The romanticized notion of going out on top with a Super Bowl win has a storybook pull that Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning will certainly feel as he considers whether to retire after 18 seasons. But even in that kind of best-case scenario, the deliberations that many NFL players go through before they get down to nitty-gritty details such as actually saying the words "I'm done" aren't always easy.
Hall of Fame general manager Bill Polian says after working with Manning for 14 seasons in Indianapolis, "I know the process he'll follow before making his decision. But I honestly have no idea exactly which way he'll go."
Two-time Super Bowl champion defensive end Justin Tuck, who retired last week after two seasons with the Oakland Raiders that followed nine with the New York Giants, says confronting retirement was sometimes, "A stressful process. Because it feels like both a gift and a curse."
Damien Woody, who as an offensive lineman won two Super Bowls with the New England Patriots and ended his 12-year NFL career with the New York Jets, says his decision to stop was made easier by an "ah-ha!" moment. After rushing back from meniscus surgery for the Jets' playoff-opening win against Manning's Colts in January 2011, Woody suffered a torn Achilles tendon on the last play. When Woody finally emerged from the locker room after the game using crutches and wearing a walking boot, his surprised wife and daughters burst into tears when they saw him.
"That's when I just knew 'This is going to be it,'" Woody says. "It was so hard for me to see them like that."
"These guys pay a very dear price to play," Polian says.
Quite often, it's that extreme physical price -- not a fading love for the game -- that makes players quit, says Hall of Fame running back Jerome Bettis.
Bettis admittedly had some flashbacks to his own career as he watched Manning's last ride with the Broncos climax with a 24-10 upset of the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50. Bettis' final season ended with his Pittsburgh Steelers topping the Seattle Seahawks 21-10 in Super Bowl XL. Much like Manning, who had to fight back from a late-season foot injury and losing his starting job, Bettis almost didn't make it to his career-capping championship.
"My situation was a little different because I was actually going to retire the year before, and I got talked out of it," Bettis says with a laugh. "[Steelers linebackers] Larry Foote and Clark Haggans, in particular, were really vocal. They stayed in my ear throughout that whole offseason, making sure I'd come back. They'd tell me stuff like, 'Man, it's going to be a real shame. We're going to go to the Super Bowl next year. We're gonna win it. And it's going to be played in your hometown [Detroit] without you.' And eventually I was like, 'You know, wait just a minute now. ... Maybe I should stick around.' And I'm glad I did."
Fulfilling as that run was, though, Bettis says winning it all didn't cloud his take on how his skills were diminished. And he doesn't expect Manning to kid himself either.
"Your body tells you it's time to retire," Bettis says. "You have to do an assessment. And once Peyton does that, I think he'll decide he can't play anymore at the standards he's used to. And he'll stop."
Retirement is indeed what most people expect Manning to choose. Winning a second title nine years after his first one has given his career a different sheen because it removed the last rap remaining against him. Even with all Manning had done before -- the five league MVP awards, the career records he owns for passing yardage, touchdowns, wins and the rest -- Sunday's triumph prevented Manning from falling to a 1-3 record in Super Bowls, and the Broncos' run nudged his career postseason record above .500 (14-13). Plus, he no longer trails younger brother and two-time champion Eli in Super Bowl rings.
Still, regardless of whether Peyton wants to play on, there's the very real question of whether he's healthy enough to return. Many folks remember the deadened throwing arm and three neck surgeries that nearly ended Manning's career in 2011. But now, at age 39, Manning's physical condition may be even worse than we know.
Manning volunteered a surprisingly revealing story about himself during Super Bowl week after the sad news broke that an autopsy of former Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler, who died in July, revealed Stabler suffered from CTE -- a type of brain disease believed to be caused by repeated blows to the head that can only be diagnosed after death.
Manning mentioned how a doctor unexpectedly told him two years ago during one of the many physical exams he has endured that he is going to need a hip replacement someday. Which was news to Manning.
