Whether you think he should have won more Super Bowls or saw him as pretty much a one-man team much of his career, you have to feel sad watching Peyton Manning now.
Whether he can come back and do anything more the rest of this year is not the point anymore. Manning is done, his body betraying him, his brilliant career staggering to the finish line. All that awaits is the official announcement.
It's the saddest sight in sports. This is real reality sports. This is reality. This is life.
Every player wishes he could end his career by riding off on a white horse, the way John Elway ended with back-to-back Super Bowl championships or Jerome Bettis finished with a championship in his hometown, or years ago, Jim Brown retired at the height of his powers. But that's mostly fantasy.
For every Elway and Bettis and Brown there's a Manning, a Joe Namath or Johnny Unitas in a strange uniform, a Willie Mays unable to catch a routine fly ball in the World Series, a Dan Marino on the wrong end of a 62-7 playoff game.
But while we mourn Manning's demise, we should take a moment to reflect on his bete noire, Tom Brady, who doesn't seem to understand that he's supposed to play like a 38-year-old quarterback near the end of his own career. Brady's career arc defies explanation, on pace now to set a personal best for passing yardage.
With the possibility of a seventh Super Bowl appearance on the horizon, Brady clearly is in rarified air, surviving as he has the constant turnover on the Patriots' roster while remaining the constant (with coach Bill Belichick) that keeps the train rumbling down the tracks.
But there will be plenty of time to assess Brady's place in history.
This is about Manning's place in history. And about how the end, sad as we acknowledge, is in fact the norm. Brady is the outlier here.
Yes, Manning won "only" one Super Bowl.
Need we reflect on how difficult is to win even one? Well, among Hall of Fame quarterbacks whose entire career spanned the Super Bowl era, four of them - Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, Warren Moon and Dan Fouts won zero Super Bowls among them. Moon and Fouts never even played in one.
And the sad career ending in a strange uniform, like Manning the long-time Indy Colt now in Denver? Joe Montana finished his career playing for the Kansas City Chiefs. Franco Harris wound up in Seattle. Emmitt Smith, the all-time rushing leader, finished with the Arizona Cardinals. Jerry Rice left San Francisco and played for Oakland and Seattle before his career finally ended in a Denver training camp. Brett Favre, a lock to be voted into the Hall of Fame in February, was wearing Minnesota purple when he threw the final pass of his career - and it was intercepted.
In other words, what Manning has done, and how his career is ending, are not unique. We hear much talk about legends, about how players and their teams fit together, about how these are real people in those uniforms, but the fact is that the constant in the game is the uniforms, not the people.
There is, however, something unique about Manning and his career, and that does deserve to be celebrated.
In this age of Twitter and TMZ, of police blotters and drug tests, of constant chatter about the bad actors in sports, it is worth pointing out that there has never been a whiff of scandal connected to Manning's name. No arrests, no incidents, not even major contract disputes.
His preparation, his work ethic, his single-minded devotion to the game (despite all the endorsements he does), his unquestioned character, his - this is a much overused word, but it fits here - class, stand in sharp contrast with some of the NFL's characters we hear about all too often.
No question Manning deserved a better ending than the one that appears to await him. And it's especially cruel that he seems likely to miss a matchup with Brady on Thanksgiving weekend. But for all the talk and attention generated by fantasy sports, let this bring us back to reality.
This is normal. This is reality.
-- Ira Miller is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the National Football League for more than four decades and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. He is a national columnist for The Sports Xchange.