By Julian Linden
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning knows exactly how lucky he is to be playing in this weekend's Super Bowl. The way Manning sees it, he is blessed just to be playing in the National Football League.
Not long ago, Manning's brilliant career looked like it could be over after he missed the entire 2011 season to undergo surgery on his neck.
Already in his mid 30s after a Hall of Fame-worthy career that included a Super Bowl win with the Indianapolis Colts, even Manning was resigned to the idea his playing days were over.
"If that was going to be the end of it because of a neck injury," he told reporters on Thursday, "I really, believe it or not, had a peace about it."
Manning wasn't the only one who thought his days in the NFL were finished. His younger brother Eli, quarterback of the New York Giants, was also skeptical that he could come back.
"I saw him after that first surgery," Eli told the NFL Network on Wednesday. "And I was pretty much convinced that he was done. "There was no way he could come back and play football."
The Colts were also unsure and with college quarterback Andrew Luck available to them in the NFL Draft decided to release their best player.
Manning was fortunate that there were plenty of teams still willing to take a chance on him and luckier still that he chose well when he agreed to join the Broncos.
In his two seasons in Denver, the 37-year-old has proved himself and all the doubters wrong, playing some of the best football of his career to lead the Broncos to Sunday's Super Bowl against the Seattle Seahawks.
By any definition it has been a remarkable comeback, but Manning says luck was on his side long before his latest injury problems.
Manning comes from one of the NFL's most famous families but has never had any sense of entitlement. His father Archie was an NFL quarterback as well as Eli.
By all accounts, Manning's older brother Cooper was a brilliant young player who was also headed to the big time when a neck injury forced him to quit the game before his career had taken off.
"That made a big impact on my life," Manning said.
"I remember at the time, when Cooper got injured, they did a test on me and Eli. I would have been a junior in high school and Eli would have been a sixth-grader, or something.
"They said our necks weren't picture perfect and didn't look ideal, but they're stable enough to keep playing football."
For Manning, it was an early lesson that nothing should ever be taken for granted in professional sport so he had to make the best of his opportunities.
In addition to winning a Super Bowl, Manning has claimed the NFL's Most Valuable Player award four times - and is the hot favorite to win it again this season when it is announced on Saturday - but he knows how easily things could have been very different.
"Cooper had to give up playing football," Manning said.
"In some ways, when I had my neck problems, I thought maybe I had been on borrowed time this entire time. I was fortunate to have 20 years of health to play football."
Around the same time that Manning was cleared to return to the NFL, he watched Eli win his second Super Bowl in Indianapolis, unaware that two years later he would get the chance to contest a Super Bowl in the stadium where his brother's Giants play.
"That is a pretty unique and ironic situation that Eli played in a Super Bowl in Indianapolis, and that the Broncos have a chance to play in the one in New York," Manning said.
"I had a chance to see Eli last night. I got to visit with him and his family. He and I don't get to spend a lot of time together in person.
"He came to the game two weeks ago against the Patriots. That's one of four or five NFL games of mine that he has been to in person. It's always special to have a chance to be with him."
(Editing by Larry Fine)