"I said, 'Doc, I didn't ask you if I had to have a hip replacement. And I didn't need to know that right here at age 37. But thanks for sharing,'" Manning dryly joked. "I look forward to that day when I'm 52 and have a hip replacement."
And yet, while Manning's body shows signs of great wear, there's scant evidence he has succumbed to the mental fatigue that many players also cite when they retire. That's among the reasons Manning could have a harder time walking away than Woody, Bettis or the 32-year-old Tuck say they did.
"I love the sense of freedom I have now," Woody says. "I love being able to do things I never had time to do. I don't think the love of game ever leaves you. Ever. It's the wear of preparing Monday through Saturday. And the offseason. The minicamps. The meetings."
Tuck feels the same way.
"What it basically came down to for me was I couldn't see myself going back to training camp and being away from my family and hitting people again and working out for another whole year -- all of it," Tuck explained. "The camaraderie is great. I'll miss the locker room, the jokes. That'll probably eat at me a little when next season first starts.
"But I've got a 6-year-old, a 2-year-old, a wife. And the thing is, let's face it, football makes you an absentee father and husband. I just started thinking about the long plane rides away from my family. I was tired of my wife sending me videos of my son dribbling a basketball for the first time, things like that."
Manning also has two young children. And Polian expects fatherhood to factor into Manning's retirement deliberations more than before.
Beyond that? Bettis, Tuck and Woody all say that having myriad interests and a game plan for life after the NFL helped them offset the "stress" Tuck mentioned earlier. Bettis and Woody, for example, have established second careers in television. Yet they all confess they worried how they'd handle life without football.
"I always say football is like a vapor -- it's there and it's gone so fast," Woody says. "Sometimes I equate retiring from the NFL to kind of like being a civilian again after you're in the military and you're deployed and then you come back home. We spend so much time away from family and just feeling apart or 'different.' It's so intense. Then when it's over, you really do have to re-assimilate yourself to civilian life. And for some guys, that's really hard."
Manning already has a lot of established business interests. But the way he's hard wired, it just seems highly unlikely that he'll announce a post-NFL wish to go back to school, which Tuck says he may do. Nor does Manning seem likely to head off on long walkabouts around the world, something the 38-year-old Woody has reveled in doing since he quit.
"Where have I gone? Where haven't I gone," Woody says. "I went to Australia. My wife and I took a safari in Tanzania. We went to a spa on the Seychelles Islands. That was amazing. We went to Cape Town. Went through Europe. I've always been intrigued about history and different cultures. And we try to take to our kids different places as well. I'm always trying to think outside the box and learn and challenge myself."
Manning has been so consumed by football that his friends say it's hard to imagine him prying himself away from the game for long.
"Nobody, I mean nobody, has spent more time working and striving to get better than he has -- he set the standard," Polian says. "When he quits he could step right into broadcasting. I think he'd be a natural at that. Maybe he'll become an owner. Maybe a general manager, a la John Elway. The thing most people don't know is Peyton could go into a front office tomorrow. Because he really, really keeps on top of things, and he has so for years."
Polian says when Manning played for him in Indianapolis, the quarterback would typically take a few weeks in the offseason to "decompress, get away and put the emotion away, if he can -- if he can." And then? "He'd always come back with a well-thought-out plan. And that was always a great meeting."
What specifically did they discuss?
"Oh, he knows exactly who's coming out in the draft, who's going to be coming into free agency around the league -- everything like that," Polian says. "He used to come up to me and say, 'Who do you like? Who are we looking at?' He'd often tell me who he liked too. So there's no learning curve there."
Manning has said he's going to take his time and enjoy the afterglow of winning Super Bowl 50 before making any retirement decision. And Woody thinks that's smart.
"Peyton is on an emotional high right now," Woody says. "He'll go do the dinner circuit, be on all the talk shows if he wants to, just enjoying what just happened. But then things slow down. And reality sets in. 'This could be the end of my career. ... Am I really ready to hang it up?'"
For all the hard knocks that NFL players and coaches take during the years, it's often those two little words -- "I quit" -- that feel like hardest blow of all.