Manning’s retirement was announced by his team, the Denver Broncos, on Sunday, four weeks on from the second Super Bowl win of his career.
The 39-year-old admitted at a press conference yesterday that it has been a difficult decision but “it’s the right time”.
“I revere football,” he said. “I love the game so you don’t have to wonder if I’ll miss it — absolutely I will.
“I fought the good fight, I finished my football race, and after 18 years it’s time. God bless all of you, and God bless football.”
Manning reserved a brief mention for his long-time rival Tom Brady — the pair clashed 17 times in all as Brady’s New England Patriots faced first the Indianapolis Colts, with whom Manning spent the first 14 years of his career, and latterly the Broncos.
“I’ll miss the handshakes with Tom Brady, I’ll even miss those Patriot fans in Foxborough,” said Manning, adding with a smile: “And they should miss me, they sure did get a lot of wins off me.”
Brady was one of a number of NFL greats namechecked by Manning, including ex-Colts team-mates Marvin Harrison and Marshall Faulk, opponents including Junior Seau and Troy Polamalu, and coaches such as the Patriots’ Bill Belichick.
But there was one figure who stood out in Manning’s memory.
“In my rookie season, we played in Baltimore and I had the chance to shake the great Johnny Unitas’ hand and he told me ‘stay at it Peyton, I’m pulling for you’.
“I hope old number 19 is up there and knows I have stayed at it, maybe he’s even a little proud of me.”
Former Colts quarterback Unitas won three NFL championships and his record of 47 successive games with a touchdown pass stood from 1960 until 2012, when it was surpassed by the New Orleans Saints’ Drew Brees.
Broncos general manager John Elway, himself a two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback with the team, paid tribute to Manning.
“He’s done everything a quarterback possibly can in the NFL, nobody else can say that,” said Elway.
“It’s been a treat for an ex-quarterback to watch Peyton Manning play the game. I can’t tell you how many times I looked at him and thought ‘why didn’t we think of that?’
“I’m going to say, on behalf of all our fans, thank you.”
Manning was the first overall pick of the 1998 draft when selected by the Colts — having opted against entering the league a year earlier in favour of chasing a national college title with the University of Tennessee.
He said: “I cherished my time in Nashville, especially my senior year, I want (Tennessee) Vol fans everywhere to know the unique role they played in my career.
“On the Colts, you can’t fathom how much I enjoyed my 14 years there. It would be wrong not to mention (owner) Jim Irsay, (former vice-president) Bill Polian, a host of Colts team-mates, many of whom have become lifelong friends.
“Winning Super Bowl 41, I was honoured and proud to be a part of it.”
“Grateful is the word that comes to mind for the Broncos. To John Elway, (former and current coaches) John Fox, Gary Kubiak, the Broncos organisation, all my team-mates, thank you for what you’ve done for this old quarterback.
“If John had told me ‘we’ll win 50 games, win four straight divisional championships, beat the Patriots in two championship games, go to a couple of Super Bowls, win one, you’ll break a couple more all-time records — I would have taken that.”
Manning, a five-time league MVP, indeed surpassed Green Bay Packers great and NFL hall-of-famer Brett Favre for career records in passing yards and touchdowns during his time with the Broncos, as well as adding a second Super Bowl ring to the one he won nine years earlier with the Colts.
As well as his records, though, his career will be remembered for his control of, and mannerisms at, the line of scrimmage as he interpreted opposing defences.
Few managed to gain the same understanding of his play, least of all the ever-present “Omaha!” audible which has confounded opponents and onlookers alike throughout his career.
And as he finished taking questions at the podium in Denver, he signed off: “I had great coaches and players, it wouldn’t have been possible without (them).