You can hear what it's like. You can study for it. You can work on your mindset leading into it. ... But then, the moment arrives, and you immediately realize there are so many things you simply have to deal with as they come.
Just after noon local time, Manning approached the lectern set up at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center with a folded up piece of paper that, presumably, had his thoughts and feelings bullet-pointed. Precisely 21 words into that prepared speech, it started to come undone on the legendary quarterback.
"The only professional football I've known," Manning said, his voice starting to crack, "has been Colts football."
Manning then trailed off again, as delivered this line: "Times change, circumstances change, and that's the reality of playing in the NFL."
The reality is one that Manning and Irsay have known was coming since the club locked up the first overall pick Jan. 1. There was no way Manning and Andrew Luck were going to be on the same roster together. The best place for Manning now, and going forward, is elsewhere.
To stay, Manning would've had to agree to surrender practice snaps to Luck, and eventually allow him to compete for the starting job he's held since 1998. That wasn't happening. Not with Manning knowing there would be opportunities to be The Guy elsewhere. Conversely, the Colts weren't about to pass on Luck, a quarterback scores of scouts and executives believe is the surest bet at the position to come out of college since Manning himself.
And then, there were the "circumstances." That word -- circumstances -- was used no less than 12 times during the 24-minute press conference.
"We had good, healthy talks about where everything was and what the circumstances were," Manning said. "The circumstances were the third guy in the talks with us all the time. It wasn't [Irsay's] decision, it wasn't my decision. The circumstances kind of dictated that."
The key circumstance: These were two ships moving in very different directions.
Manning will turn 36 two weeks from Saturday. By definition, 36-year-old quarterbacks are in win-now mode, and the Colts aren't a win-now team -- a fact that Irsay flat out admitted on Wednesday. They have a first-time head coach, a first-time general manager, a roster that needs rebuilding and a 22-year-old quarterback available for them to build around (the same way a 22-year-old Manning was sitting there for them in 1998).
An aging quarterback wasn't right for the Colts in 1998 -- they traded Jim Harbaugh to Baltimore to make way for Manning -- and an aging quarterback isn't right for them now.
The overriding point to be made here is that this parting, really, isn't anyone's fault. It's about what's best for both sides, and what's best for both sides is moving on.
"It's not like I sat there a year and a half ago and said, 'We really want to rebuild, we're looking forward to rebuilding,' " said Irsay. "It didn't work that way. I think with injuries, the erosion of time on the roster and different things and circumstances dictated that."
Now, Irsay can go about drafting the man he hopes is the next Manning, but he's also looking for the next Reggie Wayne, the next Jeff Saturday and the next Bob Sanders. Irsay aims to reconstruct the franchise the way he and Bill Polian built it up in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
And now, Manning can do what's best for him: Find a team that's in win-now mode. The Dolphins believe they are a quarterback away, with a franchise left tackle, promising young center, good group of skill players and a stout defense. The Cardinals have a coach who's been down this road before -- Ken Whisenhunt oversaw Arizona's implementation of Kurt Warner -- as well as a star receiver, solid defense and indoor stadium. The Seahawks and Chiefs have built quarterback-friendly situations the last couple years, and the Jets are just a year removed from consecutive AFC title games.
Clearly, there are situations out there that are more suited for a player in Manning's position. He understood that back in January, just like he understands it now. Irsay does, too, and implicitly acknowledged it by pulling the plug on the Polian regime and installing a head coach and GM who will need to grow into their roles.
Still, even with all the above in mind, and two months to prepare for the moment, there's no playbook for what Manning and Irsay encountered on Wednesday. Or at least, it's not a situation where a playbook can guide emotions. Not with how Manning transformed the franchise. Not with how much he meant to the city -- and that goes beyond his economic impact, which realistically sits in the billions. And not with the relationships he developed in Indy.
"I still want to play," Manning said. "But there is no other team I wanted to play for. Nobody has had it better than I have playing for the Indianapolis Colts for these 14 years. I just can't say how thankful and fortunate I feel to have played here."
Hours later, the quarterback was back in his South Florida home, suddenly thrust into the free-agent market. Plenty of uncertainty lies ahead -- Would a team sign Peyton before he's all the way back? Where will he land, and how quickly will he get there? -- but Manning and the Colts finished this process the right way.
What you saw on Wednesday was indeed real.
And that script Manning prepared for himself wound up being worth little more than the paper those notes were scribbled on.
Which, at a time like this one, is just the way it should be.
Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer