Steve Warren had a knife in his arm. He walked to the sideline, his bicep ruptured, the pain killing him. He told his coach what happened. He said he was coming out.

Warren's coach laughed at him. Told him to get back in.

Is this any way to end a career? Tonight, Peyton Manning will show us one way, his way. Perhaps. The smart money, and maybe a universal hope, is that Super Bowl 50 will be Manning's last rodeo.

The chance to play your final football game on the Super Bowl stage, with a championship at stake, with millions watching around the world, is truly a football fairy tale.

This is the football version of the last episode of "M*A*S*H*." One final glimpse at a long-running iconic show. You hope you get one more shot of greatness.

Most professional athletes get the "Rockford Files" ending.

After a good, long run, actor James Garner abruptly ended the show in the middle of the season. Garner, who did all of his own stunts, had too many surgeries. His body couldn't take it. So he walked.

Warren, Darin Erstad and Zach Wiegert can relate. Here are their stories, the other side of the Manning fairy tale:

It was 2006.

Warren, a former defensive tackle at Nebraska and with the Green Bay Packers, was playing in the Arena Football League with Arizona. He was wondering where his career was going.

On this night, in Denver, he was concerned with where the quarterback was going.

"I was about to sack him and he got away," Warren said. "I went after him, and that's when my bicep ruptured."

And that's when the comedy ensued.

"I walked off to the sideline," Warren said. "In that league, you played offense, defense and special teams. The coach said, 'Where are you going?'

"I told him I rupturedmy bicep. He laughed and said, 'No, you didn't.' I told him, 'Yes, I did.' He called the trainer over and the trainer checked it and said, 'Yeah, he did.'

"The coach said, 'Holy ——. You're one tough SOB.'"

Warren had surgery on both knees. He refused to play in Canada. He was playing arena ball because he liked the paycheck and still loved the game. But these things were going through his head as he went to the hospital after the game.

And then he saw a sign from the football gods: former NU defensive coordinator Charlie McBride.

"I woke up in the hospital," Warren said. "And there's Coach McBride standing over me. He had been at the game and followed me to the hospital.

"He said, 'Hey, you done good. But it's time.'

"I said, 'I know, Coach. I know.'"

It was the last game of the 2009 season. The Houston Astros were at Citi Field to play the Mets. Both teams were heading home.

Darin Erstad was rounding third and heading for retirement.

A brilliant 14-year career, full of Gold Gloves, All-Star Game appearances and a World Series ring, was about to end in a most inglorious sort of way.

Erstad, in his second year with the Astros, had only told his wife this was his final game. He wasn't sure he would even get to play.

Then interim manager Dave Clark told Erstad to pinch hit against Mets starter Nelson Figueroa. Erstad, in his last at-bat, struck out.

"I came over to the dugout and told Geoff Blum and Aaron Boone, 'That's it. I'm done,'" Erstad said. "They said, 'Yeah, right.'"

That was it. There was no ceremony. Nobody in half-empty Citi Field knew or cared.

"I packed up my bag and walked out of the clubhouse backwards," Erstad said. "There's a 'forget serum' they stick you with when you retire. You forget how much work it was and you only remember how much fun you had. I didn't want them to stick that in my butt, so I walked out backwards. I wanted to remember how hard it was (at the end), so I wouldn't want to come back."

That's a message that Erstad, now the head baseball coach at Nebraska, tells players — especially those who go on to play pro baseball.

"Make sure you empty your tank — don't leave anything behind," Erstad said. "Everyone is different. I can't explain how you know. Your body tells you. And then one day the Grim Reaper taps you on the shoulder, and it's time to take the last train."

Zach Wiegert will see Denver coach Gary Kubiak today and his mind will go back to Nov. 12, 2006.

Wiegert, the second-round pick for St. Louis in 1995, had a good career. He played in 145 games for the Rams, Jacksonville and Houston. He was still playing well when the Texans traveled to Jacksonville for the 10th game of the 2006 season.

"Then I blew my knee out," Wiegert said. "I tore my right ACL, one of those plays where you don't get hit. The funny thing was, it was near the same place where I tore my left ACL in 2000 (while with Jacksonville)."

The native of Fremont, Nebraska, was out for the year. He was already thinking about a career in real estate back in Nebraska.

But when he limped off the field that Sunday, he was planning to come back in 2007. As he took his uniform off, he had no idea it would never go on again.

"I rehabbed in the offseason and got into great shape," Wiegert said. "I got a few contract offers, from Denver, Washington, New England. I went to Denver to get checked out.

"Then, when I came home, for some reason I just said, 'You know what? I don't want to play anymore. I played 12 years. That's enough.'

"In four years, I would have been 39. That's too long. I guess I just wanted to see if I could get back into shape, make sure I could play again if I wanted to. But I decided I had done enough.

"I'm sure Peyton will think about that, too."

Manning has dropped hints, but only he knows what's going on there. But that doesn't stop the speculation. We see the quarterback's aging body breaking down. We see the skills diminished, the arm strength zapped.

But there's something else going on here, and it's something that every athlete has to stare down at some point.

It's hard to walk away from the life. The locker room. The guys.

I asked Warren, Erstad and Wiegert if they would begrudge Manning if he won the Super Bowl and came back for another year — risking the perfect ending.

They all said no. "Hell no," Warren said. "I get it.

If I were healthy, I would still be playing football. You have to go when you're ready to go.

"At a certain point, it's not about your legacy. I mean, he's going into the Hall of Fame no matter what happens now. He'll always be one of the all time greats.

"It's how bad do you want to keep doing it, going to the gym at 6 a.m., going back to training camp?"

I liked something Erstad said about legacy. And that is, it really shouldn't be a factor in retirement.

The reason should go deeper — to that "tank" Erstad was talking about.

"It's about closure, with yourself," Erstad said. "You have to know in your heart that you've given everything you have. If you can say that, there's a peace that comes with walking away.

"What I tell my players is, you don't want to leave when you still have something left, with something still in the tank. You don't want to be done and later say, 'I wish I had stayed, I'm not ready to be done yet.'"

Of course, not every athlete gets that decision. Some have it made for them by employers — and their bodies.

Erstad's point is, perception and legacy can't be the reason for the last rodeo. And if Manning gets bucked off the horse tonight, it changes nothing.

"Short term, it's what people remember now," Erstad said. "But long term, it doesn't change the great memories we have.

"It's like Mickey Mantle. I remember the 500-foot home runs he hit, not the time when he was fading away. You remember what they did in their prime."

When it comes to memories, there's no such thing as retirement.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1025, tom.shatel@owh.com twitter.com/tomshatelOWH

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