No easy way for Irsay to say goodbye to Manning

After Peter Pocklington traded hockey icon Wayne Gretzky in 1988, the one-time Edmonton Oilers owner was overwhelmed with death threats, "hundreds of them," he said from his home in Palm Desert, Calif.

After Carmen Policy dealt quarterback great Joe Montana in 1993, the former San Francisco 49ers executive said the public view of him changed -- forever.

"I had a pretty good reputation and persona in the Bay Area," he said recently from his home in the Napa Valley. "But when I'd go out, I could see it and feel it. People wouldn't be rude, but they were looking at me like, 'How could you do it? How could you do it?' "

Pocklington and Policy, along with Green Bay Packers General Manager Ted Thompson, pulled the triggers on the three biggest front-office decisions in recent American sports history: Gretzky, Montana and Brett Favre. Now Jim Irsay, the Indianapolis Colts' eccentric but mostly beloved owner, is less than a month from telling quarterback Peyton Manning that if he doesn't retire, he will be cut.

While Irsay and the city revel in the Super Bowl celebration, the team's owner faces the toughest decision of his football life.

Pocklington and Policy both said what Irsay is going to say: It's not personal; it's business. Even though we are here at a Super Bowl that wouldn't have been possible without Peyton Manning, at a game being played in a stadium that would not have been built without Peyton Manning, Irsay has to find a right way -- if it exists -- to say goodbye.

"The one regret I had was, I didn't feel like there were enough hugs for Joe near the end," Policy said. "It got too businesslike, even if it was incredibly emotional. I thought the actual deal (to trade Montana to the Kansas City Chiefs) dragged on too long. And as a result, we didn't have the separation on terms or conditions our humanity might have otherwise wanted."

The moves were made, ultimately, because they had to be made. Because as late, great 49ers coach Bill Walsh once said, you're best to move a player one year too early than one year too late.

"I would do it again," said Pocklington, who wrote a book called, "I'd Trade Him Again." "If you looked at our finances at the time, the state of the Canadian dollar, there was really no choice. There was no other rational conclusion to be reached.

"And that's the thing: You have to separate the emotion from the equation. It took me a long time to do that because I loved Wayne Gretzky. Everybody loved Wayne. Not just Edmonton but the entire country. But in the end, you have to do the best thing for the franchise."

Policy knows what Irsay is experiencing because he went through it, and he saw his team's owner, Eddie DeBartolo, go through it. Irsay is ready to make a wildly unpopular, unsentimental move; the right move, the only move, but one that will forever cast him as "the man who cut Peyton Manning."

"I don't think people understand fully how much emotional turmoil is created by these kinds of potential departures," Policy said. "I mean, Joe Montana was the heart, the soul, the substance and the form of our team. All of us loved him. Our owner, I thought he was going to die of a broken heart. It got so bad, even Joe couldn't tell Eddie to his face when Joe went back to meet with him to tell him he'd been traded and was leaving. To his credit, Joe understood and handled it like a complete gentleman.

"And now to think what Jim Irsay is facing with Peyton, I mean, who better personifies all the best qualities of the NFL than Peyton Manning?"

He laughed. "I just thank God there wasn't an Internet when we made the trade. That would have been unbearably cruel and crushing."

In some ways, Irsay and Manning are heading toward a divorce, and with that, some old wounds have been opened. Manning opened up to me last week, talking about the unsettled state of the franchise, and Irsay came back on the day he hired Chuck Pagano as coach, calling Manning a "politician." The two have since talked at length and plan to talk again soon, and a decision is at hand. (Manning said he hopes it's "sooner rather than later," although Irsay said this could go into early March.)

None of the mildly testy words of the past week should come as any surprise.

"There were some tough moments," Pocklington said of the weeks before the Gretzky trade. "It got emotional at times; mostly it was people around me and Wayne who got emotional. But we parted on very good terms and our relationship never suffered. Look at my book. He wrote the foreword. He understood what I had to do and I understood what he had to do."

Policy has watched the Manning-Irsay drama unfold from afar -- he owns a Napa Valley winery -- and has seen it get a bit uncomfortable in recent weeks.

"Somehow, some way, you've got to try your darnedest to keep it as civil as possible and keep it from becoming a 'War of the Roses'-type divorce," he said. "You're still going to come out of it with some hurt feelings, some bruises and scratches, but hopefully without any deep wounds."

Nobody wants this to happen. Policy didn't want to trade Montana, but Steve Young's growth and the newly installed salary cap made it a must. Pocklington didn't want to trade Gretzky, but with contract talks stalled and free agency on the horizon, it was a must. Now, with Manning, his health is questionable, he's due lots of money, quarterback and likely No. 1 overall draft pick Andrew Luck is waiting in the wings . . . it's a must.

"I just hope Jim Irsay has somebody around him who not only can advise and support him, but someone he can lean on in a very personal way," Policy said. "And maybe that's two different people who serve two different purposes. I can promise you this is very emotionally wrenching for him, just as it is for Peyton."

The time is near, and there will be tears. Pocklington has lived it. Policy has lived it.

"I always say, 'A brave man only dies once; a coward dies every day,' " Pocklington said. "Sometimes, as unpopular as it is, you have to do the brave thing."

Irsay and Manning seem to be ready.

Central Indiana? That might be a different matter.