EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – This was after Peyton Manning approached his offensive line on the opening snap of the Super Bowl, trying to scream a change in cadence only to have the din of MetLife Stadium make his voice mute. "No one could hear me," he said. Soon, the unexpectedly snapped ball was zipping by his ear en route to a safety for Seattle, the quickest score in Super Bowl history.
This was after Manning threw two interceptions, including a crushing 69-yard pick-six, after he missed reads and overthrew open receivers, after he'd been pushed out of his comfort zone by a brilliant, brutish Seahawks defense. "An excellent defense," he said.
This was after he trudged off the field, the scoreboard above reading "Seattle 43, Denver 8," one of the worst and certainly most painful losses of his long career. "It's not an easy pill to swallow," he said.
This was after Manning dressed quickly in a silent, emotionless, beaten-down Broncos locker room, after his dad Archie and brother Cooper waited outside. "That's football. It's why I hate football," Archie said with gallows humor.
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This was after Peyton received a compassionate pat on the back from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, after he huddled with his wife Ashley and a couple friends, after he received a couple of supportive words from John Elway.
This was after he walked slowly, hands in the pockets of his blue suit, headed down toward the interview area, escorted by police. After a reporter from a Mexican TV station tripped over his luggage – pulled by a Broncos employee tailing the quarterback – and wiped out on the floor in a failed, ill-advised interview chase.
This was after he arrived to find a throng of cameras and microphones 15 deep around podium No. 2, after he gave praise to the Seahawks, took blame himself – and even handled, without losing his cool, a question about whether he'd been "embarrassed" out there.
"It's not embarrassing at all," Manning said. "I would not use that word. There's a bunch of professional football players in that Denver locker room who put in a lot of hard work to play in that game."
This was after all of that, after the developments and aftermath of a night Peyton Manning – the great Peyton Manning – had been so profoundly ordinary and the Denver offense with its 37.9 points per game in the regular season, the 55 touchdown passes, was nearly shut out. After the Broncos' dream season, the one Manning came back from neck surgery to engineer, collapsed in spectacular fashion.
It was then that Manning, walking down a hallway back toward the locker room, still surrounded by cops, still followed by a guy dragging his bag, still trying to just find some peace and quiet and to the mourning process that comes from losing the big game in a big way.
It was then that Peyton Manning heard the very respectful voice of Steve Lopez, a beer vendor from the Bronx.
"Mr. Manning, could I please get an autograph?" the 25-year-old asked.
Manning's head turned and looked Lopez in the eye. These were the opposite ends of the NFL food chain – megastar multimillionaire and a guy hawking Bud Lights in the stands. The wave of the crowd was pushing Manning forward, but he locked in on Lopez.
"Not now," Manning said, "but when I come back this way I will."
Look, everyone has heard the stories of Peyton Manning being a good guy, a regular guy, or at least as good and regular as you can be when you are this rich and famous and successful. Everyone's read and heard the saccharine tributes to him, so much so that it's become trendy to root against him in a way, to celebrate his comeuppance, to laugh at the way his face contorts in certain ways when he's frustrated.
Someone asked that "embarrassed" question with a hint of enjoyment, after all.
Everyone understands, or should understand, that so many NFL players are humble and appreciative and respectful as Manning is – that he is one of many.
At some point, though, at some level, what really matters about a man is how he treats people who hold no leverage over him, let alone how he treats those people in moments of tumult when it would be quite understandable if he just ignored the request.
How many times through the years had Peyton Manning signed for people, stopped for photos for people, been gracious to people. Now? Here? In the harried moments after this painful and thorough loss, after a chance at a championship was lost and might never come again, in the cramped walkways of a football stadium – not some charity meet-and-greet – isn't he allowed to be, well, selfishly human?
Manning didn't think so. He didn't ignore Steve Lopez. He didn't ignore, later after he did return from that locker room, others who made the same request. Here was Cheyenne Wiseman, asking if he could sign a T-shirt. Here was Michael Weisman of Philadelphia, looking for an autograph for his 10-year-old son, Alex.
After everything that happened, Peyton Manning kept stopping in the MetLife hallway and honoring requests for his time, no matter how fresh the wound, no matter how pronounced the pressure, no matter how desperately he just wanted to get on the bus, assume his customary place up front and get the hell out of Jersey.
"The respect he always has for the fans, that's why I like him," Lopez said. "That's why I asked, that's his reputation. I like the way he keeps his emotions out of the public."
No, he isn't the only player who would've told Steve Lopez to wait. He isn't the only player who would sign. He isn't the only one who knows how great he has it, even when things aren't so great.
Yet after this game of all games, Peyton Manning was somehow no different than before.
"You know, he's got the reputation for being a class act," Weisman said. "That's him. On a night like this [to sign], I mean, I appreciate it. I know. I understand. That's Peyton Manning."
That was Peyton Manning, even on the worst of nights.
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