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John Elway led Peyton Manning's recruitment to Denver Broncos

JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- Seated in a quiet lounge area upstairs at a high-end Denver steakhouse, the man with the name on the door finally had a few minutes alone with the man who's own name was on the mind of every sports fan in America.

John Elway and Peyton Manning, seated in comfortable leather chairs at one of Elway's restaurants, each with a couple of beers in the belly, were on the brink of a moment that would change the Broncos' organization for good.

"We pulled off to the side, sat down for about 45 minutes to an hour -- and we just talked," Elway said during a one-on-one conversation with NFL Media this week.

If somebody wanted to pinpoint the moment, if someone really sifted through all of the madness that went down during the NFL's league-wide courtship of Manning in the Spring of 2012, this might have been the one.

This was the conversation that bridged Manning between his past and his future; the time when the shock of yesterday began to be replaced by the hope of tomorrow. The Colt, you see, was getting closer to growing into a Bronco.

"I can tell you're in shock," Elway told Manning, nearly 48 hours after the Coltsreleased him on March 7, 2012.

"I am," Manning said.

In perhaps the perfect combination of empathy, sympathy and salesmanship, Elway was putting together a recruitment of Manning that would ultimately bring the legendary quarterback to Denver for the final years of his career.

We have heard plenty of stories since. Stories about the intense nature of Manning's recovery from neck surgery. About the behind-the-scenes way in which Manning and Colts owner Jim Irsay eventually recognized their future wasn't together. About all of the other teams that pursued Manning's services.

But what is truly worth noting, on the eve of Manning's return to the Super Bowl, is the ideal way in which one championship quarterback convinced another that Denver was the place to be.

"What I did, I just put myself in his shoes," Elway said. "How would I want to be treated? What would I want from an organization? I didn't want to hard sell him. We didn't hard sell him. We showed him what we had, what Denver was about.

"I just felt we had the best thing to sell anyway -- the owner, the fan base, Fox being there, the wide receivers. To me, I really felt confident about what we were selling."

But as many members of the organization will tell you, it wasn't Demaryius Thomas or Fox or Denver or ownership that allowed the Broncos to close the deal on Manning. It was Elway -- all the way.

One Broncos source said most members of the organization didn't even know Elway had decided to chase Manning, with Tim Tebow still on the Broncos' roster, until word slowly began to trickle down. Elway, instead, had decided on his own that he was going to get Manning, that the QB was the answer to all of his questions.

The source described it as "pure excitement" when the news of Manning's arrival for a meeting in Denver began to spread. And once those same people heard that Manning and Elway had a sit-down conversation over a few drinks, they felt even better than ever about it.

"There's not a man in the world who will sit down for a few beers with Elway and not want to run through a wall for him by the time they are done," one source said.

Of course, it wasn't simply as easy as that. But it was a hell of a start.

Instead, the Broncos still had to deal with some competition in the hunt for Manning's services. Although his meeting with Denver was the first, Manning still had meetings planned with the 49ers and Titans. He'd also meet with the Dolphins' brass, and the Cardinals were also showing interest. The Redskins, too, were on their way to Denver to meet with Manning.

Little by little, things were unfolding in the Broncos' favor.

"We're sitting there at dinner with Peyton, and I saw Washington trade up to the No. 2 spot," Elway said. "It ran across the bottom line of the television in the restaurant."

Elway knew one of the potential suitors was out. Manning, though, would still meet with Redskins coach Mike Shanahan the next day because the coach was already on his way to Denver when the trade went down.

"I knew they traded the pick, so I texted Mike, 'Put in a good word for us,'" Elway said.

Elway was still nervous about the prospects of a few other teams, even while maintaining a patient approach with Manning, never trying to make a hard sell as Manning continued making plans to visit with other teams.

"He was good buddies with (former Arizona coach Ken) Whisenhunt, but I knew they had to decide on (quarterback Kevin) Kolb, so I wasn't worried as much about that one," Elway said. "Houston was the other one. I thought if they got in the mix, they had a good football team, but I called (coach Gary) Kubiak, and he said he wasn't in the mix."

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What about Tennessee?

"The only thing Tennessee had was that he was from there," Elway said.

That ended up benefiting the Broncos because Manning ultimately wanted a very fresh start. And as other teams like the Dolphins pursued him, it always still came back to one major aspect of the Broncos' situation: They had Elway.

"I knew Peyton already," Elway said. "He came in the year I retired. I never played against him, but I'd known him. It was a friendship, but I wanted to show him what we had in Denver."

"So I thought, 'What does he want to hear? What does he need to hear?'"

When Manning left the restaurant that night, ending a one-day visit with the Broncos, nobody knew with certainty that Manning would choose the Broncos. Manning was doing as Elway advised him to do. He was taking his time.

Yes, Manning would still talk with other teams. He would still spend time contemplating everything he'd heard from everyone. There is, nonetheless, a sense within the organization that Elway's meeting with Manning forever changed the direction of the organization -- even if it was 11 days until Manning completed his deal and was introduced as the Broncos' quarterback.

It led them here, to this weekend, to this moment, with Manning on the brink of his second Super Bowl ring. He has the opportunity to help secure his legacy as one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game.

And he has it because Elway closed the deal.

"To me, Peyton wanted to finish strong and have a chance to cement his legacy," Elway said. "I really felt like this was the best spot for him. I believe that. It ended up working out."

Safe to say, with a win Sunday, it will have worked out for Manning. For Elway. And for the entire Broncos organization.

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington.

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