INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Sent packing by his only NFL team, one he transformed from afterthought to Super Bowl champion, Peyton Manning said goodbye to the Indianapolis Colts with a shaky voice and tear-filled eyes, then got ready to find a new place to play quarterback.
At a podium alongside owner Jim Irsay, who cut the injured star Wednesday rather than pay a whopping $28 million bonus due this week, Manning was by turns wistful, nostalgic - he got choked up while praising the Colts' equipment managers - and forward-looking.
The only four-time MVP in NFL history now figures to become as coveted a free agent as the league has ever seen, assuming he can assuage any lingering concerns about the series of neck operations that forced him to miss all of 2011. Arizona, Miami, Seattle, Tennessee, Washington and the New York Jets all have been rumored as possible destinations; Manning's former offensive coordinator in Indianapolis, Tom Moore, worked for the Jets as a consultant last season.
"Nobody loves their job more than I do. Nobody loves playing quarterback more than I do. I still want to play. But there is no other team I wanted to play for," said Manning, who turns 36 this month.
Still, he acknowledged: "We all know that nothing lasts forever. Times change, circumstances change, and that's the reality of playing in the NFL."
Another reality: Manning should command plenty of offers on the open market. It's not very often teams get a crack at a QB who's thrown for more than 50,000 yards and nearly 400 touchdowns, been picked for 11 Pro Bowls, and been a Super Bowl MVP. Manning's importance to the Colts' success was never more apparent than last season, when their record plummeted to 2-14 without him.
"I have no idea who wants me, what team wants me, how this process works," Manning told a group of reporters in South Florida, where he has a home and flew after the news conference. "I don't know if it's like college recruiting where you go take visits. I mean, this is all so new to me."
Reports of other clubs' interest began emerging a while back, and they'll only intensify now. Because he was released and went on the waiver wire Wednesday, Manning is allowed to negotiate and sign with any club immediately; he does not need to wait until the free-agent period that begins Tuesday, and said his agent already was taking calls.
"I literally have not had one conversation with anyone about these teams. It's been so hard for me trying to figure out some closure with my situation with the Colts," Manning said. "I haven't thought about teams, and I don't know who is interested. I really don't."
Reaction poured into Twitter feeds from all around the sports world - not merely from NFL players publicly lobbying for their teams to sign Manning. Dwyane Wade of the NBA's Miami Heat urged Manning to head to that city's Dolphins, while tennis' Andy Roddick, the 2003 U.S. Open champion, observed: "The colts cutting Peyton feels like the north pole kicking out Santa."
That's about right. The stark first sentence of the official team statement read: "The Indianapolis Colts today released quarterback Peyton Manning."
Even if the news first leaked out Tuesday - and had been anticipated for weeks, if not months - it was odd to see those words written about a player so synonymous with the horseshoe helmet that Irsay said Manning's No. 18 will never again be worn by a Colts player.
Fans of various teams can start imagining what Manning might look like in their colors. Picture Joe Montana heading from the 49ers to the Chiefs or Emmitt Smith switching from the Cowboys to the Cardinals.
"For those of us who are so used to him being there day in and day out, it would be a little like (Yankees captain) Derek Jeter changing teams. He really is that iconic guy that represents the franchise. It's a hackneyed phrase, but he truly is the face of the franchise, and has been," said former Colts vice chairman Bill Polian, who drafted Manning out of Tennessee with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1998 draft and was fired this January. "It will be a little strange not having him there."
That is why Wednesday provided such an awkward and unusual scene for Manning and Irsay. Their NFL lives have been so closely intertwined, yet they stood inches apart in jackets and ties while discussing their separation.
Rarely do star athletes who are not retiring show up at a news conference to let the world know they've been dumped. And while Manning and Irsay - indeed, all of the NFL - was aware this profitable partnership was due to end now, the emotions showed by both seemed raw and real.
"This has not been easy for Jim," Manning said, "and this has certainly not been easy for me."
Manning hopes to be playing in the NFL at the start of next season.
Still, he said Wednesday: "I'll always be a Colt. I always will be. That'll never change."