My favorite part was not the speech itself, but something Manning said afterward, in his sit-down with host Bill Rancic. In the process of heaping accolades on the record-setting quarterback, the host referred to the five-time NFL MVP as an entrepreneur. It wasn't a mistake. Manning has invested in 21 Colorado-based Papa John's franchises. He earns more than $12 million annually in endorsements. And he's canny about his personal brand. He added some edge to it with a cheeky 2007 appearance on Saturday Night Live, during which he parodied locker-room bravado and took aim at the NFL's United Way promos.
But when Rancic called him an entrepreneur, Manning said: "I'd be careful using that word, Bill. I'm trying to learn the business. I cannot give anyone in this room any type of business advice." Then he quipped that the pizza business was growing stronger, thanks to certain law changes in Colorado. There were laughs all around.
That deference did more than show off Manning's respect for business and entrepreneurs. It showed that being humble and paying your dues is important -- even among those who've shown extreme success in other arenas.
The same humility and humor served Manning marvelously this season, which was a tumultuous one for him, to say the least. To begin with, he did not play well. By most statistical measures, he had the worst individual season of his 18-year career. He also battled through wear and tear, missing six games with a foot injury. His substitute, Brock Osweiler, played well in Manning's absence, leading some NFL observers to wonder if Manning were "limping to the end of his career." If all that weren't enough, the NFL is now investigating HGH allegations against Manning, according to the Associated Press.
And now, somehow, as if his life is a Hollywood movie, Manning has the chance to triumph above all of this adversity -- if he can just lead the Denver Broncos to victory in Super Bowl 50 on Feb. 7.
To be sure, you could argue that Manning has already defeated this season's demons, by leading the Broncos to the precipice of the title. Humility and humor helped him do it. Many quarterbacks in Manning's shoes would've sulked about a demotion behind an inexperienced pro like Osweiler. Former New England Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe was not happy about being benched for the young Brady, when Brady was an upstart; former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith has admitted that "it sucked" to lose his job to young quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Manning kept his head down and kept working. He firmly refuted reports that he was unwilling or unhappy to be the backup, if it were best for the team. "It's a flat-out lie. It's insulting. And it's distracting," he told the Denver Post's Mark Kiszla. "That's 100 percent bull----." In the next moment, he was lightening the mood with his humor: "When you're injured, everybody asks you how you're doing, because people think that's what they're supposed to do. And I tell them: 'Oh, it will start feeling better just as soon as I amputate it,'" he added.
Of course, Super Bowls are won on the field. When the figurative bullets are flying, humility and humor won't help Manning and the Broncos offense score points against the mighty Carolina Panthers' defense. But as a pair of traits, humility and humor will undoubtedly help Manning prepare for one of the biggest games of his life. As they have helped him throughout his career.
During his Leadercast speech, Manning told a story about how he prepared for one of the first big games in his career: When he was a freshman third-stringer at the University of Tennessee, in 1994. His father, the legendary quarterback Archie Manning, told him: "Son, if you ever get into the huddle with the starters -- it doesn't matter when --you be the leader and you take control."
Sure enough, the first-string QB got hurt, and the backup struggled. So the freshman Manning found himself in the huddle on the road against UCLA. Recalling Archie's advice, Manning jogged into the huddle and said to his teammates: "I know I'm a freshman, but I can take us down the field." The left tackle promptly turned to him and said: "Hey, freshman -- shut the [eff] up and call the [effing] play."
"And I said, 'Yessir,'" recalled Manning.
The point is, Manning has long understood that advice can fall flat when it's tested by the harsh realities of game conditions. He might not prevail in the Super Bowl, but it won't be for lack of preparation, effort, or resilience -- incidentally, all qualities that tend to be shared by successful entrepreneurs.