Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts are parting ways after 14 NFL seasons that included a Super Bowl title in 2007, the quarterback confirmed at an emotional press conference on Wednesday.
Both 35-year-old Manning and Colts owner Jim Irsay stressed how hard it was to make the decision, which will make the four-time NFL Most Valuable Player one of the most coveted free agents in the history of the league.
The move also frees the Colts from a $28 million bonus payment that would have been due this week had they picked up the option for the remaining four years on Manning's contract.
"The contract and the money was never a factor," said Manning, who missed all of last season after four operations to fuse vertebrae in his neck.
Doctors have cleared Manning to return to the NFL and resume his career. But Irsay indicated that after the Colts' league-worst 2-14 season the club needs to focus on rebuilding.
"This has not been easy for Jim and it certainly has not been easy for me," said Manning, who struggled at times to control his voice. "Jim and I have always been close ... he's always been good to me.
"This town and this team mean so much to me. It truly has been an honor to play for Indianapolis.
"I will leave the Colts with nothing but good thoughts and gratitude to Jim, the organization, my teammates the media and, especially, the fans."
Manning had not missed a start for the Colts until last season, but his absence played a major role in the team's disastrous campaign.
Their last-place finish gives the Colts the first selection in next month's NFL draft, and they are expected to take top US collegiate quarterback Andrew Luck of Stanford.
Even though he is pointing his franchise toward the future, Irsay stressed his admiration and respect for Manning.
"The 18 jersey will never be worn again by a Colt on the field," said Irsay, who said he and Manning had numerous conversations trying to conceive a way for Manning to remain with the team.
"It's been very difficult and just tearing at our hearts to try to look at the situation and find the best solution," Irsay said.
"As difficult as this day is, it's made difficult because of the greatness and the things Peyton has done for our city, for our state, for our franchise. There will be no other Peyton Manning."
Manning took the Colts to the playoffs 11 times and to two Super Bowls, losing the most recent to New Orleans at Miami in 2010.
"I sure have loved playing football for the Indianapolis Colts. I've been a Colt for almost all of my adult life," said Manning, who turns 36 later this month.
"But I guess in life and in sports, we all know that nothing lasts forever. Times change, circumstances change and that's the reality of playing in the NFL."
Manning is sure to have plenty of suitors, but said he hadn't yet given any thought to where he might play.
"I don't know what these next steps are," Manning said. "This is the only team I've ever known. This is kind of uncharted territory for me, I'm going to have to see how that all plays out."
(Peyton Manning, pictured in 2011, will be dropped by the Indianapolis Colts after 14 seasons with the NFL club that included a Super Bowl title in 2007, ESPN reported on Tuesday. AFP Photo/Andy Lyons)