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.
"I have no idea who wants me, what team wants me, how this process works," Manning told a group of reporters in South Florida, where he has a home and flew after the news conference. "I don't know if it's like college recruiting where you go take visits. I mean, this is all so new to me."
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, and said his agent already was taking calls.
"I literally have not had one conversation with anyone about these teams. It's been so hard for me trying to figure out some closure with my situation with the Colts," Manning said. "I haven't thought about teams, and I don't know who is interested. I really don't."
Sources said that Manning expects to have significant dialogue with interested teams before he makes a decision on where to resume his career and will likely work out for a few select teams once he studies his opportunities.
A source told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter that the Broncos will inquire about Manning's availability and see if he has interest in coming to Denver. Both the Seahawks and Cardinals have also already reached out to Manning's representatives, sources told ESPN senior NFL analyst Chris Mortensen.
By the end of the day, sources told ESPN's Schefter that 12 total teams reached out to Manning's representatives.
Colts receiver Reggie Wayne, who will be an unrestricted free agent starting Tuesday, March 13, was asked by Michael Irvin on his WQAM radio show in Miami about possibly re-teaming with Manning with the Dolphins.
"It can definitely be dangerous," Wayne said in the interview of Manning, Wayne and receiver Brandon Marshall being on the same team. "It can truly be dangerous, if they put us all together. The league might not want that, Mike. They might not want that. They might not want to see that. South Florida is already hot out here, baby, so you put us all together, it'll be burning up."
Tony Dungy, Manning's former coach with the Colts who is now an NBC analyst, said Wednesday in an interview with ESPN Radio's "Mike and Mike in the Morning" that Manning will consider signing anywhere except with an NFC East team, where he would have to challenge his brother Eli for a division title and playoff spot.
"I don't think he'd want to be in direct competition for a playoff spot against the Giants," Dungy said, adding that he believes Manning can run any style of offense but that "managing the expectations will be the biggest issue" for the quarterback.
Cardinals defensive tackle Darnell Dockett tweeted "Peyton to AZ!!!!!" on Tuesday night and then expounded on his hopes his team would sign Manning in an interview with the NFL Network.
"We are a team that is a few pieces away from getting back to the big game. We got a perfect fit for him in Arizona. He can get his number and I'll get him parking passes, free doughnuts on Saturdays. I'll make sure my guys clean his cleats up real well. I'll give him all my connections, even my barber."
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."
The move been anticipated for weeks, if not months, but 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 and current ESPN NFL analyst 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.
Manning preferred to remain with the Colts, one source told ESPN's Mortensen, but a source close to Irsay said the owner concluded that the major restructuring of the organization would include a change at the position, likely by picking either former Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck or former Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III with the No. 1 overall choice in April's draft.
No matter who the Colts select, they likely are headed for a long 2012 season. According to ESPN Stats & Information, in the common draft era (since 1967), 19 teams have drafted a quarterback with the first overall pick and only one went on to finish that season with a winning record. But that quarterback never even played for the franchise. In 2004, the Chargers selected Eli Manning, who was then traded to the Giants. San Diego finished 12-4 that season.
Irsay repeatedly used the word "rebuilding" on Wednesday and acknowledged: "We're definitely a few years away."
Peyton 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.
"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."
Dr. Robert Watkins, who performed Manning's single-level cervical fusion, has stated publicly that he has cleared Manning to resume his playing career and the damaged nerves have regenerated to the point where Manning has thrown the ball with greater distance and velocity in the past few weeks.
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.
Colts backup QB Dan Orlovsky, who led the Colts to their only two wins last season in Manning's absence, told ESPN's Josina Anderson that "this situation stinks."
"It's sad that a guy like him who has been so successful doesn't get a chance to finish his career in Indy," Orlovsky said. "I'm sure this was a tough situation for Mr. Irsay. I know he is trying to be as fair to Peyton as possible, but I'm sure he will play again. It will be very odd to see Peyton in a different uniform, but you learn in this business that everyone has the ability to get cut at some point. Hopefully, moving forward, people can really celebrate his time with the Colts, and not worry about the cloud hanging over the ending of an era."
Indianapolis also 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.
Information from ESPN senior NFL analyst Chris Mortensen, ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter, ESPN NFL reporter Josina Anderson and The Associated Press was used in this report.