Hitchhiker’s Guide to What Peyton Manning Means to Me

I have this thing with relationships. Whenever one ends – intimate, friendly, or otherwise – there’s no going back. I don’t want to keep in touch, I don’t want to catch up every few months, I don’t want to run into you at the mall.

It doesn’t matter if things ended mutually, amicably. I don’t care if it was for the best. I don’t care if it’s what I wanted. How and why things ended have no bearing on the situation.

And no, I don’t care how either of us is doing. Are we miserable? Don’t care. Are we happy? Trust me, I don’t care. Have we both moved on to bigger and better things? Seriously, I don’t care.

Once it’s over, it’s over, and I don’t care to go back.

I’ve had a few sports loves in my life. I grew up with a Chicago Cubs team that featured the likes of Mark Grace, Andre Dawson, Ryne Sandberg, Greg Maddux, Joe Girardi, and Shawon Dunston.

I got indoctrinated into hockey by a Pittsburgh Penguins team starring Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Paul Coffey, Ron Francis, Rick Tocchet, and a handful of other all-stars and Hall of Famers.

My love for the Colts was born of my parents’ intense hatred for Dan Marino and the Miami Dolphins. Though it didn’t start with great players on great teams, I eventually fell in love with Captain Comeback and had my heart crushed by Aaron Bailey.

Then, in 1998, the Colts drafted this lanky, goofy looking, forehead-dominated genius of a man named Peyton Manning with the first-overall pick. I didn’t know it at the time, but his arrival in Indianapolis would have a profound impact on my life.

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His Indianapolis Career didn’t get off to the fastest start – a 3-13 record (QB WINS!), 28 interceptions, and a 71.2 QB rating didn’t do much to convince the world that the greatest player of all time had just stepped into the league – but even then, you could see the wheels of his beautiful mind turning.

Every play – be it a huge success or an embarrassing failure – was more about the next 10 plays than it was that moment. He was learning. Learning about himself, about his team, and, as we would come to find out, about the defense. Each play was just one tiny piece of a 42-billion piece puzzle.

By his 6th season, he was being talked about as the best in the game. By his 7th he was breaking records people had long thought of as untouchable. While his gaudy stats were often the focus of the national audience, it’s what took place the 39 seconds before each snap that made Peyton Manning unique, special, remarkable.

In those 39 seconds, from the end of the last play till the beginning of the next, Manning would spend his time surveying the field. He would stare at the 11 men charged with stopping him. He would note their position and their formation. How many linebackers were on the field? How deep were the safeties?

All of these variables would be run through the Cray on his neck. He would sort through the number of times he’s seen that personnel in that formation before. What did they do in the past? How can he attack it? Would it be a run? If so, what kind and to what direction?  Would it be a pass? Sometimes, Manning would micromanage the audible down to a specific player’s specific route, like when he signaled Brandon Stokley to run a post-corner route before the two hooked up on a 21-yard TD pass that broke Dan Marino’s single-season touchdown record.

No wonder the man’s head is so big. Where else would you fit the computer?

Manning made countless gorgeous throws in his time in Indianapolis. He won at least 10,000 games. He led some of the most-spectacular come backs in NFL history. But it was his brain that captured my heart.

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It hasn’t always been easy being a Colts fan. The teams in the 80s and early 90s weren’t exactly great… or even good… or even average… or even watchable. And then, after Peyton, it was that the success wasn’t enough. Yeah, stats are nice, make the playoffs. Yeah, playoffs are nice, win a game. Yeah, a win is nice, win two. Yeah, two wins are nice, win a Super Bowl. Yeah, a Super Bowl is nice, win two. And so on and so forth.

At some point, Peyton Manning became more than the Colts quarterback. He became our quarterback. We would defend him from the unfair criticism of the media. We would point to the stats. We would show multiple missed field goals that would have greatly improved the Colts’ playoff record under Manning – while other quarterbacks were lauded largely due to the success of their kicker. We would talk about defenses and special teams that continued to wilt under the playoff spotlight. He ain’t heavy, he’s our quarterback.

After winning a Super Bowl title and a Super Bowl MVP award in 2006, Manning and his minions began to push back the media-driven choker narrative. He had his title and people were now willing to speak of him as one of the all-time greats. His level of play didn’t change. He was still consistently great. They just viewed him differently due to the outcome of one game.

Then, in the blink of an eye, it was all undone. Trailing by 7 in Super Bowl 44, Manning threw that fateful pick-6 to Tracy Porter. The myriad of mistakes leading up to that point didn’t matter. The fact that the Colts were only driving for a tie didn’t matter. The fact that the Colts defense had yet to stop the Saints in the second half didn’t matter. 2006′s Ring and all the stats in the world couldn’t save Manning or his fans from the wave of “CHOKER” that was about to wash over them.

In a way, Manning’s consistent greatness worked against him. The world loves the notion of players who ratchet up their play in the post-season. Manning was already the best player in the league, accompanied by eye popping stats. It’s hard to go higher than that. And then, with the Porter pick-6, Manning’s detractors would have an indelible imagine to show anytime someone mentioned him as one of the game’s greats.

