February 1, 2014 Updated: February 1, 2014 at 3:59 pm
NEW YORK - Peyton Manning has seized America's attention in a way only a few athletes have ever seized America's attention.
Yes, I realize the Broncos will tangle with the Seahawks in the overinflated circus known as the Super Bowl. This is a team game with dozens of actors working on football's grandest stage.
But the star of this show is Peyton. There never has been a Super Bowl so focused on one player.
On Friday, I stepped into the elevator at my hotel and descended to breakfast with a salesman from Cincinnati. Once he discovered my home state, he talked nonstop about Colorado's most famed resident.
The salesman is rooting for the Broncos. He wants to see the best American sports story of the 21st century arrive at a happy ending just like those old Hollywood movies. The salesman looked forward to returning to his home to watch the Super Bowl with his children.
Everyone in his family, the salesman announced, would cheer for Peyton to conquer those pesky Seahawks.
On Sunday, the Broncos will be America's Team. Forget the Dallas Cowboys. The vast majority of our nation will cheer for Peyton, America's Quarterback, with only a lonely green belt pulling for the Seahawks in the Pacific Northwest.
Michael Jordan once dazzled us this way. So did Babe Ruth, who had a big house built in the Bronx where fans could watch his soaring home runs. Manning now walks alongside Jordan and Ruth. He towers over all other current athletes.
Don't get me wrong. Manning is not the greatest football player of all time. That honor belongs to Jim Brown. He's not the greatest quarterback of all time. That honor belongs to John Elway, with apologies to runner-up Joe Montana. He's not the most dominating athlete working in America today. That honor belongs to LeBron James.
But Manning has a knack. He connects with people. He grew up a rich kid in New Orleans, the son of a football mega-star and a homecoming queen, but he's blessed with this aw-shucks approach and this probing honesty and this disarming sense of humor. He's not one of us, but he's delivered a matchless performance of acting as if he is.
Cornerback Richard Sherman, the face of the Seahawks, commented about the "ducks" Manning throws. Sherman was observing, correctly, that many of the passes Manning throws flutter along in wobbly, unsightly flight.
Manning just smiled.
"I do throw ducks," he said.
Those ducks are why he's so beloved. When Manning destructed defenses during his prime with the Colts, his passes resembled guided missiles. Flawless, as if launched by a machine.
Then came the neck injury and the four surgeries, leaving Mr. Certain engulfed in uncertainty. He was made fully human right before our eyes.
Expectations have stalked Manning for his entire career. He was the son of Archie, a Southern folk hero. He had the football genes. But there always was more than mere talent. Peyton was blessed with a relentless work ethic that allowed him to glimpse at a defense and see the immediate future. No quarterback has ever read defenses with the comprehension level of Manning.
He was dominating, so magnificent in regular seasons with the Colts that he confused and enraged fans when he was sometimes mediocre in the playoffs. Manning, the ultimate victor, often stumbled when it mattered most.
"I know how hard it is to get to the Super Bowl," Manning said. "People think you should go every single year. It's just not possible."
No, it's not. Manning in twilight understands this trip is precious.
He will trot on the field in New Jersey with a surgically repaired neck and those ever-hovering expectations. He is the undisputed star of this ultimate show.
The vast majority of Americans are rooting for him, and his Broncos.