JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- One by one,
Offseason conditioning. Padded practices. Preseason games. The regular-season opener. A division title. A No. 1 seed.
“I was truly taking things slowly, kind of phase by phase,” Manning said. “Nobody could give me a real timetable or prediction as far as physical recovery.”
With a neck injury forcing the quarterback to miss the entire 2011 season, Manning spent 20 months between meaningful football games. He wasn't allowed to walk as part of his rehab until October 2011. He first began throwing two months later.
"I remember one year ago I was in a hospital bed watching opening day, so there’s a little reminder there of how far I’ve come," Manning said in 2012. "Certainly I have had those checkpoints along the way, reminders of where I was a year ago."
Fast forward another year, and Manning’s checklist is almost complete.
He’s back to his MVP form – he set new single-season records for passing yards (5,477) and passing touchdowns (55) in 2013 -- and he's four days away from his third Super Bowl appearance.
So the 16th-year veteran said he has taken some time to reflect on those accomplishments amidst all the preparation for the big game.
"Yeah, there's no question that in a week like this you do get reflective at times," Manning said.
Most of that reflection comes from the time he has been able to spend with his family this week. The quarterback said he visited with brother Eli Manning on Tuesday and met his niece -- who was born just before the start of training camp -- for the first time.
His brother Cooper arrives in New York on Thursday, and Peyton joked that "New York will know it when he arrives."
It's that relationship with Cooper that helped Manning find peace when he his NFL future was up in the air before the 2012 season.
"My brother Cooper dealt with neck surgeries and injuries as a high school and college player and had to give up football," Peyton said. "That made a big impact on my life. I remember at the time when Cooper got injured that they sort of did a little test on me and Eli. I would've been a junior in high school, Eli probably would have been a sixth grader or something. They said that our necks weren't picture-perfect, didn't look ideal, but we were still stable enough to keep playing football. Cooper had to give up playing football. In some ways when I had my neck problems, I kind of thought maybe I've been on borrowed time this entire time, that I was kind of fortunate to have 20 years of health to play football. So if that was going to be the end of it because of a neck injury, I really, believe it or not, had a peace about it."
But in a check-up with his doctor around the time Eli's New York Giants were set to play the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl, the doctor told Peyton, "Your neck is secure. I'd let you play Super Bowl Sunday. If you were my own son, I'd let you play."
"As soon as the doctor told me that, that was the end of it for me on the neck discussion," Peyton said. "Now it was simply a matter of performance. Could I get my strength back to play quarterback at the level that I thought a team deserved to have played?"
He's done that, and more.
But one thing has never changed -- he's playing for Cooper.
"Cooper, he's been to all these Super Bowls that I've played in, that Eli's played in. Nobody pulls harder for me and Eli that Cooper, and I honestly feel that way," Peyton said. "I think people got to see a little bit of his story on that documentary on my dad about what he went through from and injury standpoint, neck injury. It wasn't his decision, just the cards didn’t play out for him. He had to stop playing football. When you grow up in a football family where your dad is an NFL quarterback, that's not an easy card to deal with. He handled it with an unbelievable attitude. I always say he went on to become a social legend at Ole Miss, if that makes any sense to anybody. He's doing great in his life. So I'm proud of him. But yeah, I've always felt I've kind of been playing football for Cooper, kind of letting him play some of his football through me. I've tried, ever since he was injured a long time ago, I've always carried that with me."
Now he and the Broncos hope he can carry that through one more win this season.