An obsession realized: Manning and the Super Bowl

INDIANAPOLIS -- There they were, standing together in the hall, just begging for a joke to be cracked. Peyton Manning and Dan Marino at one end, a crowd of people at the other, everyone killing time late last week in the Colts' facility.

Sure enough, someone finally whispered, "What does everyone here have in common?"

Snickers all around, since the answer, of course, is that none of us had ever won a Super Bowl. Manning has long been criticized for failing to win the big one. The problem for him is the definition of "the big one" keeps changing. Is it the game Sunday in Florida? Is it a playoff game? Is it the Patriots? Is it the AFC championship?

At one time or another, it was all of them, but now the definition is finally clear. It's the Super Bowl; and today, Manning wakes up in a Miami hotel after his first night of Super Bowl Week. He's been thinking about this trip since he was a little boy, tossing a ball around in the neighbor's yard.

"People are already asking me, 'How are you going to feel?'" he says. "I don't know the answer to that."

All last week, people looked for signs that Manning was tight, that he was buckling under the pressure. But as he talked to Marino, who was there for CBS, he was animated, going on in detail about the Bears' defense, about Brian Urlacher and specific things he thinks will work. He was smiling. He looked … happy.

That's what many people don't realize. For all the scrutiny, Peyton Manning loves this. He loves everything about it. He'd never publicly admit it, but he loves it more than he loves anything else in his life. He loves coming into the facility for the first Super Bowl meeting with hours of Bears film already under his belt. His friends hear it in his voice.

A few days after finally winning the AFC championship, he was up late icing his thumb and called his old college coordinator, David Cutcliffe, who was out recruiting for the Tennessee Volunteers. Cutcliffe has heard every emotion imaginable from Manning, who grew from a boy to a man in front of the coach's eyes. He's heard anger and frustration and petulance. But late that night, he heard something else: joy. He just smiled to himself listening to Manning go over a typically detailed methodology for winning the Super Bowl.

"Don't think for a minute he's not enjoying the grind," Cutcliffe says. "He's got it all planned out. It's not haphazard."

The "Peyton Being Peyton" stories are oft-told and familiar. Locking the other Tennessee quarterback out of the film room. Refusing to see his family after a loss, even if they'd flown all the way to the game. Dog-cussing teammates in the huddle. It could take rookies a season to figure out he wasn't mad at them.

"I'm used to people speaking," tight end Bryan Fletcher says, laughing. "You walk by and say hello, and he's looking at the ground."

But in the first season after his 30th birthday, closer to the end of his career than the beginning, Manning's friends and family have noticed a change.

"He's gotten a lot better," good friend Kenny Chesney says. "I think Peyton's really learned to enjoy what's happening to him. Obviously, last week had a lot to do with it, but the last few years, I've felt like he's learned to enjoy what's happened."

Some of that is just growing up.

"Hitting 30, that was a new plateau," Cutcliffe says. "Those milestones make us think."

Part of it was changing the way he handled criticism. For the first half of his career, Peyton read everything said about him. He stewed over slights until he realized he needed to stop.

It's taken a while, but Manning seems to have found some zen during the football season. He's trying to run his own race, not to measure himself against others. It isn't easy. You have to understand: Long before Peyton Manning was a football player, he was a football fan. He spent family vacations in the backseat, quoting statistics and records until younger brother Eli wanted to scream. He has always known exactly who was doing what.

So imagine Archie Manning's surprise this fall when he called his middle son to talk about the season Saints quarterback Drew Brees was having. In the past, Peyton would have known Brees' quarterback rating by heart. Now?

"Drew's having a heck of a year," Archie said.

A pause.

"Really?" Peyton asked.

Daddy Manning sees that as a sign of maturing.

"Peyton's always been tuned in," he says, "so I think that's part of enjoying the journey."

About a month ago, as the playoffs were coming round, Archie went up to stay with Peyton and wife Ashley. In the morning, he got up and began searching for the newspaper. He looked and looked and looked.

"Ashley," he said, "I can't find the newspaper."

"There is no newspaper," she said.

All of this subtle shaping and maturing has helped Manning on the field, too. The arm and brain were never the problem. He just wanted it so bad that his teammates could sense the desperation. Several of the Colts said that Manning has been better this year than ever before at spreading an aura of calm around the locker room, sideline and huddle. Hours before the AFC Championship Game, Archie said, Peyton text-messaged his parents a happy wedding anniversary note. There have even been reports of, gasp, a joke or two in the huddle.

"He finally understands that it's not all about him," receiver Aaron Morehead says. "As long as he's comfortable and not too wound up, we'll be the same way. If he's wound up and acting nervous, we're gonna be the same way."

Last week against the Patriots was a perfect example. In the first half, it was the old Peyton, the one who wanted it so bad that one terrible pass bled into the rest of the game. During halftime, though, something clicked and when Manning got the ball on the last drive, Morehead felt a calm come over the huddle. It was like a movie when Manning turned to his team, 80 yards away from the end zone, and said, as the receiver remembers it, "Here we go. It's our time. Let's go get it."

Seven plays later, Manning led the Colts to a game-winning touchdown and finally shed the label as a big-game choker.

Well, almost.

"I think it's a step," Morehead says. "That game meant a lot to get him over a hump, but I think there's another huge hump. We've got to win this next game. If they say, 'He can't win the big one,' and we lose the Super Bowl, that's the big one."

There will always be a certain amount of contradiction to Manning, for even as he matures, his intensity is hardwired. It will never go away, whether he's playing golf with Eli or football against the Bears. He might be enjoying it more, but that doesn't mean he's obsessing over it less.

"I don't think Peyton is really gonna change with the fact that this is the Super Bowl," head coach Tony Dungy says. "Every game is the Super Bowl to him. We played a mock game in preseason and that's a Super Bowl to him."

That said, it just isn't believable that Manning doesn't want this more than any other game he's ever played. Everything about him just screams passion, so it's ludicrous to believe that he doesn't know his career will never be complete without a Super Bowl ring.

"I can tell," says center and friend Jeff Saturday, "just in his persona, he understands what this moment is about."

Everyone in the Colts' locker room knows what this moment is about. It's about Manning's defining himself and his future. Will he turn into a pumpkin next year or rattle off three or four more Super Bowl trips? Will he be Dan Marino or Joe Montana?

"A Super Bowl victory for Peyton would solidify him as one of the three greatest quarterbacks of all time," Fletcher says. "That's really the only thing he's lacking."

So while Manning is enjoying the journey, he is still being meticulous. He has a detailed plan for the Bears. He's watched film of Urlacher watching him. He's argued in team meetings for limiting contact with families, hoping to erase any distractions down in Miami. This is too important. He's worked his entire life for this week.

Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at wrightespn@gmail.com.