By Michael Marot, The Associated Press
INDIANAPOLIS - Sent packing by his only NFL team, one he transformed from afterthought to Super Bowl champion, Peyton Manning said goodbye to the Indianapolis Colts with a shaky voice and tear-filled eyes, then got ready to find a new place to play quarterback.
At a podium alongside owner Jim Irsay, who cut the injured star Wednesday rather than pay a whopping $28 million bonus due this week, Manning was by turns wistful, nostalgic - he got choked up while praising the Colts' equipment managers - and forward-looking.
The only four-time MVP in NFL history now figures to become as coveted a free agent as the league has ever seen, assuming he can assuage any lingering concerns about the series of neck operations that forced him to miss all of 2011. Arizona, Miami, Seattle, Tennessee, Washington and the New York Jets all have been rumored as possible destinations; Manning's former offensive coordinator in Indianapolis, Tom Moore, worked for the Jets as a consultant last season.
"Nobody loves their job more than I do. Nobody loves playing quarterback more than I do. I still want to play. But there is no other team I wanted to play for," said Manning, who turns 36 this month.
Still, he acknowledged: "We all know that nothing lasts forever. Times change, circumstances change, and that's the reality of playing in the NFL."
Another reality: Manning should command plenty of offers on the open market. It's not very often that teams get a crack at a QB who's thrown for more than 50,000 yards and nearly 400 touchdowns, been picked for 11 Pro Bowls, and been a Super Bowl MVP. Manning's importance to the Colts' success was never more apparent than last season, when their record plummeted to 2-14 without him.
Reports of other clubs' interest began emerging a while back, and they'll only intensify now. Because he was released and went on the waiver wire Wednesday, Manning is allowed to negotiate and sign with any club immediately; he does not need to wait until the free-agent period that begins next Tuesday.
"I'm throwing it pretty well. I've still got some work to do; I've got some progress to make," Manning said. "But I've come a long way. I've really worked hard. I can't tell you the hours and the time I've put in."
Reaction poured into Twitter feeds from all around the sports world - not merely from NFL players publicly lobbying for their teams to sign Manning. Dwyane Wade of the NBA's Miami Heat urged Manning to head to that city's Dolphins, while tennis' Andy Roddick, the 2003 U.S. Open champion, observed: "The colts cutting Peyton feels like the north pole kicking out Santa."
That's about right. The stark first sentence of the official team statement read: "The Indianapolis Colts today released quarterback Peyton Manning."
Even if the news first leaked out Tuesday - and had been anticipated for weeks, if not months - it was odd to see those words written about a player so synonymous with the horseshoe helmet that Irsay said Manning's No. 18 will never again be worn by a Colts player.
Fans of various teams can start imagining what Manning might look like in their colors. Picture Joe Montana heading from the 49ers to the Chiefs or Emmitt Smith switching from the Cowboys to the Cardinals.
"For those of us who are so used to him being there day in and day out, it would be a little like (Yankees captain) Derek Jeter changing teams. He really is that iconic guy that represents the franchise. It's a hackneyed phrase, but he truly is the face of the franchise, and has been," said former Colts vice chairman Bill Polian, who drafted Manning out of Tennessee with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1998 draft and was fired this January. "It will be a little strange not having him there."
That is why Wednesday provided such an awkward and unusual scene for Manning and Irsay. Their NFL lives have been so closely intertwined, yet they stood inches apart in jackets and ties while discussing their separation.
Rarely do star athletes who are not retiring show up at a news conference to let the world know they've been dumped. And while Manning and Irsay - indeed, all of the NFL - was aware this profitable partnership was due to end now, the emotions showed by both seemed raw and real.
"This has not been easy for Jim," Manning said, "and this has certainly not been easy for me."
Each paused frequently to try to compose himself while speaking during their appearance in a room at the Colts' complex normally reserved for celebratory news conferences, such as the hiring of a new coach or general manager - two other significant steps Irsay took recently as he essentially starts from scratch. The room is lined with banners honoring some of the team's greatest stars, including, of course, Manning himself, flanked by Pro Football Hall of Famers Eric Dickerson and John Mackey.
Indianapolis needed to cut Manning this week to avoid paying him a bonus from the $90 million, five-year contract he signed in July, although both owner and player insisted the decision was not really about money. The Colts are widely expected to begin moving on by taking Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck with the No. 1 overall pick in April's draft.
Irsay repeatedly used the word "rebuilding" and acknowledged: "We're definitely a few years away."
Manning, Irsay said, "is on the mend to try to resume his career."
Manning hopes to be playing in the NFL at the start of next season.
Still, he said Wednesday: "I'll always be a Colt. I always will be. That'll never change."
When the news conference ended, Manning reached over to shake hands with Irsay, who instead tried to offer a hug, and they wound up settling for pats on the shoulder before walking off together and leaving the room.
Clearly, this was not an easy adieu for Manning.
Mentioning Colts employees he'll no longer be around, Manning paused to collect himself while noting: "We've got the greatest equipment guys in the world."
"I think about those type of relationships - not necessarily always on the field, and the touchdown throw to win the game. It's the behind the scenes. The laughs. The stories. The times spent together. Those are the memories. Those aren't going away," he said. "Those will be with me for the rest of my life."
Manning will forever be thought of around these parts as the QB who led the Colts to an NFL championship, barking out signals while waving his arms at the line of scrimmage to change a play after reading the defense - something he did as well as anyone.
He'll be remembered, too, for turning a basketball-loving city into a football hotbed that hosted the Super Bowl a month ago.
During that Super Bowl week, the hottest topic of conversation was Peyton Manning, not his younger brother Eli, who wound up leading the New York Giants to the title.
"There will be no other Peyton Manning," Irsay said, adding that he hoped Wednesday's joint appearance would serve to "honor incredible memories and incredible things that he's done for the franchise, for the city, for the state."
Manning started every meaningful game for 13 seasons - 227 in a row, including the playoffs - and took Indianapolis from perennial also-ran to one of the NFL's model franchises and the 2007 Super Bowl title.
In the two decades before he arrived in town, the Colts won 116 games, one division title and made the playoffs three times. With Manning taking snaps, the Colts won 150 games, eight division titles, two AFC championships and the franchise's first league championship since moving from Baltimore in 1984.
Indianapolis broke the NFL record for most regular-season wins in a decade (115), and tied Dallas' mark for most consecutive playoff appearances (nine). Manning broke all of the franchise's major career passing records, previously held by Hall of Famer John Unitas.
Unitas, of course, played 17 years for the Colts when they were in Baltimore, then finished his career with one season in San Diego at age 40.
Now it's Manning's turn to move on.