NEW YORK — This is why football players cry.
The Broncos arrived at the Super Bowl as a family: 53 players, one goal. Quarterback Peyton Manning, running back Knowshon Moreno and linebacker Wesley Woodyard will stand together for the national anthem before kickoff in MetLife Stadium, eyeing the Seattle Seahawks, united in orange.
But, win or lose, when Super Bowl XLVIII is done, this family will break up. This is one last chance for this specific group of Broncos to hoist the Lombardi Trophy and grab a little piece of football immortality.
“The legacy for us all is what we leave on the field as players,” said Woodyard, who has endured injury and the loss of his starting job during the course of this season but stood tall as a team captain through it all. “Every individual player is his own brand. But we are all Broncos. And this is our chance to win a championship together as Broncos.”
Football teams say they are family. It's a grand illusion. The hardest trick in the NFL is to transform a locker room of transients into a cohesive unit for 16 regular-season games and the stresses of a playoff run. From veteran defensive end Shaun Phillips to rookie running back Montee Ball, there are 20 first-year players of the Broncos on the 53-man roster.
Do the math. Nearly 40 percent of this Denver roster was new this season. Win or lose this Super Bowl, the extreme makeover figures to be the same before next season. This league is called the Not For Long for a reason.
[Photo gallery:Outside Super Bowl XLVIII]
“The significance of my Super Bowl rings is what those rings stand for. They stand for guys putting aside their egos and their personal agendas long enough to win a championship,” said Byron Chamberlain, who won two championships during his stint from 1995-2000 as a tight end for Denver. “The most important thing for a championship team is to get all the guys to buy into one common goal of winning the Super Bowl. It's hard to do. That's why winning a Super Bowl is so rare.”
From the beginning, the football gods gave signs to this edition of the Broncos. And the signs were not good. A stupid fax machine shipped pass rusher Elvis Dumervil out of town. Linebacker Von Miller was suspended for violating the league's drug policy. Coach John Fox collapsed on a golf course in North Carolina and was rushed to the hospital for emergency heart surgery. Bad luck beat up Ryan Clady, Champ Bailey, Derek Wolfe and Rahim Moore.
When everything and anything invited the Broncos to collapse, everybody and anybody stepped up. “Next man up!” turned from standard football cliché to this team's motto. Through all the adversity, this team developed an attitude Fox believes is essential to become a Super Bowl champion. “There's a feeling you can't lose,” Fox told me in the middle of a regular season that saw Denver win 13 games and claim the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
Next season, the business of football and contract negotiations might well take Woodyard and Moreno to different NFL towns. In one respect, the Super Bowl really is more than a game. For these 53 Broncos, this is the last supper.
It has been 15 long years since Denver last won the Super Bowl. That's a long time. Long enough for John Elway to see his marriage break up, watch his twin sister die and bury his father. Long enough to go from Broncos quarterback to team executive.
Neil Smith was a defensive end on the Denver teams that won back-to-back championships during the late 1990s. He arrived in Colorado after being a star in Kansas City to start over and begin the second chapter of his glorious NFL career, a foreshadowing of what the league required Manning to do.
Against the Green Bay Packers, who entered Super Bowl XXII as 11-point favorites against Denver on Jan. 25, 1998, Smith was asked by coaches to not do the very thing in football that made him famous. Instead of trying to sack Green Bay's Brett Favre, Smith was instructed to swallow his pride and contain the scrambling quarterback in the pocket.
It was the definition of 53 players, no ego, one goal.
“Don't try to be a hero. Just do your job,” Smith told me Friday. As he spoke, the diamonds of a Super Bowl ring glistened on his finger.
As the clocked ticked away the final seconds of the fourth quarter, the scoreboard shined: Denver 31, Green Bay 24. The Broncos realized their dream was going to come true. Chamberlain will never forget the scene on his team's bench.
“Grown men, from players to owner Pat Bowlen, I mean everybody, started jumping up and down. We all turned into 8-year-old boys,” Chamberlain said. “It was like Christmas morning and your birthday at the same time, all that joy wrapped together.”
There are 53 Broncos on the active roster, 53 personal agendas and 53 stories.
Here's one maybe you don't know.
Almost exactly one year ago, on Feb. 6, 2013, Broncos tight end Jacob Tamme sent out a heartfelt message on Twitter: “I'd be very grateful if you'd say a short prayer for my wife, Allison, who has thyroid cancer. She has surgery tmrw.”
Forget football. The whole world of Denver's tight end was turned upside down.
In the span of 365 days, Tamme saw his wife beat cancer and walked on a cruise ship docked in the Hudson River to talk about what a long, strange, wonderful journey from his wife's bedside on the eve of surgery to the dawn of Super Bowl morning.
“You hear the 'C' word, and it's a world shocker,” Tamme said. “There's panic, depression and confusion, a little bit all of that, when you deal with cancer. But I'm so proud of her courage. We've been blessed. In so many ways beyond getting to the Super Bowl, this has been one crazy year, man.”
At kickoff, the Broncos and Seahawks both will firmly and honestly believe this is their time.
Four quarters and 60 minutes of football later, time will expire on one dream.
The winners will jump up and hug with the gravity-defying joy of little boys, and no matter what happens next, that feeling will last forever.
Mark Kiszla is a columnist for Digital First Media at The Denver Post. Follow him on Twitter @markkiszla.