SAN JOSE, Calif. — Peyton Manning strode into his fourth Super Bowl Opening Night with a wry expression on his face, looking every bit like a man who’s seen far too much pomp and circumstance in his career to get any thrill out of stepping onto a mammoth replica of the Golden Gate bridge under the booming voice of a ring announcer and the resulting roar from the fans.
For a moment, Manning fit the stereotype, a cranky old veteran tired of the obnoxious circus playing out in front of him.
Then Manning took the podium and put that stereotype to rest. An athlete who has always been more comfortable in the spotlight than most, Manning affably handled Media Day’s song and dance, alternating easily between playing along with every gag that came his way and rebuffing sharp, pointed questions with grace, confident rather than defiant.
“I’m trying to take it all in,” Manning said. “I didn’t even know that was a bridge we were standing on until I got down here. But coach (Gary) Kubiak has encouraged us to take it in, soak it up, don’t just rush through it, don’t just get to Sunday. I think if you do that, you’re missing it.”
Manning, who has been to three of these Super Bowls and won one, knows this experience better than most of his teammates. Despite the gravitas that his Super Bowl performances normally spark in conversation, Manning associates some of the entertaining moments, like Billy Joel singing the national anthem in 2007 or Prince belting out Purple Rain in a downpour at halftime, as well as anything that happened on the field.
And the assembled throng at media day — now a primetime spectacle called Opening Night, tailored for the television — did its damnedest to offer Manning a few more indelible memories in a Super Bowl that could be his last.
Manning handled every wrinkle like a telegraphed blitz he saw coming long before the snap.
A man wearing a backward purple hat that said Kauai, plus old, brightly colored pants that looked like a kindergartner taking a Crayon to a drawing, got things started by asking Manning what he thought about Donald Trump.
Manning remembers playing golf in Tahoe with the Donald once, remembers that he didn’t play well.
But he’s not about to let anything political slip.
“I’m just a meathead football player,” Manning said. “That’s all I know.”
Manning, brought up in New Orleans, knows he’s competing with the Krewe of Bacchus Mardi Gras Parade for viewership Sunday, knows he can get a pair of those crawfish shorts from Perlis Clothing in Uptown, at the corner of Webster and Magazine.
A reporter from the entertainment show “Extra” handed him a football helmet, asking Manning to answer a wide range of pop culture questions, everything from the Oscars controversy to Jennifer Lopez’s television pursuits.
Turns out Manning knows quite a bit, nailing about half the questions, although he’s not real sure who Taylor Swift is dating or what George Clooney’s wife does for a living.
Manning’s pop-culture knowledge, it seems, is better than most. When comedian J.B. Smoove asked Manning about Leon, Smoove’s character on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Manning knew exactly where he was headed, actively stumping for more Leon if Larry David’s show heads to a ninth season.
He fielded a question from a puppet, a question about Todd Helton, another comparing him to pudgy, wily old pitcher Bartolo Colon.
Manning also took two from children, including Austin, a wheelchair-bound child who has been free of cancer for six years and hit Manning with a hard question about his future, a question he patiently told several reporters he hasn’t answered to himself yet.
In those moments, whether it’s talking to a child or joking about pop culture, Manning’s appeal is obvious.
Maybe more than any other quarterback, Manning’s an everyman, a Jimmy Stewart or Tom Hanks to Tom Brady’s movie-star celebrity, Aaron Rodgers’ Hail Mary miracles and Cam Newton’s seemingly alien superpowers.
Now Manning enters this Super Bowl as the sentimental favorite, a guy we all know heading into the twilight, hoping he can go out on top.
And it seems he’s taken Kubiak’s words to heart.
“The atmosphere is part of the Super Bowl experience,” Manning said. “It’s more than just the game on Sunday. The excitement, the attention, that’s part of it. I’m trying to soak it up.”
So far, the everyman seems right at ease.