When I was a kid, the Sears Tower in Chicago was the tallest building in the world and I rode an elevator to the very top of it. I was probably six years old. The weather was pretty crazy that day and at the top you could actually feel the building swaying in the wind. It was an odd feeling, and yet even more clearly, I remember thinking how amazing it was to be higher than anyone else in any other building on the planet. Looking around at the people on the observation deck with me, I thought “right now, we’re at the top of the world. No one else can say they’re higher than we are.” Only a few dozen people. A tiny group at the top of the world. It only lasted a few minutes, but there we were.
Back then, the best quarterbacks in the world were people named John Elway and Dan Marino and Joe Montana. These were the names on the lips of every sportscaster from Howard Cosell all the way down the the guy that wrote articles for the local newspaper. We had local newspapers back then. Elway. Marino. Montana. These are the names you always heard, but you heard other names, too. Whispered, it seemed. References. Is he as clutch as Bart Starr? Is he as good as Bob Greise? Can he take over a game like Otto Graham? There was a timelessness to certain names, even if I never got to see them play. There were the players of now, the Montanas, Elways and Marinos, and then there were the players of then. The Bobby Laynes. The Joe Namaths. The Sammy Baughs.
I don’t know those older guys, really. I just heard the names. I knew they were revered in the sport and that they had ascended to a level very few players do. I never got to see them play, but I did get to see Peyton Manning.
Peyton Manning grew up in Louisiana, the son of one of the most talented quarterbacks to ever play professional football. If you haven’t watched The Book of Manning I highly recommend it. The thing I took away from it, more than anything, was that Peyton Manning always wanted to be a quarterback. Like his dad. There was a quote I’ll never forget, from a family friend, who said “Peyton….he was very small…two and a half [or] three years old. He’d wanna show you his drop back, and how he could set up.”
My god. Two and a half or three years old, and Peyton Manning not only knew what he wanted to do with his life, but was already honing his skills. How many people do you know who still haven’t figured out what they want to do with their life? How many people never really do?
Peyton Manning exploded into the NFL with a thunderclap and by the end of his sixth year as an Indianapolis Colt he had already surpassed his father’s lifetime passing totals. How many people can say that? It’s an old chestnut to follow in your father’s footsteps, but how many people actually do it, and how many do it that well?
I’m a lifelong Patriots fan, starting in the Tony Eason two win years and following through Steve Grogan’s neck brace, through the Sullivan stadium years and onto the Kraft years we’re in now. I’ve watched every game Bill Belichick has coached and the only player I’ve ever seen him afraid of in all that time is Peyton Manning. I could write a book on all the ways Bill tried to scheme against Peyton and all of the ways those two played chess while everyone else played checkers. Pundits and bandwagoneers always played up the Manning vs. Brady logline, but the truth is that they were never on the same field at the same time. It was always Manning vs. Belichick, and for years Peyton went head to head with the New England coach. That was a monkey on Peyton’s back for a long time. That he couldn’t beat the Patriots. That he couldn’t win big games. That he never won a Super Bowl. But Peyton was then and has always been that little boy, drilling in the back yard. Focussed. Intense.
I can see him at the line even now, in that blue Colts jersey, the white number eighteen catching the light perfectly. He’s in the huddle, we’re going dice right, ice cream, alert, 654, Jose on nothing! The scum breaks and his offensive line sets, perfectly motionless as Peyton scans the defense. He’s the picture of frenetic motion behind center, like a football computer, adding up all the variables and countering. Is it zone or man? Are they going to drop six into coverage? Are they going to bring a safety out of the hole? Are they going to bump the cross? In seconds, Peyton would input all of the information, yell new orders to his troops and execute a winning play. At the top of his game, there was never a field marshal who commanded the troops quite like Peyton Manning. He was a thing of beauty to watch if you were a fan and a thing of hair-pulling frustration if you were an adversary. And eventually, he bested the ghosts that dogged him. He did beat the Patriots. He did win the big games. He did win the Super Bowl.
And so it was a rewarding feeling to see Peyton finally get those last yards that made him the NFL’s all time leading passer. I was happy when he broke the record. Relieved, even. I don’t really know why. Maybe because I felt like he deserved it.
As we all know by now, Peyton had a truly miserable game on Sunday. He’s in the midst of a miserable statistical season and when you watch him play, that edge is gone. The Peyton we remember in his prime would bounce around on his toes infuriatingly in the pocket and then BAM, deliver a strike on a frozen rope. Now you can measure the arc on his throws in cubits. It’s awful to watch. Truly heartbreaking to see something that was once so mighty be struck so low.
