It went 22. And I could have listened to Manning talk for hours.
This was the type of narcissism-free exit we all wish Brett Favre had made, the kind of stage only the rarest of professional athletes can command.
Clearly, no quarterback in the league finishes quite like Manning.
"There will be no other Peyton Manning,'' Colts owner Jim Irsay said, nearly crying.
As Manning solemnly waited his turn at the podium behind Irsay, the man who cut him rather than pay a $28 million bonus, no animosity loomed. There was no resentment to mask, no vitriol or villain here. Those were real hugs and genuine tears. There was the type of good, old-fashioned mutual respect that rarely stays intact in any 14-year relationship ending in divorce.
Remarkably, Manning pledged eternal gratitude to Irsay, while Irsay hoped Manning "wins immediately.'' One night earlier, the two men arrived in town on the same private plane and had the decency to stop for reporters, staked out for hours with cameras, before they drove off in Irsay's SUV. Who in the NFL is still that considerate?
Inevitability seldom plays out so neatly with everybody understanding and at peace. Welcome to Peyton Place, where pettiness goes to die.
"I guess in life and in sports, we all know that nothing lasts forever,'' Manning said.
Watching from Chicago, was it wrong to hope Brian Urlacher paid attention?
Urlacher is our Manning. He came to the Bears two years after Manning joined the Colts and, similarly, has been the face of the franchise since the day he was drafted. The concept of Urlacher wearing another uniform is as foreign as envisioning him at Halas Hall hugging a McCaskey on the day the Bears release him.
Yet with general manager Phil Emery taking over and Urlacher entering the final year of his contract in 2012 at 34, it would be naive not to wonder what the future holds. You heard Manning. Nothing lasts forever. Inevitably, one day the Bears could feel they have to move on from Urlacher the way the Colts did from Manning.
For now, Indianapolis will go through a self-discovery Chicago experienced after Michael Jordan retired from the Bulls. The city will find out how many Colts fans were just Manning fans who now have a lot more free Sundays before IU basketball season.
Irsay took the risk anyway because parting ways with Manning became the right football decision once Luck was involved — Andrew Luck. If the Colts weren't in position to draft one of the best quarterback prospects since Manning with the first pick, perhaps Irsay would have reacted differently.
Consider how easy it would have been for Irsay to pander to season ticket holders and justify keeping Manning. Manning's worth to Indianapolis goes beyond his salary-cap hit. Forbes estimated Manning increased the value of the Colts $233 million, but the inestimable pride he generated had just as much impact. He forever changed a football city.
Still, Irsay let his head rule his heart. As much credit as Manning deserves for exiting with elegance, Irsay deserves equal praise. He ripped the Band-Aid off. Since the season ended, Irsay has parted company with his president, general manager, head coach and now one of the NFL's all-time greatest quarterbacks.
One who I believe will be healthy enough to play in 2012. The only question is where. Miami, Washington, Seattle, Arizona and Kansas City make up a good top-five list of potential destinations.
But the scenario I like best involves the kind of subplot Manning tends to avoid. If he wants to join a team ready to win a Super Bowl by adding a consistent quarterback, the Ravens with their staunch defense and solid running game fit the criteria.
Joe Flacco at 27 or Manning at 36? For one go-for-broke season, there is no debate.
Indy still would have the Colts. But Baltimore would have the Colt.
Irsay probably would cackle at the irony — before helping Manning load the Mayflower van with his stuff.