SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — The last time the world saw John Elway in a Broncos uniform, he was facing the stands, both hands aloft, holding his helmet in his left hand, and his right hand clenched into a tight, celebratory fist. He flashed that toothy smile, knowing that a few minutes later, he would be cradling his second Super Bowl trophy.
He went out on top. No matter what happened after that — and Elway has gone on to accomplish plenty — his last meaningful moments on a football field had resulted in a victory in the biggest game of all.
"It's a very nice thing to have," Elway said this week, "knowing you can always look back and have a real positive thought."
Now, Elway runs the team he used to play for. In 2012, he signed Peyton Manning, who, at 39, is even older than Elway was when he played his last game in 1999.
And now, it's Manning who could be taking that same walk into the sunset as Elway did. He has a chance to win his second Super Bowl, peel off his white Broncos jersey and never come back.
By the accounts of both men, the topic of Manning's retirement has not been broached.
It's hard to think those conversations won't pick up steam over the next few weeks.
Manning has already told Patriots coach Bill Belichick, in a not-so-private exchange at midfield two weeks ago, that this might be his last rodeo. He has refused to expand on that, keeping with the theme that he's soaking in every moment, and he'll worry about tomorrow when tomorrow comes.
"We haven't talked about anything past Sunday," said Manning's brother, Eli. "We kept it on this week, the last few weeks, but nothing past the game."
When the game is over, Peyton will have an all-star lineup from which to glean advice. It includes Eli, of course; their father, Archie, who spent 14 years in the NFL; their brother, Cooper, who has long been one of Peyton's best sounding boards. And Elway. Chances are, Manning will be seeking what Elway sought when he went to his father, Jack, a longtime scout and personnel man, after the second Super Bowl title.
"I was fortunate to be able to talk to my dad about what he thought," Elway said. "Because I didn't want it to be different than what I was seeing and what I was feeling."
The signs of Elway's slowdown toward the end were visible — he missed four starts in 1998 with hamstring, rib and other injuries. "Physically, I was breaking down a little bit," Elway said.
But the ravages of age on him weren't as glaring as what Manning has displayed at times this season. His 17 interceptions before going to the sideline with a foot injury in November were hard to watch. That he has rebounded and guided the Broncos to the Super Bowl (And yes, there was that remarkable 12-yard run against the Patriots) is a testament to his guile and smarts more than any physical prowess.
"I feel I can still move the chains," Manning said. "Maybe in different ways. It's being able to adjust."
If he leads Denver to a victory against Carolina on Sunday, Manning's ability to set aside the glow of winning the title, and to listen to candid advice, will set the framework for his decision. His inner-circle's ability to give it to him straight will be every bit as important for the quarterback, whose contract extends through next year.
"Typically, people at the top of the pyramid, whether in sports, business, entertainment or wherever, tend to be their own worst self-evaluators, especially when comes to this issue," said David Heenan, whose book, "Leaving on Top," breaks down one of the toughest life choices that successful people have to make.
"But Peyton's clearly a very bright guy," Heenan said. "His dad went through this. If anyone is emotionally and intellectually able to handle this kind of transition, he'd be (near) the top."
And yet, there have been other bright guys who've taken different routes.
For every Elway, Michael Strahan and Jerome Bettis, all of whom left after winning a title, there are two or three Brett Favres, Joe Namaths and Joe Montanas — all of them brilliant at their craft and decorated and successful, but all of whom stayed years after the biggest wins were behind them.
Where might Manning fall in that spectrum?
Odds are, he'll take a brief break after the Super Bowl, then decide if he's ready to walk away from it all.
If he's holding the Lombardi Trophy on Sunday night, he'll have a chance to join his boss in some very rare company: Two Broncos who rode off into the sunset.
"It's easy to toe the line and say, 'I might retire,'" Elway said. "But to take the final step over the line is always very difficult. It's a hard step to take."
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