SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- If you looked closely while he sat at the podium Sunday night, you could just make out the small scar on the back of his neck that cleaved Peyton Manning's career in two.
His arm was never really the same after the four surgeries to repair a disk. He never fully regained the complete feeling in his fingers. But when he returned with the Denver Broncos in 2012 after a season-long recovery, he said he hoped to be the player his fans thought they remembered him being.
He was not that this season, not as his body and age betrayed him, not as he was benched in the regular season, nearly losing his job for good. But on Sunday night, at age 39, Manning gave -- and got -- that rarest of results in sports: a happy ending.
He threw for just 141 yards. He had no touchdown passes. In his prime, he had quarters that were better than that. It was, in any other venue, forgettable. Except that Manning finally won his second Super Bowl -- the first was nine years ago, an entire career span for many quarterbacks -- and he became the only signal caller in history to win a championship with two different teams. The two parts of his career -- before surgery and post -- are finally equal. And his career, for so long shadowed by the failure to win multiple titles, is finally whole.
"Being on two different teams, winning a Super Bowl with each team, I'm proud of that," Manning said. "I do not take that for granted."
Age comes for all professional athletes, and it came roaring in to take Manning this year. Thirty-five days ago, he was a backup for the first time since he was a young man at Tennessee. But after years of making football look easy, of toying with defenses and mastering audibles, the victory for Manning came in a year that was terribly difficult. He showed a frailty he had never exhibited before, certainly not since he burst on the scene as a high school prodigy. Even the words he used to describe himself this week were a meld of cold-eyed reality and emotional nostalgia. He knew he was not what he once was, what all those fans remembered him being. But he could still move the chains, he said, as if he were another journeyman latching on to a great defense.
That is why it seems inevitable that Manning will, at some point in the coming days or weeks, call an end to his brilliant career. He would not do it Sunday night -- it never seemed realistic that he would upstage the Super Bowl -- but he said he would take some time. His Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy -- one of four coaches with whom Manning had been to Super Bowls with, and the first to have won one with Manning -- told Manning last week that he had once received advice from Dick Vermeil and Bill Cowher to never make an emotional decision. Manning has been emotional in recent weeks -- he said he wanted to tell Bill Belichick and Tom Brady face to face how much he had enjoyed competing against them. He choked back tears while talking to his teammates Saturday night, and he choked up in a CBS pregame interview when he considered his legacy -- and so this was not the time. His son, Marshall, was peeking out from the podium on which Manning leaned and Peyton wanted to go celebrate.
"I think I'll make a good decision and I think I'll be at peace with it, however it goes," Manning said.
Some of his teammates said they hoped he would return, and linebacker Brandon Marshall voiced a truth about the Broncos: He was on the team because of Manning. A large part of the reason there is so much talent is because Manning was on the roster, acting as a magnet for veteran studs like DeMarcus Ware, who signed on when John Elway determined he had to build a better defense after the Broncos were blown out of the Super Bowl two years ago. Manning had spotted Marshall on the Broncos' practice squad in 2013 and he asked coaches who Marshall was, telling them they had to bring him up to the active roster. That is the sort of impact Manning was still able to make even as he receded from lead singer to part of the chorus this season, and it is an impact that likely will be gone very soon.
"It's a great feeling," he said. "It's a great sense of accomplishment for this team. We've been through a lot this year. This team has been unselfish, tough, resilient and I think all that was on display tonight. I got a chance to talk to the team last night, and I kind of thanked them for letting me be a part of the journey."
The journey seems sure to end now, and as Marshall Manning peeked out from beneath the podium on which his father leaned, the future Hall of Famer seemed relieved and at ease. The Broncos are sure to move on without him, and for the first time it seems Manning might be comfortable moving on, too. That is what Elway did, and it is the ending he had hoped to craft for Manning, too.
As the gold confetti fell and even his opponents stopped to embrace him Sunday night, that light was surely dimming. The scar has faded, too. Left behind for Manning was the reflected glow of the silver Lombardi Trophy -- one for each hand, for each team for which he played, for each part of his sterling career.