It’s been a few days now—a week, in fact. Can we talk about it yet? Have the wounds begun to heal?
Let’s just get the awkward stuff out of the way: Super Bowl XLVIII was painful. It was worse than waiting for the lights to come back on in New Orleans, worse than the desperate GoDaddy commercials, and even worse than watching the Packers dominate in 2011. It was monotonous, it was one-sided, and it opened with a safety. A SAFETY! I don’t care what team you’re rooting for, that’s one limp noodle way to get the biggest sporting event of the year off the ground.
But what really made this year into a steaming pile of pigskin was that this loss for Peyton Manning means we will now be subjected to the same tiresome debate and conjecture that we’ve heard all year (and long before that) about what this means for his “legacy.”
Peyton. Manning’s. Legacy.
This is seriously a discussion that we’re having. Ugh. We’re the worst. And no, it’s not just that easy scapegoat, “The Media.” Every sports fan does it, and we’re all The Worst.
Let’s get real about why we watch sports in the first place. No one’s denying that we’re tuning in for the thrill of competition and to see top-notch athletic feats on display. But these athletes aren’t a collection of nameless, faceless jerseys on a field. They’re individual personas and we crave stories not only about their athletic accomplishments, but also about who they are as people—and especially as teammates. Hell, that’s over half of what Olympic coverage is: human interest pieces. Nothing makes an athlete more compelling than when we become invested in them as a person. It’s why we remember Kerri Strug’s name and virtually no others from the gold-medal-winning women’s gymnastics team. We want to watch the human spirit triumph, and there is no better combination toward that end than superior athleticism mixed with genuine goodness.
Everyone knows the stats and the records Peyton’s broken; and if you don’t, go look this up immediately. I can’t even begin to list them all here, and my layman’s understanding of the details of football statistics could hardly do them justice. Suffice it to say, his performance this year spoke for itself and he now owns just about every record a player at his position possibly could. But as anyone who watches any SportsCenter knows, we were only allowed to enjoy this for the briefest of moments; and then it was time to tear it down, limb from limb. Because why bask in greatness when we could pick it apart? The most pervasive question was whether any of it meant anything if he didn’t pick up a ring in 2014. Yup. Does shattering records and making an often tiresome league into something worth watching for a season mean anything without a Super Bowl. What’s confused me the most about this argument was, ya know, history. Cause, lest we forget, he has a ring. In fairness, it’s a ring I do like to forget, because it leads to some sticky affiliation conflicts for me. But it happened and it’s real. So, the Marino comparison should be out, right? Oh, the one championship isn’t good enough? Sure. I get it. If you give a mouse a cookie, I guess.
Yes, I understand that in order to make this specific year a truly perfect season for him, a Super Bowl win was necessary. I’m not denying that. So, fine. 2013 wasn’t a perfect season for him. If it’s really that important to you to put that label on it, FINE. But seriously? The question is actually whether anything he accomplished this season has meaning because of that lame duck of a game? I’m not living in the hyperbole here, folks. This is the phraseology that’s being bandied about by commentators and sports writers, and it was the unavoidable discussion for most of this magical season.
I also understand that the true criticism lies in the contention that he’s better at creating impressive stats than he is at winning games. And again, I don’t profess to have an understanding of the game that’s on par with a seasoned sports writer—nor do I profess to be a sports writer at all—but I guess I must have been watching a different quarterback all these years. From where I was sitting on various couches and bar stools across the Chicagoland area, here was a man who time and time again—while he was simultaneously putting on nothing short of clinic in quarterbacking—led his team to commanding victory after commanding victory and did so amidst contract controversy, very serious neck surgeries, and the albatross of his “legacy” forever hanging off him. But, like I said, I must’ve been watching a different player. Perhaps my facial recognition isn’t what I thought it was.
Snark and sarcasm aside, I’m not really here to talk about what his personal stats and his win/loss record say about this nebulous legacy. Frankly, I don’t care. Peyton Manning will be a Hall of Fame quarterback. There’s no question about that. Once that’s true of you, it’s just a matter of semantics when it comes to who’s the “best of all time.” And was anyone ever really going to agree on who wears this mantle?
What sets Peyton apart from every other “great” is what he does for sport—what he contributes to the game of football and all athletics just by being the person he is. What’s unique about Peyton Manning is the man. Professional athletics are filled with ego, self-glorification, and obnoxious personalities. We just accept this as a fact of life, and in some ways, excuse it as necessary. You need adrenaline and confidence, right? So, we allow for a certain amount of the type of behavior that we’d never tolerate from other mere mortals. And then there’s Peyton.
I came late to my Manning obsession. He was, afterall, the assassin of my Bears-fan hopes and dreams in 2007. Trust me, there was no love lost when the Colts returned to the championship game to play the Saints. I wore my black and gold, and bitterly cheered for Indy’s failure. But then I fell in love with a Colts fan, and time passed, and I got over my disappointment (were any of us all that enamored of Rex Grossman anyway?). And I started to pay attention—not just to what happened on the field, but what he said in interviews, how he interacted with his teammates, how he spent his time when the defense was on the field. Simply put, the man is remarkable. There’s no other word for it. Here’s someone who’s been told every day since he was a small child that he was superior, and how does he handle it? He works harder. He watches more game tape, he studies plays on the sidelines, he coaches less seasoned players, he reviews the tiniest of mistakes until they’re a distant memory, he conducts himself like a true class act time and time again. He loves his wife and his children. He’s close with his family. His dad is not only his hero, but his best friend, as well. And when the team that he’d helped build decided to let him go after 14 seasons, he walked up to the mic to give his statement, and with tears in his eyes, thanked a city for letting him be their quarterback. I’m crying just writing that.
And then—cause we’re not done here, folks—when he could’ve easily hung up the cleats and gone out with his mark on the game intact, he took a major risk and signed with a whole new team, just four days shy of his 36th birthday.
That is Peyton Manning’s legacy, plain and simple. He plays for love of the game, his teammates, his family, and his fans. He has shown what it means to strive for and to excel at the complete spectrum of athletics. Less than the full scope of his abilities is unacceptable to him—in uniform and out.
Like art, the best moments in sports are about community and shared experiences. It’s why we’re fans of a team and not just passive spectators of a game as a whole. So, you can tell me one Super Bowl ring isn’t good enough. You can poke holes in the importance of personal stats. You can be impressed with your own ability to rain on the parade of what brings millions of people joy as much as you like. I guess sentiment holds little water against your keen analytical prowess. But I will continue to believe that he’s already proven his worth in the numbers game. His Legacy is this ride we’ve all gotten to come along on. And that is one hell of a ride.