A Broncos fan's thanks to Peyton Manning

My favorite moment as a football fan was Super Bowl XXXII. I was a junior in high school at the time. By that time I had been a long suffering Broncos fan in California for more than a decade. John Elway was my favorite player, and when we made the Super Bowl I wanted to win so badly I could taste it.

But there were a lot of doubters. The Broncos had an aging quarterback who hadn't been able to win the big game in the playoffs. They were facing a tough younger NFC opponent with a hot young quarterback in Brett Farve. It seemed like few gave the Broncos a chance to win.

But we did win. We beat the Packers. Elway had a terrible statistical game, but he did what needed to be done and Terrell Davis and the defense carried the Broncos to a title. It was the first time I celebrated a title for my team.

I thought about that title a lot during this year's Super Bowl run. A year after Elway hoisted the trophy in San Diego, the Broncos won again in Miami, beating the Atlanta Falcons. Then Elway retired, and things changed. It seemed like the Broncos were still poised to be contenders, but between Elway's retirement in 1999 and the 2012 season, the Broncos were barely relevant in the AFC playoffs.

Sure, the team made it to the playoffs a few times, even going to an AFC title game with Jake "The Snake" Plummer. But we weren't serious title contenders. Then, in 2012, Peyton Manning was released from the Colts and signed with the Denver Broncos.

Admittedly I was kind of a Tebow fan, and at the time I didn't know what to think. I'd spent Peyton's entire pro career rooting against him and the Colts. Now he was the potential savior for the Broncos. It took me a while to wrap my head around it.

That first season started slow, then took off. Manning was all that we'd been promised, and the Broncos finished as the No. 1 seed in the AFC. They lost in the divisional round to Baltimore, but we were real contenders again.

The following season we were No. 1 again, this time reaching the Super Bowl. The Broncos entered Super Bowl XVIII as favorites, and promptly got blown out. A record-setting offensive run had gotten the team there. It was a magical season to watch. The AFC Title game  win over the Patriots was thrilling. But five minutes into the Super Bowl it was clear the Broncos couldn't win.

Elway — now our General Manager — went to work, and Peyton kept scrapping. 2014 was an up-and-down season that saw another early playoff exit and questions about whether Manning could return and whether he could still contend. He decided to come back for one last run, and opinions were mixed as to whether he had anything left.

This season was difficult to watch. I've said before it took years off my life watching Peyton and the offense struggle, but they always found a way to win. When Manning came back in the second half of the season finale against the Chargers after missing the previous seven games, it felt like fate. He guided the team to victory, and the Broncos earned the No. 1 seed again. It felt like fate.

Manning wasn't great in the playoffs. He hardly looked like the record-setting player he had for most of his career. But he did enough. And in the Super Bowl, an aging quarterback had a poor statistical game, relying on his young running back (CJ Anderson) and ferocious defense to win a Super Bowl title — the first for the Broncos in 17 years.

And much like my favorite player and his boss, Elway, Peyton is riding off into the sunset as a champion. And all we Broncos fans can do is say thanks.

After wandering in the land of mediocrity for 13 years, Peyton brought life back to Denver. All he did is win four division titles, finish as the No. 1 seed in the AFC three times, win two AFC Championships, and deliver the Broncos a third Super Bowl. He set records, led the team, and was a great community ambassador along the way.

The Broncos may still have a good team, but winning in the NFL is hardly easy or guaranteed. As Peyton says goodbye, leaving the way Elway did, it's a time to be grateful for the gift he's given fans in the Rocky Mountains the last four years. Staying "Thank You" doesn't seem quite enough.


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