A few weeks ago, I never thought I’d see Peyton Manning take another snap, much less throw another pass or another touchdown.
Much less win another playoff game.
Much less defeat Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and the New England Patriots to win another AFC Championship. (Unbelievably, after all the drama, Peyton will end his career 3-2 against Brady & Belichick’s Patriots in the playoffs.)
Much less get one final start in Super Bowl 50.
You’ll have to excuse me for starting and stopping this blogpost numerous times over the last few weeks and for, honestly, not really even knowing where to start as I type right now.
You’ll have to excuse me for skipping any Super Bowl parties you’ve invited me to. I have to watch this one at home in my Peyton jersey with my son, in his Peyton jersey. It’s safe to say Palmer will wear one of my old Peyton jerseys as well. (For my son’s first Halloween in 2014, my son wore his Broncos Peyton jersey, my wife wore my old Tennessee Peyton jersey, and I wore one of my old Colts Peyton jerseys.)
You’ll have to excuse me for any emotional outbursts I’ve made in the last few weeks if you asked me about Peyton.
The fact of the matter is this: when Peyton inevitably hangs up his cleats after Super Bowl 50, I’m not sure I’ll ever cheer as hard for another athlete for the rest of my life.
My passionate fandom for Peyton stems from his presence in almost every stage of my life to date. From the time I was 8 years old when Peyton began his career as the starting QB at Tennessee to the year I turn 30 and Peyton prepares to play his last game, I’ve changed a lot. But one thing hasn’t – I’ve watched Peyton Manning lace up his cleats, read defenses unlike anyone else to ever play his position, call audibles that boggle the minds of the other team, and compete hard with everything he has until the very end.
I’ve changed a lot over the past two-plus decades.
In elementary school, I wore that orange #16 jersey that fell below my knees and cheered on the Vols while playing football in my front yard.
In middle school, with a cracking voice and more awkwardness than a full season of The Office, I put on the blue #18 jersey and cheered on the Colts. So inspired by Peyton, I even considered playing middle school football. My scrawny little self no business being on the public middle school Memphis football team and didn’t end up playing, but I went to a few pre-season workouts and considered it. Why? Because of Peyton.
In high school, I still remember the Colts’ devastating shutout loss to the Jets in the playoffs because I watched it in my grandfather’s hospital room with him as he was recovering from emergency surgery. He wasn’t a Peyton fan, but he respected him and rooted for him because he knew his grandson cared so much.
In college, I put aside my Vols fandom as a newly minted Commodore and during my freshman year, I met Jay Salato who would go on to become my best friend and best man in my wedding. When did I meet him? During the Colts’ heartbreaking playoff loss to the Steelers.
But that next year, I was able to cheer on Peyton’s comeback versus the Patriots and victory over the Bears to finally win the Super Bowl.
I didn’t know it at that time, but my future wife was also at that party and in the celebratory Facebook pictures right after the game, we’re right by each other among many of our still closest friends.
After graduating, I became a high school teacher. I still remember the heartbreaking Super Bowl loss to the Saints, and heading home to lesson plan for my AP U.S. History class the next day. Palmer had become one of my closest friends at this point. She had gone down to Miami for the game and we texted throughout, lamenting Peyton’s loss.
Then came the injuries, the surgeries, and the move to Denver.
As for me, I got married, went to law school, and got a job.
Peyton had one of the greatest seasons in NFL history coming back from injury against all odds. He played another Super Bowl and got crushed.
He made other runs deep into the playoffs through unbelievable injuries.
At each step along the way, we asked whether he was finally done this time. Could he come back from that crushing defeat, from that injury, from that surgery?
And he kept doing it. But this time I thought it was different. He’d set all the records. He’d defied all the odds. He’d continued to compete at a high level despite this post-game routine detailed by ESPN:
IT TAKES PEYTON Manning 15 minutes to shed his suit of armor after a game.
He begins with his cleats, which he can barely untie without assistance. A Broncos equipment staffer helps peel them off his feet while he does a radio interview, because after nearly 25 years of football dating back to high school, it’s a relief to not have to bend over that far. Next come his shoulder pads, which, when yanked over his head, generate a groan that is a mixture of suffering and sweet relief. Manning’s pale arms and torso are covered in fresh scrapes and old bruises, some the color of strawberries, others a shade of eggplant.
His socks come off after several violent tugs, revealing toes that are twisted and bent into obtuse angles. When he removes a thick blue DonJoy knee brace from his stiff left leg, he twice pauses to grimace and gather himself before stripping it off and handing it to a staffer for safekeeping. As he slices away at the thick layers of athletic tape supporting his ankles, he looks like a surgeon operating on his own leg without anesthesia.
When he finishes, he stands, joints creaking, loose strips of tape and blades of grass still stuck to his skin.
