NEWARK, N.J. — Peyton Manning picked up two teammates, as he does before every home game, and drove to the stadium.
Crackling with nervous energy before the AFC Championship Game 10 days ago, the three spent the commute talking about people talking about their commute.
“I don’t know how it became such a story,” tight end Jacob Tamme, a passenger, said Tuesday.
Manning — America’s most famous car pitchman — told reporters two weeks ago he led the carpool. He prefers driving.
His passengers, Tamme and wideout Eric Decker, even said they teased Manning for his “Papa Bear” punch line in his Buick commercial.
The story exploded and “became a monster somehow,” Tamme said.
“I thought it was just funny that that article came out about carpooling,” Decker said. “That’s how big-time No. 18 is.”
The Super Bowl has the sport’s biggest star for the first time in years.
He acted the part Tuesday at Media Day, answering questions from a throng that, steadily, spanned 20 across and at least a dozen deep.
Life imitates ads: His carpool story was popular because of his car commercials. During the carpool, he joked about the story to relax as he tried to reach the Super Bowl and build upon his legacy.
Not that he’d dwell on such things Tuesday.
“I’ve been asked about my legacy since I was 25 years old — which, I’m not sure you can have a legacy when you’re 25 years old, or even 37,” Manning said. “I thought you had to be 70 to have a legacy.
“I’m not 100 percent sure what the word even means.”
He’s the game’s most famous player.
“I mean,” Tamme said, “have you seen the commercials?”
This is America, and the market has spoken: Manning endorses Buick, DirecTV, Gatorade, Papa John’s and Reebok. (He put a towel over his Nike warmup jacket Tuesday, slyly obscuring its Swoosh).
“He knows exactly what he’s doing with the brand of Peyton Manning,” Seahawks center Max Unger said.
As of last summer, he led the NFL with $12 million worth of endorsements per year, according to Forbes. He was No. 19 on its list of the world’s highest-paid athletes.
“I think he’s just a very personable guy,” Decker said. “He’s a good guy, and you can’t hide that.
“Connecting with him on commercials or on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ people feel that connection — that he’s a stand-up guy, he’s a great guy and he’s a great football player.
“You put that all together, and you get a star.”
Now he has one more game to win.
Said Broncos executive vice president John Elway: “I’m sure we’ll see the Peyton Manning that we’ve seen all year on Sunday.”