The Most Valuable Player on the Super Bowl champion. Peyton Manning had escaped the label, shaken the monkey he denied ever was on his back.
Finally, after the years at the University of Tennessee, the seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, Manning had won the big one. The biggest one.
But he wasn't alone on this Sunday night when rain for the first time in the game's 41 years of existence fell endlessly on the NFL's prime attraction.
"We truly got this as a team," Manning correctly insisted after the Colts' 29-17 victory over the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI at Dolphin Stadium.
But surely, soaked and smiling, Manning, after eight seasons of having everything except the championship, felt a measure of validation.
"I don't play that game," he said. "I never have. I just wanted to be on a team that won a Super Bowl but didn't in years past."
This one did, in part because of Manning, because nobody wins titles any place in footballwithout a poised, efficient quarterback, and in part because a Colts defense that had been last in the league against the run during the regular season became a force in the playoffs.
A defense that altered Manning's thinking when the Colts had the ball, as well as altering the Bears' attack when Chicago had
"Certainly it does change your frame of mind, because you feel like maybe you don't have to be as aggressive on third downs," he agreed.
If you have to punt, and Indianapolis punted only four times this damp evening, you'll get the ball back soon enough.
The Colts got it back on five Bears turnovers two of them interceptions of Rex Grossman, who was as ineffective as his critics feared and by stopping Chicago every other which way.
The Bears had only 11 first downs in the game, seven through three quarters. The Bears had the ball only a shade under 22 minutes, while Indianapolis controlled it 38 minutes.
You can't do anything without the ball. But when you have Manning, who completed 25 of 38 passes for 247 yards and a touchdown, you can do a great deal with the ball.
You can win a Super Bowl.
"Well, I'm excited," said Manning, who stood at a postgame podium looking very unexcited.
"It's an emotional game. Everybody's pretty drained right now."
And very wet. Which Manning pointed out affected tactics: Peyton, waving his arms in that familiar fashion at the line of scrimmage, calling audibles for runs, because passes might slip off a receiver's hands. Or his own hands.
"It wasn't what you'd expect coming down here to Miami," conceded Manning. "As far as the rain, it was as bad a weather probably since the (snowy) playoff game in New England two years ago."
One of the knocks against the Colts, against Manning, was that because they play home games indoors at the RCA Dome, Indy couldn't win in inclement weather. So much for misconceptions.
This Super Bowl was a breakthrough not only for Manning, but also for Tony Dungy, who as the Colts leader, became the first African-American coach to win a Super Bowl, defeating another black, Dungy's friend and former assistant Lovie Smith.
"I really have to dedicate this to some of the guys who came before," Dungy said of other pioneers. "When I came into the league in 1981, Jimmy Ray, Sherman Lewis and Lionel Taylor were there. Those guys were great coaches, and they could have done this if they had the opportunity."
But it was Dungy, age 51, who had the opportunity.
And it was his quarterback, Manning, 30, who had a different opportunity, to shed the doubters.
"Maybe," reminded Dungy, "maybe people will say now if he doesn't win two in a row, he's not good enough. Peyton Manning is a great player.
"If people think you have to win a Super Bowl to know that and validate it and justify it, it's wrong. But he's done it. He's got that behind him . . . and I don't think there's anything you can say now other than this guy is one of the greatest players to play the game."
Hard to argue. Impossible to argue.
Art Spander has earned a spot in the
Pro Football Hall of Fame. He can be reached at email@example.com.