manning

And God Bless Football

The former sports writer in me felt compelled to crank this one out.  Football will never be the same.  Peyton Manning, “The Sheriff”, is finally going to ride off into the sunset.  He will be one of the lucky few to do so after winning on the game’s biggest stage.

I remember in 2003 when Manning led the Colts to three touchdowns in the fourth quarter to defeat the Buccaneers.  I remember the 2007 AFC championship game when the Colts overcame an 18-point deficit in the second half to beat the Patriots.  I remember the 2009 Colts – Dolphins game, when Manning carried the team to a victory despite the Colts having the ball for only 15 minutes’ in total possession.  I remember in 2013 when Denver beat Baltimore after Manning threw seven touchdowns in the season opener.  I have seen every game; and as a Hoosier, I am sure my sentiments towards Manning are obviously clear.  Nonetheless, I have no interests in debating his game play or ranking his Hall of Fame career right now.

The press conference to commemorate number 18s, eighteen seasons in the NFL, was somewhat typical.  As expected, the Bronco’s praised Manning for his contributions to the team during the past four years– two Super Bowl appearances, an MVP award, and the most record-setting offense in league history – and thanked him for coming to Denver.  Manning thanked the teammates he played with, the organizations he played for, the coaches he played under, and the fans he played before.  He did so with the eloquence, sentiment, and self-deprecating comedic wit we have come to expect from Manning.  In the end, Manning delivered one of the most memorable and heartfelt retirement speeches in the history of professional sports (at least in my opinion).

But Manning ended his remarks with something I didn’t expect.  He said “God bless each of you, and God bless football.”  God bless football.  And God bless football?

This caught me off guard.  Yes, football is “under attack”.  The past few seasons, coverage of the sport seems to be diminished to four basic principles – substance abuse, assault charges, deflated footballs, and head trauma.  Yet in a year when the NFL has managed to return to the only major media market without an NFL franchise (Los Angeles), and in a season when the NFL has again posted record profits and is more popular than ever, the sport seems to be doing just fine.

But all the aforementioned things happened with Peyton Manning as a part of football.

nflAs a player, Manning’s career was characterized by a character of consistency.  A consistency, which despite the accusations of PED use by a now defunct news network, Manning’s professional career remains untainted by the speculation and character accusation which seem to always pollute athletic achievement.  Manning always made it about football. Perhaps that why so many in media and professional sports were so quick to dispute the PED accusations as rubbish.  There are still some who maintain that Peyton’s “good guy, All-American image” was in fact a ruse by a highly successful salesman, but for me, Manning’s closing line really is the affirmation of who he really was – someone who truly loved the game.

As a sports fan, I have little sympathy for professional athletes.  Many of whom seem unappreciative of the millions of dollars they are making, doing the very same thing millions of us do for free in our spare time.  I guess it’s jealousy on my part, but what an awesome way to earn a living (yes, I acknowledge that there is preparation, hard word, commitment, and a talent threshold which prevents ‘just anyone’ from doing what professional athletes do).  There was a time, when professional athletes played for the love of the game.  Football greats like Johnny Unitas and Jim Brown held off-season jobs, and they were among the highest paid players in the league during their time.  They were athletes who played the game because they loved it.  Manning represents one of the last of a dying breed among modern professional athletes who shares those feelings, the players who still play out of a love for the game.  The type of players who embrace all the positive attributes of sports, and embodied the values which youth coaches everywhere have been preaching throughout the history of sports.  With Manning’s departure from the game, only a handful of these type of players remain in American professional sports.

I believe that is detrimental to the game of football.  Socially, with fewer and fewer players sharing in the positive football message Manning embraced – team work, perseverance, and fair competition – what are we left with?  The Ray Rice, Johnny Manzel version of football?  Where is the value in that?  The defense of football becomes harder, as all we are left with is a sport physically dangerous and morally corrupt.

The business of football will also change without Manning.  For nearly two decades, the marketability of football was built around the omniscient Manning-Brady rivalry story.  Despite the many differences between these two talented athletes, their similarities were what resonated with audiences.  Both men who have maintained a mutual respect for their opponent.  Both men who predicated their success on hard work and preparation.  Both men who accomplished the sport’s greatest feats – oftentimes at the expense of the other.  The Manning-Brady archetypes, and the storytelling which surrounded their competition against one another, was football.  Unless the rising generation of NFL superstars (like Cam Newton and Andrew Luck) are willing to stand up and truly embody the positive aspects of football, the profitability of the game, and the popularity which resonated with the casual fan, will suffer.

The NFL will be entering another era, albeit solely acknowledged by Colts fans (and Volunteers fans), and that is football post the great Peyton Manning.  As we move forward, maybe we will need some divine intervention to keep the sport we love flourishing.