Peyton Manning and Ray Lewis spent their NFL careers on opposite sides of the line of scrimmage, often bashing helmets and matching wits. But now they're co-starring in a poignant smash-hit show we could call "The Sunset Boys."
Within the past three years, the former rivals, each a future first-ballot Hall of Famer, saw their careers end in virtually identical fashion, with the ultimate happy ending.
When Manning helped the Denver Broncos defeat the Carolina Panthers in Sunday's Super Bowl, in what many believe was his final game – there's some doubt, but I have a thought about that (see below) – the similarities to Lewis' "last ride" in February 2013 were impossible to miss.
Lewis celebrated with the Ravens in New Orleans just weeks after announcing he would retire at the end of that season. It was his second Super Bowl triumph, an out-of-nowhere reprisal of the first taste of glory he experienced more than a decade earlier.
Denver's victory also gave Manning his second Super Bowl ring a decade after he won his first.
Both players were at their peaks, utterly dominant, when they won the first time. They earned Super Bowl MVP honors. But they won a second time as elder statesmen, supporting actors more than leading men. Though they still led their teams emotionally, they needed help on the field (considerable help in Manning's case) to take their teams to the pinnacle.
Oh, sure, their versions of the "sunset walk" were slightly different. Manning earned his second ring with a different team, while Lewis earned both with the Ravens. Manning actually hasn't announced he is retiring, and Lewis had said he was leaving, infusing his final walk-off with emotional theatrics a Broadway producer would envy.
I can think of few Hall of Famers who were fortunate to go out like that, with Super Bowl confetti on their shoulders. There's John Elway, Jerome Bettis, and that's about it. Happy endings are hard to come by, on or off the playing field. But the stars aligned just right for Manning and Lewis, two of the best and brightest players of their generation.
The stage was set for Manning to finalize his perfect ending late Sunday night. The Broncos had won. A television audience of 111.9 million was watching. A CBS microphone was in his face. The question was asked: Was this his last game? Manning smiled, leaned in and said he … would think about it.
I don't think there's any way he's back. He's a shell of his former self on the field. He's going to be 40, which is too old to be out there taking hits. He certainly can't top this ending. In a way, he was lucky to get that second ring. His defense carried him.
As intelligent and self-aware as he is, I'm sure he knows all this. I also don't think money matters in his calculation, and anyway, he is so well known he can (and will) keep making commercials.
So why didn't he seize the perfect moment Sunday night? Actually, I think it was a selfless act, in keeping with his classy approach. My guess is he knew his "breaking" news would steal the headlines, and he didn't want to upstage his team.
If so, it's no surprise. Manning has been an exemplary citizen of the pro football world throughout his career. Few players have treated teammates, opponents and the game more respectfully.
Remember what happened after Johnny Unitas died in 2002? Manning, quarterbacking Unitas' former team (in another city), petitioned the NFL to wear black high-top cleats, as Unitas did, as a tribute to his predecessor. The bah-humbug league office said no, but the thought counted.
It was disappointing to see Carolina quarterback Cam Newton sulk through a snippy podium session after the game. I've supported him, but he didn't help his cause with that performance.
A pro's pro basks in the glory of the good times but also stands up and takes the heat when things go wrong. Joe Flacco follows that commandment unfailingly.
You can learn about people in tough times, and I think we learned Newton still has some growing up to do.
But while his childishness was unfortunate, it's hardly a heinous crime. And at 26, he has time to learn from his mistakes.