Just three years ago, no one in football would have blamed Peyton Manning for walking away from the game he loved and excelled at.
For 12 seasons, Manning established himself as one of the game’s best signal-callers, earning four NFL MVP awards, setting numerous franchise records for the Indianapolis Colts and winning a Super Bowl title in 2005. He had seemingly done it all.
In 2011, Manning was forced to sit out the entire season with a severe neck injury. He eventually went through four neck surgeries, including spinal fusion surgery. Doctors told him that at his age his return to the NFL was highly unlikely.
Now, three years later, he stands alone at the top once again as the best player in the NFL.
On Saturday, Manning was selected almost unanimously selected as the Most Valuable Player, collecting 49 of 50 first-place votes. New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady received the only other first-place tally.
Manning threw for an NFL-record 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns, leading his Denver Broncos to the AFC Conference title and a place in Sunday’s Super Bowl against the Seattle Seahawks.
All that after an injury that, for most athletes, would have meant certain retirement.
But Manning simply wasn’t ready to walk away. After being released by the Colts in March 2012, he was signed to a new five-year contract by Broncos president John Elway, who knows a thing or two about being a special quarterback himself.
Elway promised Manning that he would do everything in his power to get Manning another Super Bowl ring. And he was in awe of what his star quarterback achieved.
"I can say I have never seen a better year played by a quarterback than Peyton Manning," said Elway, "To see what he did this year, it was truly amazing."
And Manning has more than done his part as well. In fact, Broncos coach John Fox has been more than amazed at what he’s seen, considering what Manning went through.
"Beyond everything he’s done this season, what he’s done just to get back on the field and play is amazing," Fox said. "It’s amazing, unprecedented and remarkable. Just remarkable. I thought what he did last year was amazing, but then he had this season. He just keeps showing us more. He's shown us what he has inside him, who he is."
The MVP Award for Manning goes far beyond just his play on the field—that simply signifies a result of what he achieved. It’s how he got there that really tells the story.
Cornerback Champ Bailey is certainly appreciative of what Manning has delivered as well, and he’s happy to acknowledge that it’s far better playing with Manning than against him.
"Absolutely. I mean, that's the reason you get a guy like that on your team -- to give you chances to win games like this," Bailey said. "He's the best to ever do it. I haven't played against a better quarterback, so I'm just glad he's part of our organization now because he definitely has a big part of why we're here, and I love him to death."
Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson will be lining up on the other side of the field against Manning on Sunday, and he couldn’t be prouder of that fact.
Had Manning decided to retire at some point in 2011, he was already a first-ballot Hall of Fame player for sure. However, he’s now added one more facet to his already-impressive resume—true grit.
Manning was all but counted out by doctors and other experts, but his determination led him to pad a resume that’s already one of the best in NFL history.