NEWARK, N.J. — Every time Peyton Manning sets foot in the locker room lately, he comes across No. 18 jerseys that other members of the Denver Broncos left for him to sign.
Nothing out of the ordinary. Happens all season. Except nowadays, instead of asking him to donate an autograph for some sort of fundraising endeavor, teammates are eyeing a personal keepsake — as if they’re worried they won’t get another chance.
No matter that the 37-year-old Manning has made plain he has no intention of retiring right now, whether his Broncos win or lose against the Seattle Seahawks in Sunday’s Super Bowl.
“A lot of them had a note: ‘Sign this for me.’ So I must have signed 10 jerseys for my teammates,” Manning said Tuesday at media day, “which makes me think they think I probably should be out of here after this game.”
As he spoke, Manning jutted out his right thumb, using the gesture for “Take a hike!”
“I feel,” he added, “like they’re dropping hints to me.”
The anecdote was told with a chuckle, part of Manning’s amused take on all the questions he’s getting lately about his “legacy” and his future.
“All these hints at, like, retirement,” Manning replied when a reporter wanted to know about post-playing plans. “I guess everybody’s trying to get rid of me.”
Just to emphasize the point, Manning noted that he hasn’t “thought a whole lot about” what he wants to do when he decides to stop suiting up.
When Manning returned to the NFL after a series of neck operations that sidelined him for the entire 2011 season, there was plenty of talk about when — and even whether — he would get back to the level of play that earned four MVP awards and one Super Bowl title with the Indianapolis Colts.
He ignored others’ voices. But he acknowledged Tuesday he couldn’t ignore his own questions then.
“I certainly had my concerns that entire time,” Manning said.
“The doctors just couldn’t tell me anything definite. They wouldn’t say, ‘You’re going to be back at this time, at 100 percent strength level.’ They couldn’t tell me,” he continued. “So when the doctors can’t tell you that, how do you really know?”
Manning recalled what some said as he prepared to move from the Colts to the Broncos.
“There was a lot of ‘narrative’ out there on what I couldn’t do: ‘He can’t throw to the left.’ And, ‘He really struggles throwing to the right.’ I’m like, ‘How do they know? I’ve been throwing in private the entire time,’” Manning said.
“At the time, throwing to the left was about the only thing I could do well. So there was a lot of misinformation out there.”
As it turned out, Manning would be just fine.
Last season, he led the Broncos to the playoffs, earning NFL Comeback Player of the Year honors.
“I kind of joked, ‘I never wanted to be eligible for that award.’ … I’ve got to call it more of a second chance, second opportunity,” Manning said.
Broncos coach John Fox called Manning’s immediate success in Denver “truly remarkable.”
“To build on that,” Fox added, “and to have the kind of season he’s had to this point this year, I think is unprecedented.”
From the very moment it began in September — on opening night, Manning threw a record-tying seven touchdown passes in a victory over the reigning champion Baltimore Ravens — this season has been all about Peyton.
In Year 2 of his second act, Manning threw for 55 touchdowns and 5,477 yards, both records. If the Broncos win Sunday, Manning will become the first starting quarterback to lead two franchises to Super Bowl titles.
“He’s one of the best — if not the best — quarterbacks to ever play the game. One day, I want to be like him, in terms of the way he thinks,” Seahawks QB Russell Wilson said.
Said Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor: “In my book, he ranks No. 1 at quarterback.”
Manning is not inclined to discuss his own standing in football.
“I’ve been being asked about my legacy since I was about 25 years old. I’m not sure you can have a legacy when you’re 25 years old. Even 37,” Manning said. “I’d like to have to be, like, 70 to have a legacy. I’m not even 100 percent sure what the word even means.”
Then, in about the closest thing to a stumble, Manning said: “I’m still in the middle of my career.”
Realizing his miscue, Manning paused, grinned and resumed: “Let me rephrase that. I’m down the homestretch of my career, but I’m still in it. It’s not over yet. And so it’s still playing out.”