When I read that earlier this season, even before his deteriorating performance and collapse versus the Chiefs, I knew this had to be Peyton’s last season. Every game I watched, I thought it could be the last one.
And I was sure it was.
Then he did it again. He came off the bench to come back in the last game of the regular season. He beat the Steelers who had stymied him too many times before. He defeated his greatest rival in Tom Brady and the Patriots.
His mind and his spirit competed at the same high level he has for decades, while his body was clearly telling him it was past time to retire and hang ’em up. But the Denver defense and Peyton’s mind brought him back to the Super Bowl one last time.
The game’s biggest stage – Super Bowl 50. Peyton and the Broncos are a big underdog against a near-perfect Panthers team led by a peaking Cam Newton. While the storybook ending would be that coveted second Super Bowl win and the retirement announcement following the game, many Peyton fans wonder if it will end with one last heartbreaking defeat in a game no one even imagined he would have the chance to play.
That almost misses the point though. At least for me.
It’s not about the records he’s set, the championships, or the winning percentage. It’s not about the hilarious commercials or SNL appearances.
It’s about how Peyton changed the game and the NFL. It’s about his longevity and his perseverance.
The last active player on Indianapolis’ roster in 1998 to suit up in a regular-season game was defensive end Bertrand Berry, and that came all the way back in December 2009. Manning has been the last player left from that Indianapolis roster in the league for six full seasons now. Most of the players on that team failed to last in the league for six years. …
Obviously, nobody on the Denver roster was playing in the league when Peyton entered the professional ranks in 1998. That’s selling the age gap short. When Manning turned pro, there wasn’t even a single Broncos player who had made it to college yet. …
He began his career by starting 208 consecutive contests, which is 13 seasons in a row without missing a start (or a game) because of injury. …
With the football in his hands over that time frame, Manning has been close to unstoppable. Even with that missed season and a half, Peyton’s numbers since joining the league lap the field. None of the 572 players who have thrown a pass over that time frame is close to Manning’s totals. He has thrown for 71,940 yards and 539 touchdowns over that time frame. Brees is second in both categories over that stretch, and while Brees entered the league in 2001, his numbers aren’t remotely comparable, as he’s more than 10,000 yards (60,903) and 100 passing touchdowns (428, tied with Tom Brady) behind the former Tennessee star.
It’s about the impact he left on Indianapolis and Tennessee, where dozens of children on high school football teams are named Peyton.
The Indy Star wrote a tribute to Peyton this week that is worth reading in full, but sums up the man, the player, and his impact quite well.
Hours after signing his first professional contract, the Indianapolis Colts’ rookie quarterback and newly minted $48 million man was asked what he planned on doing with all that money.
“Earn it,” he said.
How many 22-year-olds say that?
Peyton Manning did. …
How many junior high QBs yell at their offensive line?
Peyton Manning did. …
A week before the draft Manning still didn’t have his answer. So he sat in Polian’s office and pressed further. Polian told him he didn’t yet have an answer. Manning grew irritated. He got up to leave.
At the last moment, he turned to Polian. “If you draft me, I promise you we’ll win a championship,” he said, before adding a minor caveat. “If you don’t, I promise to come back and kick your ass.”
How many college quarterbacks have the audacity to say that?
Peyton Manning did. …
Which is why this city fought back tears, same as he did, on that still-surreal afternoon four years ago, the day he was forced to say goodbye. He made it all of nine words before his voice started to crack and the emotions began to swallow him. “This has weighed heavy on my heart,” he stammered. “Nobody loves their job more than I do. Nobody loves playing quarterback more than I do. There’s no other team I’ve ever wanted to play for.”
But football, as he said that day, isn’t always fair. March 2012 taught Indianapolis that.
So he started over in Denver, a legend not ready to give up on the game he loves. It began to crumble for him this season, his 39-year-old frame on the inevitable decline, his aging right arm firing far more wounded ducks than lasers or rockets or completed passes. At this stage his game was more guts and guile than anything else. His football life was expiring before our eyes.
Two months ago the NFL’s all-time leader in passing yards and touchdowns was leading the league in interceptions and being booed off his home field by his own fans. He was a backup quarterback with a sore foot. He was facing performance-enhancing drug allegations. He was done, they said.
Then he wasn’t. Then he was winning three straight. Then he was beating Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady in the playoffs, reviving a career that sat on its deathbed in late November, storming into his fourth Super Bowl two months shy of his 40th birthday.
How many 39-year-olds could have pulled off this miracle?
Because Peyton Manning did.
On Sunday, he’ll try to do what few before him could: Go out on top.
So we all prepare to say goodbye. We’ve known the day would be coming for a long time. But it’s just nice to know Peyton will go out playing at the highest level, in the biggest game, with the biggest stakes. Win or lose, we know Peyton wouldn’t have it any other way.
And neither would we.