Finally, after nine record-setting seasons in the NFL, Peyton Manning sat behind a microphone on a wooden platform on a sunny afternoon at the Super Bowl.
Dozens, and at times hundreds, of reporters surrounded his podium on media day at Dolphin Stadium. Nearby, two semi-famous "American Idol" rejects were singing as they were being interviewed by New York Giants defensive end Michael Strahan.
Manning could have been forgiven if he'd asked himself: This is what I've been missing?
But he didn't. The quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts, the man who has become the face of the NFL, finally has taken the next-to-last step toward making his career complete, reaching his first Super Bowl. Instead, he made it clear Tuesday with his first public comments since the Colts arrived in South Florida that he is intent upon erasing the "yeah, but . . . " disclaimer to his accomplishments by beating the Chicago Bears on Sunday.
"I know how hard it is to get here," said Manning, 30. "I certainly would have wanted to get here earlier. We had chances and didn't take advantage of them. Now that you're here, you certainly want to take advantage. Certainly, you feel it's a small window of opportunity. You'd better try to do it while you have a chance. While we're here, we'd better go ahead and win it."
Manning picked up the tab when he and about 20 of his teammates, including all his offensive linemen, went out to dinner after the Colts' arrival Monday night -- a day after the Bears hit town. He's had a series of experiences to savor, he said, since the Colts beat the New England Patriots in a memorable AFC title game on Jan. 21.
It felt wonderful, Manning said, when Colts Coach Tony Dungy finally was able to begin a team meeting the day after the Patriots game by writing on a message board for his players that they were one of the last two clubs in the league still playing. Manning heard from family members and friends. He was especially gratified, he said, to hear from his ex-coaches. Former Colts coach Jim Mora left a rambling voice-mail message, he said. Manning had an emotional conversation with his former high school coach in New Orleans, Tony Reginelli, who suffered a heart attack the night before the AFC championship game but was feeling a little better by last week.
Manning isn't just the fans' choice. Even players on other teams say they want to see him win the Super Bowl.
"He's been one of the best for a while now," New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees said here this week. "Obviously, he's a future Hall of Famer. Shoot, I hope he gets a ring. You respect him so much for the guy he is on and off the field. I think there's no doubt that he and Tom Brady are at the top."
Even the Bears were reverential. Coach Lovie Smith was the defensive backs coach at the University of Tennessee during Manning's freshman season and recalled Manning, during a recruiting visit to the campus, wanting to talk football with the offensive coordinator while other recruits were out on the town.
"He's been a serious football student since then and that's what I see in his play," Smith said. "It's not like we're going to give him a lot of things that he hasn't seen."
Bears defensive coordinator Ron Rivera said his focus will be devising ways to disrupt the timing of Manning and wide receiver Marvin Harrison.
"We have to get pressure on him and not let Peyton get comfortable," Rivera said. "We can't let Marvin get free releases off the line of scrimmage."
But Manning undoubtedly will have a comfort level Sunday because he'll be playing against the same defensive system he faces every day in practice. Smith worked for Dungy when he was head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and they have similar approaches. The ultimate creature of habit, Manning is so meticulous that if there are two clocks in the locker room running a minute apart, he insists that one be readjusted so they're in sync.
Getting him quickly into a comfortable routine this week will be important. For instance, his locker at the Colts' practice facility this week is located among those of his offensive linemen, just as it is back at the Colts' facility in Indianapolis. He spent last week calling quarterbacks who have played in Super Bowls, he said. Some had won. Some had lost. But they all told him, he said, to do whatever he could to follow his routine. That's precisely what he wanted to hear.
"That's when I feel most comfortable," he said, "when I'm in my routine."
On Tuesday, Manning recalled a Chuck Noll quote that his father, former NFL quarterback Archie Manning, once relayed to him: "Pressure is something you feel only if you don't know what you're doing."
One potential pitfall is Manning's high recognition factor. He is the league's most visible pitchman, and commercials featuring him run so regularly on Sundays every fall and winter that if the Colts are playing a late-afternoon game and are watching an early game on TV in their locker room, he will try to escape to the trainer's room or elsewhere during breaks. But center Jeff Saturday or another teammate invariably catches him trying to sneak away, and he is summoned back to be teased by his teammates, he said. Still, he did his best Tuesday to portray this game as being about his team, not about him.
"You want to do your part," Manning said. "I don't feel I need to do more than my part."
It is an uphill battle to sell that notion. This is a Super Bowl that will be, in many ways, about him, win or lose. It's a Super Bowl appearance, he said, that he never stopped believing would happen.
"I always felt like I would have a chance to play in this game," Manning said. "I always felt like we'd have a team good enough at some point to play in this game. I just had to keep working at it and eventually, hopefully, something would crack through."