Just a few weeks ago, it appeared that NFL quarterback Peyton Manning would enjoy the perfect storybook ending to his surefire Hall of Fame career, but as he formally ended his 18 years in the professional league on Monday, he could not fully escape the shadow of scandal.
In a tearful press conference, during which he emotionally described his "reverence" for the game of football, he was asked indirectly about resurrected allegations from 20 years ago that he had sexually assaulted a female trainer when he was the star quarterback at the University of Tennessee.
"This is a joyous day, and nothing can overtake this day," Manning told reporters. "I think it's sad that some people don't understand the truth and the facts. And I did not do what has been alleged, and I am not interested in relitigating something that happened when I was 19 years old. Kinda like my dad used to say when I was in trouble, I can’t say it any plainer than that. So this is a joyous day, and a special day."
"Like Forrest Gump said, 'That's all I have to say about that,'" he added.
The allegations against Manning resurfaced as a result of a recent Title IX lawsuit against his alma mater. The lawsuit alleges a culture that swept sexual assaults by student athletes on campus under the rug, and while it focuses on incidents that allegedly occurred between 2013 and 2015, prior accusations -- including one made against Manning in 1996 -- are referenced as well.
According to court documents, Manning was accused of forcefully maneuvering his naked testicles and rectum directly onto the face of Dr. Jamie Naughright, who served as the university's director of health and wellness at the time. Manning has claimed in the past that Naughright witnessed him mooning a teammate while she was examining him, but his version of events is still in dispute.
Eventually, a financial settlement was reached with the Mannings, and Naughright left the university. Both parties signed mutual nondisclosure agreements, but after Manning derided her in an autobiography as “vulgar" and described the 1996 incident as “crude maybe, but harmless,” Naughright filed suit for defamation and received another settlement.
The allegations of sexual assault against Manning have received renewed scrutiny as the NFL has made great pains to address its image as a league that has been historically indifferent to the domestic and sexual abuse perpetrated by its players. Manning, who has enjoyed a squeaky-clean image for most of his playing career, has suddenly become an unlikely subject of skepticism.
His previous silence on the subject of the Naughright allegations in the aftermath of the Title IX lawsuit has only raised more questions about his post-NFL future. But that's not the only controversy clouding his special day.
In the leadup the Super Bowl in February, Manning fended off allegations first made in a 2015 exclusive report by Al Jazeera that he had used human growth hormone (HGH) -- a banned substance -- to help recover from a neck injury in 2011. Manning has vehemently denied any wrongdoing and has even suggested he may take legal action over the article. The article's main source for the allegations, former clinic intern Charlie Sly, has since recanted his story, but the NFL is still investigating Manning to determine if he violated league rules. He was not asked about the HGH inquiry on Monday.
As far as Manning's on-the-field accomplishments are concerned, there is little debate. A record five-time MVP award-winner, Manning has scaled to the top of the NFL record books as the leader in career passing yards and career touchdown passes. He threw a record 55 touchdown passes in 2013 amid the most prolific single season in NFL history. And he is ending his career as the only quarterback with 200 career wins. He is also the first quarterback to lead two different NFL teams to Super Bowl victories, although football purists will contend that the Broncos' defense was the real key to their upset victory over the heavily favored Carolina Panthers this February.
During his playing career, Manning also evolved into a popular pitchman -- his ads for Papa John's, DirecTV and Nationwide are almost ubiquitous. And there has been widespread speculation that Manning could have a future in either an NFL front office or the broadcasting booth now that he's retired. But it remains unclear how much the recent spate of bad press has put a damper on his prospects.
"Manning knew it would be harder to dodge the questions next season while back behind center, wearing No. 18, than it would be to dodge them as a game analyst or executive," ESPN writer Ian O'Connor said in a column published Monday. He went on to say to would be "tough to believe" that Manning's decision to retire was not influence by a desire to turn the page from unflattering headlines.
On Monday, Manning said the end of his career marks the "beginning of something I have not discovered yet" and assured his fans and supporters: "Life is not shrinking for me, it's morphing into a whole new world of possibilities."