There were several times during the 439 days that passed between the time he took his last meaningful snap for the Colts and when he signed his new contract with the Broncos that Peyton Manning couldn't help but wonder if his career might be over.
After spending all of 2011 on the sideline because of neck injuries, Manning had to consider the possibility of not playing.
"I can't say it wasn't," Manning said last week in a private conversation with The Denver Post.
For all of his devotion to football and the art of quarterbacking, Manning knew that he wouldn't play again until he was healthy. As he went through a second, third and fourth procedure last year, all in hopes of fixing the pain in his neck, Manning demanded straight answers from his doctors.
Photos: The Mannings: A Super Bowl family
"If the doctors said, 'Hey, you shouldn't go out there,' that's it. That's the end of it," Manning said. "That's a short conversation. I've kind of asked them to say that. It's just not the case."
So it was with that confidence that Manning embarked on a 10-day free- agency odyssey that started and ended in Denver, where he signed a five-year contract last week that could be worth $96 million. For now, Manning will make $18 million in guaranteed salary in 2012 and will take another physical next March before collecting any more cash.
In one of their meetings, Broncos boss John Elway bluntly asked if Manning would be able to return to the type of quarterback that made him a four-time NFL MVP.
"There is no doubt in my mind," Manning replied.
With that, Elway was sold, and he, head coach John Fox and general manager Brian Xanders moved ahead with the franchise's biggest offseason move since Elway arrived in Denver nearly 30 years ago.
"It is tremendous," Elway said. "The way I look at my life, all that other stuff happened as a player. Now, in my second career, my second life, this is without doubt the biggest (event) of this career."
Though Manning is confident he will once again feel like the Manning of old, he admits he isn't there yet. Not even close.
"It's been awful. It's been real scary. Where I am now compared to where I've been, it's just a long, long way. It's been hard," he said. "I think I handled it really good. I've got a sense of peace about it and prayed about it a lot. When you've only known one way for 20 years, the more it comes back to what it feels like it's supposed to feel, the better I feel."
Good medical reports
Manning had his first neck procedure in the offseason before the 2010 season but returned to play every snap that season. In May 2011, two months into the NFL lockout, he had a second surgery, this time to repair a bulging disc, and spent the duration of the lockout rehabbing from that procedure. Still hoping to play in 2011, he signed a five-year extension with the Colts in late July that included a $20 million signing bonus, even though he had yet to pass a physical.
Manning was activated off the Colts' "physically unable to perform" list but made it through only a pair of practices before pain forced him back into the training room. As the Colts prepared to play their first game since 1997 without him, Manning had a third, more serious, spinal fusion surgery. Manning confirmed to The Post that he had a fourth, albeit minor, procedure late last year.
Manning said he doesn't think there was a mistake made with his initial surgery in 2010, or that his neck injuries are related to the genetic spinal condition that ended older brother Cooper's football career as a teenager. Peyton and Eli Manning were tested for spinal stenosis in the 1990s.
"I remember them just saying ... 'you all aren't picture-perfect by any means, you aren't in any danger by any means,' " Manning said. "You can draw some correlation to there. But mine's kind of all in my right side. It's 20 years of throwing."
Doctors from the Broncos, Titans and 49ers, the finalists for Manning's services, examined his full medical history, as well as his neck, as a part of a full physical. All cleared him to play.
"That's what they tell me. The nice thing is that the doctors of three different teams have told me essentially the same thing. None of them blinked. Either they're all idiots ... ," Manning said, chuckling as his sentence trailed off.
Manning left his agent, Tom Condon, behind as he traversed the country during the free-agent process. Manning wanted his journey to be all about football. That's why he stayed at Brandon Stokley's house in Castle Rock when he visited the Broncos and Ken Wisenhunt's house during his visit to Arizona, and why he spent hours watching film and "talking ball" with the staffs from Denver, Arizona, Miami, Tennessee and San Francisco. There was no bad experience, and he grew attached to the coaches he met at each stop.
But ultimately Manning had to choose, and when he did, it came down to two things: Where did he feel most comfortable, and where did he believe he could win?
"A tremendous obligation"
Manning clutched his new orange Broncos jersey as he stood in a hallway at Dove Valley, in front of a row of recent Broncos team pictures. Just a few yards away hangs a larger-than-life picture of Elway clutching the Broncos' first Super Bowl trophy.
Manning has won one Super Bowl and lost one, and he and Elway have bonded over the intense thrill of being crowned champion and the immense disappointment of losing a Super Bowl. Elway lost three before he won his two in the 1997 and 1998 seasons. Manning won his first shot, in 2006, but lost his second in 2009.
How badly does Manning want a second championship?
"Two, three, four would be great too. I'd like as many as we can. The goal is to win," Manning said, laughing. "I know that I like being in the arena, I like knocking on the door every year. The closer you get, the harder it is sometimes when it doesn't happen. I know what that feels like, like John has. I know what it feels like to lose too."
For Manning, the best part of signing with the Broncos is that he once again has a football home. Manning stayed in Denver last week and has made himself at home at Dove Valley.
He has a locker set up, a new wardrobe of blue-and-orange workout gear, and has spent his days doing his rehab work with head trainer Steve "Greek" Antonopulos and strength coach Luke Richesson. He's also put in face time with free-agent players visiting Denver.
"I can't tell you how it's been weighing on me, this whole decision. But now I'm going to play with a tremendous obligation to them," Manning said. "To (Elway), to Fox, to Mr. Bowlen. I don't know the fans well, but I've always played that way. You're playing because of what they did for you."
Lindsay H. Jones: 303-954-1262 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Manning's transition period
Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning knows he wants to get on the field with his new teammates as soon as possible, but he also knows he may have to brush up on the league's new collective bargaining agreement first.
"I'm going to have to get up to speed on the rules," Manning said. "I know we don't have nearly as much time as we used to. It's like free agency. It was never an issue for me before. I didn't know the rules there either. ... I've got a lot to study."
Manning was scheduled to spend five days at the Broncos' Dove Valley complex after being introduced Tuesday. After returning to his family this week to start the process of moving to Denver, Manning will soon be back at Dove Valley.
And, under the new CBA:
Manning can organize workouts on his own with his new teammates until April 16. Those workouts cannot take place at the Broncos' Dove Valley complex and cannot be supervised by any member of the coaching staff.
Manning cannot use the practice fields at Dove Valley under the supervision or instruction of the coaching staff until May 2.
He can throw with the team's medical and training staff as part of his recovery from neck surgery. But those throwing sessions cannot include any Broncos receivers under contract with the team, until April 16.
Manning can get a playbook for "voluntary study," but the playbook must have been available to any other player on the roster as well. However, with any playbook the Broncos would have given to Manning, the team cannot include any additional coaching materials, and the coaches cannot answer any of his questions until April 16.
Jeff Legwold, The Denver Post