to him several times the past week and will be at Levi’s Stadium Sunday with the rest of the Manning family.
Like the rest of us, he has no idea what happens afterward nor if a decision to retire rests on the outcome.
“There’s a decent possibility it could be (his last game),” he said, “but I don’t know if it’s based off of win or lose. I think after the season he’ll take a long look at it. I don’t think he’ll make any predictions after the game, either way, but he’ll think about it and decide if whether he wants to go at it again and make another run.”
But if he doesn’t … and it sure appears as if, at 39, he’s pointed toward retirement … there is no better story than Manning winning a second Super Bowl – just like Elway – in his last game. I haven’t polled the country, but my guess is that it’s an outcome most folks outside of North Carolina would like to see happen.
Because we’re suckers for happy-ever-after endings.
“Just being around some coaches and players (at the Pro Bowl) last week, a lot of (them) overall seem to be rooting for him,” said Eli. “They want him to get this win. I think a lot of them just have tremendous respect for him and the way he’s played the game and at what level he’s played for so long.
“Obviously, I had the Kansas City staff coach me in the Pro Bowl. I think the want him to retire so they don’t have to play him anymore. So it might be for personal reasons. But I think when they see everything’s he gone through, they wouldn’t mind seeing a fairy-tale ending to it. And him winning and sailing off into the sunset.”
That’s the idea. But there are few who have the opportunity to circle the bases in their last appearances, and fewer still who seize the moment. Nevertheless, it’s been done, and here are my five favorites of stars who preceded Manning with unforgettable exits:
JOHN ELWAY WINNING SECOND STRAIGHT SUPER BOWL
At 38, Elway was no longer the quarterback who could carry his team. So he didn’t. Though he missed four games in 1998, the Broncos still won the AFC championship, partly because of Elway and mostly because of Hall-of-Fame finalist Terrell Davis. All he did that season was rush for 2,008 yards, win his third straight league rushing title, second straight Offensive Player of the Year award and the league’s MVP trophy. But it was Elway who excelled in his last game, throwing for 336 yards and one touchdown, while running for another, as Denver defeated Atlanta 34-19 in Super Bowl XXXIII. He was named the game’s MVP.
BILL RUSSELL WINNING THE 1969 NBA TITLE
The Celtics weren’t the best team in the NBA in 1968. The Lakers were. They weren’t even the best team in their own division. The Washington Wizards were. In fact, the Celtics were fourth in the NBA East and not considered a playoff threat – with the Celtics’ 48-34 record their worst since 1955-56. But critics forgot something: They still had Russell, their player-coach. After leading the Celtics to defeats of the 76ers and Knicks in the playoffs, he pulled the club together for a seven-game upset of the Lakers – with Russell pulling down 21 rebounds in his final performance, a 108-106 victory, his 11th championship in 13 years.
PETE SAMPRAS WINNING THE U.S. OPEN
A dozen years after meeting Andre Agassi in the U.S. Open finals, the 31-year-old Sampras returned to play him a 34th time. The year was 2002, and it was two months after Sampras lost to Georg Bastl, the world’s 134th-ranked player, at Wimbeldon -- a defeat Sampras called “the lowest point of my career.” Serving 33 aces, the 17th-seeded Sampras would win the first two sets, lose the third, then hold on to hold off Agassi in the fourth and win 6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4 to become the oldest player to win the Open since Ken Rosewall in 1970. “I’ve got a great wife (and) a great life,” he would say after his 14th Grand Slam title. “I just climbed a big mountain, and I’m happy.”
RAY BOURQUE WINNING FIRST STANLEY CUP
After 22 seasons and no Stanley Cups with the Boston Bruins, Bourque evaluated his team, saw it headed in the wrong direction and asked to be traded to a club that had a chance to win an NHL championship. So GM Harry Sinden complied, sending him to the Colorado Avalanche where he would win his first … and only … Cup in 2000-2001 with a defeat of New Jersey – with Bourque scoring the game-winning goal in Game Three. After the seventh-game victory, Avalanche captain Joe Sakic broke from tradition and handed the Cup to Bourque so he could skate with it. And for good reason. Bourque waited longer than anyone in the 108-year history of the Stanley Cup to win it for the first time – a span that included 1,612 regular-season games and 214 playoff contests.
ROCKY MARCIANO’S LAST TITLE DEFENSE
His last professional bout happened on Sept. 21, 1955, and it ended as it began: With a knockout. The victim was Archie Moore, and he was like so many before him. Not only did Marciano, nicknamed “The Brockton Blockbuster,” win all 49 of his bouts; 43 of them were by knockouts, including ones of former heavyweight champs Joe Louis and Jersey Joe Walcott -- with Marciano's 87.75 knockout percentage the highest in heavyweight history.
Now the question: Will Manning join the list? Oddsmakers say he won’t. Carolina is a 5-1/2-point favorite. But this is Peyton Manning, and it might be, as he reportedly told New England’s Bill Belichick, his “last rodeo.” That, then, gives Super Bowl 50 added significance – not only for Manning but for those around him.
“You really don’t know you’ll handle the game as you’re watching it and seeing it,” said Eli. “I have a feeling if, all of a sudden, it gets to the fourth quarter, and Denver has a chance with a two-minute drive to win the game, I think you could be sensing that this could be special -- or this could be kind of a big moment. You hope for a great situation, and to be all positive for Peyton’s sake and to have that lasting memory – if it is his last game -- be a good one.”