At the Super Bowl that never would have been held in Indianapolis if not for Peyton Manning, near the stadium that would have never been built if not for Peyton Manning, Colts owner Jim Irsay had an assortment of his collectibles on display.
The original manuscript of Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" was a centerpiece, along with guitars played by some of rock's greatest. Across the hall was a No. 18 jersey, the same one Manning wore in winning the Super Bowl.
Irsay still has the jersey, but every good collector knows his limits. The Colts had reached theirs with Manning, and it was time to say goodbye.
It came a day before Irsay would have had to write a check for $28 million for a quarterback no one is quite sure can still play. Money, both insisted, had nothing to do with the Colts releasing Manning, even though everyone knew it did. Instead, it was something both vaguely referred to as circumstances that made this parting such sweet sorrow.
The moment Colts fans had dreaded for months wasn't just bittersweet, it was bizarre. Two men in nice suits awkwardly hugging each other, choking back tears and reminiscing about a magical time that had suddenly gone bad.
To hear Irsay talk about it, they grew up together. They had dreams, and together they worked to make them come true.
To hear Manning describe it, he had nothing but good thoughts and fond feelings toward everyone involved. He still loves the big guy, but he loved the little people, too, and would terribly miss the best equipment handlers in sports.
You almost expected Irsay to say the heck with it, reach into his pocket, pull out a $28 million check and let the real tears start flowing. Oprah could have joined them onstage and they all could have had a group hug.
Didn't happen, because despite all the warm fuzzies, the NFL is a business. The first thing rookies are told at orientation is that one day they will be cut, no matter what they have meant to the team or their cities.
No one gets to go out on their own terms. It's the way of doing business, and the way the NFL will always be.
No matter what Brett Favre tried to do, he overstayed his welcome in Green Bay. Joe Montana finished his career in a Chiefs uniform, and any NFL fan of a certain age remembers how difficult it was to see Johnny Unitas in an ill-fated stint with San Diego after 17 seasons with the Baltimore Colts.
It wasn't going to be any different with Manning because he had outlasted his usefulness to the organization. Four neck operations, a missed season, holes to fill everywhere and a huge bonus payment due meant it was time to go.
Nothing personal, just business. Thanks for the Super Bowl. Appreciate the nice new stadium. Good luck in your future endeavors.
"As difficult as this day is, it is made difficult because of the greatness and the things Peyton has done for our city, for our state and for our franchise," Irsay said. "There will be no other Peyton Manning."
Give Irsay some credit for at least trying to put a good public relations spin on things. Some owners — perhaps his late father, who fled Baltimore with the Colts in the middle of the night — would have simply issued a press release and made sure Manning was around to clean out his locker.
Still, it was a surreal sight — Manning standing just behind Irsay and looking on while the owner choked up describing how much the quarterback meant to him. It figures to be even more surreal next month when Irsay stands in the same room with another quarterback — future No. 1 draft pick Andrew Luck — and talks about what a great future the Colts will have with their new star. After all, it was Manning who was a top pick himself 14 seasons ago.
"We all know that nothing lasts forever," Manning said. "Times change, circumstances change, and that's the reality of playing in the NFL."
For Manning, that reality is tempered by the fact he will have another press conference in the coming months. He'll put on another team's hat, declare himself excited to be a (insert team name) and say another Super Bowl is his goal. He'll have no lack of suitors, with teams so desperate for a quarterback of his caliber that they will line up to give him millions despite his advancing age and concerns over his health.
The Colts can move on, too. There's a new coach, new people in the front office, and soon there will be a new team on the field. Fans can move on, too, with the focus shifting from Manning's health to the tantalizing possibility that Luck will be the Colts' next superstar quarterback.
It is, as Manning says, the reality of playing in the NFL. Someone is always going to be looking for your job, and someday someone will get it.
Doesn't matter if you salvaged a franchise. Doesn't matter if you built a stadium.
Nothing personal. Just business.