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For all the great Manning did on the field, I was as impressed with the man off the field. While we never really know the athletes we spend our days obsessing (healthily) over, Manning was either a remarkably kind, thoughtful individual, or the world’s most-elaborate walking insincerity.

There are the stories of Manning’s letters, those written to players who had recently retired. Then there was his charity work. Manning is a member of the Red Cross Celebrity Cabinet. He created the Peyback Foundation to help disadvantaged children. And, in 2007, St. Vincent Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis changed its name to Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital at St. Vincent, in honor of his close work with the hospital.

In a time when players’ faces were as well known for their mugshots as their team photos, Manning’s ability to be a great player was enhanced by his ability to be a greater human.

While I had always appreciated Manning’s off-field behavior, it became even more important – and special – to me as I grew older. I have two kids, both boys. When the Colts won Super Bowl 41, my oldest was 18-months old. When the Colts lost Super Bowl 44, he was 4 and my youngest was 2.

I’m not the kind of father who wants his kids to view athletes as role models, but the example Manning set wasn’t lost on that side of me. I always thought: it will be nice to point to my kids and say, “See? See that man? He’s the greatest to ever play the game, and he can still treat others around him as equals, with respect.”  Of course, watching him torch hapless defenses while they learned that lesson would be fun, too.
The thing with my kids is, man, they love sports, but they love playing them more than watching them. Sure, they run around screaming every time the Colts score, but getting them to sit down for 3 hours to watch a game? I’d have better luck teaching Hank Baskett how to hold on to the ball.
But that didn’t bother me in 2006. Peyton Manning was 30, I had plenty of time to enjoy Manning’s greatness with my kids. And it didn’t bother me in 2010. He was only 34. Manning was never hurt. Heck, he was barely sacked. The guy had another 6 years of football in him, at least. I had plenty of time to build those memories.___________
January 8th, 2011.That’s the last time Peyton Manning would suit up for the Indianapolis Colts.
The final image of Manning’s time with the Colts would be Nick Folk kicking a 32-yard field goal as time expired as the Jets beat the Colts 17-16, eliminating them in the first round of the playoffs. Manning, for those who don’t recall, had lead the team to a field goal with just 53 seconds left in the game.
The Colts’ defense and special teams had again let the team down. A choker for things out of his control. A fitting end to his time in Indianapolis.___________
The thing with endings is, we usually know they are coming and they are usually… well… endings. An older player has probably hinted or talked about retirement before actually calling it a career.  Or a player suffers the kind of devastating injury that forces him to hang it up earlier than anticipated. Either way, after the retirement or injury, the franchise, the fans, everyone is given the opportunity to say goodbye, to pay their respect to a player who meant a lot to the organization and the city.
With Peyton, there was no build-up. He was 34-years old. He went to have a simple procedure on his neck in the off-season. Three – or was it four? – surgeries and a clandestine trip to Europe later, and Colts’ fans’ tears were dropping to the beat of a Collins/Painter/Orlovsky drum. There was no send-off. There was no goodbye.There was a circus, dressed up as a Super Bowl.
There was a funeral, disguised as a press conference.
There were fuzzy videos, doctor’s reports, leaks and rumors. There were comments made to the media. There were decisions to be made, though, in reality, they had been made months ago.
But there was no goodbye. There was no send-off.
Some Colts fans were foolishly happy to see Manning go. They bought into the choker narrative. And that choker owed them. Owed them more than being a humble, self-deprecating funny-man. Owed them more than 141 wins. Owed them more than the national spotlight he brought to the city. Owed them more than the stadium his greatness helped build. Owed them more than the ability to host a Super Bowl, in part due to his fame.
The rest of us were just… heartbroken.
The man we had loved, the man we had cheered for, the man we had defended was gone. We never got our chance to say thank you, to say goodbye. We never got our closure. We never got the chance for Peyton Manning to pull a Brett Favre and get our closure on five-different occasions.
Just a press conference and some fluff pieces telling us it was for the best.___________
Last Sunday, NBC played a promo for this week’s game. The video featured clips from Manning as a Colt juxtaposed with similar shots of him as a Bronco.
I’m coming home
I’m coming home
tell the world I’m coming home
Let the rain wash away
All the pain of yesterday
I know my kingdom awaits
And they’ve forgiven my mistakes
I’m coming home
I’m coming home
tell the world I’m coming…
Back where I belong.
Peyton Manning will return to his kingdom on Sunday. The greatest player of all time, under-appreciated because of the over-simplification of winning and the over-valuing of winning one game, will walk into the castle he built. He will look around and see many of the same faces. They’ll be wearing the same colors. Many will love him as much now as they did then. But before Manning can say a word to his subjects he’ll realize his throne is occupied by a new king.Then he will look at us and we at him, and we’ll realize that you can never truly come home.

And then he and his new army of Broncos will kick his old army’s asses up and down the field for four quarters.
So thank you, Peyton. Thank you for being an amazing player. Thank you for being an amazing person. Thank you for the years of unadulterated joy. Thank you for making football fun. Thank you for making me think about it on another level. Thank you for changing the position. Thank you for changing the way offenses would work. Thank you for being you.

And goodbye.

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