Peyton apologists will point to his obvious injuries. It was a thigh muscle last season that signaled his drop off the ledge of physical performance. Now it’s plantar fasciitis and something with his ribs and I’m sure a half a dozen other things, not the least of which is his surgically repaired neck. They will rightly point out that no one plays well when they’re as dinged up as he is.
Peyton naysayers will tell you that he stayed a year too long and this is the price you pay for vanity. That his desire to gain personal records has led to him holding an entire franchise hostage because, let’s face it: you can’t just arbitrarily play someone over Peyton Manning. He is the centerpiece of every team he’s on, going back to his youth football days. But now, Peyton drops to the turf faster than anyone to avoid taking a hit. Everyone knows so well that Peyton plays poorly in the cold that his old team opened the stadium roof to let the cold in to greet him when he played them the week before last. Peyton has no fastball and his deep ball is so wonky and hangs in the air so long that defenses pray that he tries to air it out. Teams shut down the run and safeties are basically dry humping the backs of their linebackers getting close to the line of scrimmage because no one respects Peyton’s arm anymore. Please please try to throw it over my head, Peyton. I’ll snatch that duck right out of the sky. He can’t throw with velocity more that fifteen yards anymore. At thirty-nine years old and broken all to hell, he has become a liability. In just about fourteen months, Peyton Manning, once the most daunting predator in the league, has now very clearly become the prey.
On Sunday, after throwing four interceptions, he was benched “for injury reasons.” He’s already been declared out for the upcoming week while he heals up. That’s where we are right now. Kind of a football purgatory. No one knows when Peyton Manning will be back. No one knows if we’ve seen his last snap. Peyton sits alone atop the list of all-time passing touchdown leaders. Even though he’s now eclipsed Favre’s passing yards record, he’s still tied with Favre for the most career wins at 186. Will he heal up enough to get that final win to put him over the top?
As tough as it is to see Peyton play like he is, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to wallow in it too much. Every single player that enters the NFL hopes they can be the best. Peyton has been. Players worry about not starting and not getting playing time and having a coach they don’t like and feeling like they don’t have a say in their careers and wondering if they’ll be cut or traded and knowing they could do well if they only could get playing time and worrying about money and health insurance and being forced to pick up and move to a new city and uprooting your family and not having a say about the playbook and not vetting their position coach. Peyton has been in the league since 1998 and he’s never had to deal with any of that. He has had to prove doubters wrong and come back from a devastating neck injury, but Peyton is a grown man and at the end of the day he’ll be fine.
I’d like nothing better than to see him stay off the field until the playoffs. I’d like to see him rest up and heal and get ready for one last push. I don’t doubt for a single second that Peyton will get that win to put him over the top. He’s been gunning for it since the second he learned to drop back and set up. Wouldn’t it be poetic, and sweet for the game of football, for him to go out on top? One final run for the ages? Like John Elway did in the same uniform Peyton wears now. God knows he has the intelligence and determination to do it, but time is a wind that never stops blowing. The mind may be willing but the body may not be able.
Even so, don’t shed a tear for Peyton, because he achieved his life’s goal. How many people, in any profession, can say that? When he was two and a half or three, he knew what he wanted to do. And then he DID IT. He rode the elevator to the very top of the tallest building in football, an elevator powered by his hours upon hours of study and his physical regimen and his natural command of a game that has left so many thousands upon thousands of others behind.
That tenacity, that drive is what made him a superstar. Since 1998 he has been a force in the NFL; simultaneously a maestro and a technician. I spent minutes at the top of the world. Peyton has spent a lifetime there. The Sears Tower isn’t the tallest building in the world anymore and it’s not even called the Sears Tower these days, but it’s still a fixture of the skyline, its aging skeleton braced against an unrelenting wind. In the years since that visit, Peyton Manning has made himself into such a cultural fixture, such an advertising juggernaut, that many young children will know him more from his commercials than from his actual playing. As they grow up, they’ll hear the names of the top players in the league - names we don’t even know yet. But softer, in the background, they’ll hear other names, like Fran Tarkenton and Roger Staubach and Johnny Unitas, as if whispered in the wind. Names that mean something. Names that represent a heroic ideal of accomplishment and greatness. Only a few dozen people. A tiny group, sitting at the top of the world.
And time, old time, is a wind that never stops blowing.
But in that very wind, whispered for as long as people play the game of football, they’ll hear the name of Peyton Manning.