With about 2½ hours to go before kickoff, Peyton Manning and Jordan Taylor met on the field for one last catch. They warmed up for 30 minutes, and then Manning walked up to Taylor and thanked him for everything.
"One more game and you've got it," Taylor told him. Manning, locked in and unemotional, agreed.
Maybe late Sunday night, when Taylor planned to put on his new suit and celebrate at the Broncos' after-party, the rookie receiver would stop and reflect on this crazy dream of a year. In May, he went undrafted; by June, he was standing on a practice field during offseason workouts, waiting for Peyton Manning to throw to him, nervously telling himself, "Don't drop the ball."
Taylor is a 23-year-old practice-squad player, he didn't even suit up Sunday, but no one in the Broncos' locker room would argue his value in helping Denver win its first Super Bowl since 1999. The rookie from Sherman, Texas, helped Manning get back on the field.
In December, when Manning was rehabbing from a foot injury, Taylor became his throwing partner. They would meet at 9 o'clock in the morning, at least three times a week, before the Broncos' afternoon practice. It made for a busy winter.
First, Manning is known for his intense workouts, in which he admittedly asks too many times for one more post or comeback route that becomes three or four. Taylor also simulates the opponent's best receiver during practice and plays free safety on the scout team.
"He went out there and basically had a full practice with Peyton," Broncos tight end Owen Daniels said, "and then he had to come out and play both ways. It's extremely hard. It's hard enough to play one way, let alone get run into the ground on scout team and then having to play scout-team defense as well."
They bonded over the summer, when Manning invited Taylor to a U2 concert. To this day, Taylor has no idea why the future Hall of Famer asked a long-haired kid from Rice to hang out with him. He wonders if it was because he was the last one in the locker room that day.
Months passed, and then Manning suffered a partially torn plantar fascia in his foot. One night, Manning texted Taylor and asked if he'd catch for him.
"What are you going to do, tell Peyton Manning no?" Taylor said.
Though he didn't get drafted, the 6-foot-5 receiver did have a number of teams calling. Denver was appealing to him because he played college football with coach Gary Kubiak's son Klein, but also because of Manning. He knew he probably wouldn't be catching passes from him as a rookie, but thought he could be part of a special season with Manning.
Taylor had no idea he'd spend this much time with Manning. They grew so close that when Taylor recently found out he needed a suit for his trip to the Super Bowl, he asked Manning if he had an old suit lying around he could borrow. Shortly after that, the Broncos told Taylor to go into a room to do interviews. When he saw two very well-dressed men in the room, he knew they weren't reporters. They were tailors to fit him for a custom-made suit, courtesy of Manning. Needless to say, Taylor has never been to a tailor before.
The charcoal suit, he said, is by far the best piece of clothing he owns. He said the second-most expensive thing is probably a polo shirt. On Sunday night, as his teammates celebrated around him, Taylor quietly dressed in his locker, putting on a black T-shirt and gray jeans. He planned to go back to the team hotel and put on the suit for the Broncos' celebration.
"Been one heck of a year," he said. "I don't think any quarterback deserved this more than [Manning] did."
Manning has lobbied for the Broncos to keep Taylor next season, but the receiver knows he has to prove himself all over again. He already has proven himself to some of the most important people in the locker room.
"He's going to be a player," Daniels said late Sunday. "He's got good speed, great range. I think people underestimate him. I don't know why."