"I'm really pulling for him," Gonzalez said. "He's the best that played this game and I'm a huge fan of his."
Turns out, he's not the only one.
Pro Bowl week in Hawaii is relaxed. It's rejuvenating. It's a reward. And it's also not where any of these players wanted to finish up the season. So some said they didn't care about the Seahawks-Broncos showdown at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. Some said they liked the matchup the Seahawks and their ferocious defense offered. But the majority unabashedly said they're hoping and rooting for Manning, the Broncos' elder-statesman quarterback.
Luke Kuechly, the Carolina Panthers linebacker, said, "I would love to see Peyton win another." New York Jets center Nick Mangold said, "I think it would be good for Peyton to get another." And Cam Newton minced no words in calling Manning a role model, saying, "He's still the person I look up to. He does it the right way."
There's a comeback story here, which started when Manning was cut by the Indianapolis Colts team he helped build and underwent the neck surgeries that seemingly rendered his Hall of Fame arm impotent. Every athlete wants to believe in a second life and forever, Mangold said, and yet there's also an almost-uniform esteem, because of the way Manning prepares (Gonzalez said it is, bar none, the best process he's ever seen), because of how Manning competes, because of those twin comebacks and because, Gonzalez said, the way players view Manning provides a window into how they view their own careers.
Alex Smith was once the San Francisco 49ers' starting quarterback, racking up wins -- and then he was jettisoned for Colin Kaepernick after suffering a concussion. He's ferretting out success again with the Chiefs, and when he talked about his pick for this Super Bowl, he of course started with the 37-year-old Manning.
"Look at what he's gone through -- from the neck stuff to the Colts letting him go to finding a new home and even having a season like this at his age," Smith said. "You can't help but want it for him."
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Darrelle Revis laughed over the "run-ins" he's had with Manning, when Revis was a Jet and Manning a Colt, and then said, "I respect him as a person and I respect him as a player. Peyton's been playing awesome." And so the Tampa Bay corner's pick is Denver, but not just because of No. 18; Revis said he's rooting for another older player, Broncos corner Champ Bailey, who's getting his first shot at Super Bowl glory in Year 15 of his career.
San Diego Chargers safety Eric Weddle said the easy answer is to say he'll pull for his fellow AFC West team. But there's more to it, he said, because of Manning: "I have the utmost respect for him. He's gracious in defeat, he's gracious when he wins and he shows how to respect your opponent, always."
Fitzgerald struggled to say how much championships matter, arguing, "Dan Marino's career wasn't any worse than John Elway's." But then he said, "This game is about winning," and he talked about how the Miami Heat's LeBron James was regarded before winning his two titles compared to how he's regarded now. Newton, without a playoff win yet himself, similarly didn't want to say that championships define quarterbacks. But still, he said, "We all want to be labeled for something. Obviously you have to win to be considered the greatest of all time."
"It's the No. 1 offense versus the No. 1 defense. Who's going to break first?" Panthers running back Mike Tolbert asked, actually looking for an opinion. After a little debate and after he argued both sides, Tolbert said, "It's hard to stop Peyton Manning if he's on. You have to get pressure on him, but ooh, he can get the ball out."
Cleveland Browns cornerback Joe Haden talked about the same, and offered advice to his counterparts on the Seahawks. Their best coverage option, he said, is a lot of press-man (read: tight). "The only way you're going to slow Peyton Manning down is to disrupt his wide receivers," Haden said. Then he smiled and said, "I really want to see a good game, and this really would be the best game."
"I want the Seahawks to win," McCoy said. "I'm a big fan of the 'Beast.' He runs so hard, and I like that."
Baltimore's Terrell Suggs thinks the way Seattle runs is especially important in the frigid temperatures expected in New Jersey come Sunday. According to the Ravens linebacker, a veteran of both cold-weather and Super Bowl success, "If it's cold, you need to run the ball. And Seattle can run the ball. So I'm going with the Seahawks."
"He's making it hard on me to get my ring," Charles said. "If Peyton wins, maybe he'll stop standing in my way."