JERSEY CITY, N.J. — Peyton Manning’s 2011 neck surgeries were an ongoing sports story that played out across the national media.
Naturally, to Manning it was something much more personal, significant and scary.
“All surgeries, in my opinion, are serious,” the Denver Broncos quarterback said Wednesday. “A lot of people say it’s not a major surgery unless it is your own. When you are dealing with a neck surgery, I think it is pretty serious stuff.
“My brother Cooper dealt with neck surgeries and injuries as a high school and college player, and had to give up football. That made a big impact on my life.”
We now know that Peyton Manning did not have to give up football. Instead, he returned in 2012 with a season that was good, and topped that with a 2013 season that ranks among the best in NFL history. It will be capped Sunday with Manning leading the Denver Broncos into Super Bowl XLVIII against the Seattle Seahawks.
But Manning didn’t know any of that in the spring of 2011.
What he knew was that at the time Cooper Manning was injured, he and his other brother – Eli Manning, now quarterback of the New York Giants – also were tested.
The results were mixed. Peyton Manning’s neck wasn’t perfect, but it was judged stable enough for him to continue playing high school football. From there he went on to Tennessee, and then to the NFL, where his Hall of Fame credentials already were established by the time the neck problems hit.
“I thought maybe I had been on borrowed time this entire time,” he said. “I was fortunate to have 20 years of health to play football. If that was going to be the end of it because of a neck injury, I really – believe it or not – had a peace about it. I’ve had this unbelievable string of health to play 20 years of football – high school, college and pro ball – and I was fortunate for that.”
However, that wasn’t the end. No one seemed sure about what to expect before the surgery. But afterward, one doctor gave Manning the greenest of green lights.
“He said, ‘If you were my own son, I’d let you play,’ ” Manning recalled this week. “As soon as the doctor told me that, that was the end of it for me on the neck discussion. Now, it was simply a matter of performance. Could I get my strength back to play quarterback at the level I thought a team deserved?”
After sitting out the 2011 season, Manning was released by the Indianapolis Colts in March 2012. After a two-week free-agency tour that included interest from the Seahawks, he signed with Denver.
“I was nervous the first day I met him,” receiver Demaryius Thomas said. “He’s smart. He’s the ultimate pro. He knows his thing. … He’s definitely the best.”
In Manning’s first season back, he led the Broncos to the playoffs and was named comeback player of the year.
This season he was statistically better, and took his team to the final game of the season.
“He had a tremendous year, and I think that that’s the type of person he is, type of player he is,” said John Elway, former Broncos quarterback and now executive vice president of football operations. “A competitor, him wanting to come back off the surgeries that he had two years ago. So, it’s a real tribute to him. … I’m sure we’ll see the Peyton Manning that we’ve seen all year on Sunday.”
And perhaps well beyond that.
Manning was asked this week if at age 37 it might be time to walk away from the game while he can go out on top – especially if he wins his second Super Bowl ring.
After having stared hard of the possibility of having to give up the game he loves, Manning has ruled that out.
“I feel a little bit better than I thought I would coming off that surgery a couple of years ago,” he said. “I feel better physically. I’ve been rejuvenated playing under a different offense, playing with new receivers because it keeps me stimulated every day. So, I certainly would like to keep playing.”