Welcome to the Future
I didn’t grow up a baseball fan. Willie Mays retired from the sport following the 1973 season and ended any lengthy discussion about baseball in my mother’s house. In one corner of my parents’ den, just behind the chair my mother usually sits in, hangs a collection of Willie Mays memorabilia. This collection was the extent of my baseball education growing up. The discontinuing of her interest in baseball wasn’t because my mother hated the sport. On the contrary, she loves it but has only recently started watching, again. For her, the pure passion and joy of watching a game held its magic in Willie Mays’s bat and glove, and once he retired, Major League Baseball just wasn’t the same.
Peyton Manning is my Willie Mays.
Eighteen years ago, I fell in love with a gawky 18-year-old whose face hadn’t quite caught up with his nose, whose southern drawl was so thick I was one of the few people in the world who understood him for many years, and whose football abilities made him one of the most highly sought after quarterbacks in the country. He chose the University of Tennessee much to the chagrin of fans and alums of the University of Mississippi (his parents’ alma mater), but it was a decision that made sense. He was not destined for the ordinary life or follow the leader decisions. To say I could tell he was going to be as great as he has been when he was just 18 years old would be insane, but I can tell you that the same competitive desire and passion for perfection that we’ve learned from him was already there all those years ago. The question was whether that desire and passion would translate into a football career beyond our wildest imaginations. And did it ever!
I was a 15-year-old high school girl who found athletes cute before I noticed their talent. I wasn’t a sports fanatic at that point. I watched sports because that’s what the rest of my family did. I had no choice…until Peyton Manning hit my radar. He taught me football. More than that, he taught me to love football…to purely LOVE football. He did that by loving his job. His pure love of the game and love of playing that game overflows from him so much so that you can’t help but get excited to watch him and learn from him and love what he loves.
Today, a chapter in his remarkable career came to a close with these words from Colts Owner Jim Irsay: “Well, we’re here to announce the conclusion of Peyton’s playing career with the Colts.” Those are words I never expected to hear until the day Peyton decided his complete playing career was over, but as Peyton and Jim will tell you, “circumstances” dictated a different story. The future is uncertain, but it’s here whether we’re ready for it or not, and Peyton will be wearing a different jersey come September. As emotionally spent as I am right now after sobbing uncontrollably at my desk during the press conference, I don’t think it will truly sink in until I see him with his new team.
I know Peyton won’t play forever. I know he’s not dead. I know he’s not retired. But I did believe and hope, as he has always hoped, that as long as he did play, he would play for the Colts. That’s why this is sad. All the “business decision” statements don’t help. In fact, it makes it hurt more because for the last 14 years it’s been personal and not business. It’s been relationship based not about the bottom line. A person doesn’t break down emotionally about having to say good-bye to equipment managers if it’s just a business. So, when the rules get changed sadness and emotion sets in because it’s not what you’ve known for almost a decade and a half. I also understand that there are a million more important things going on in the world that deserve my attention, but as hard as it was for Peyton to get through his speech without fighting back tears and his voice cracking, I can’t ignore how I feel about this, either. He said to the fans, “Thank you very much from the bottom of my heart. I truly have enjoyed being your quarterback.” What he doesn’t understand (or maybe he does…I hope he does) is that the enjoyment and privilege has been all ours.
So where do “we” go from here? Where is Peyton going to take my fandom next? I won’t stop watching football as my mother did with baseball. The love and passion for the game that Peyton taught me doesn’t allow for such things. But, I do know it will be very surreal, and eventually I will come to accept the next chapter. As Tom Hanks said in Sleepless in Seattle, “I’m gonna get out of bed every morning… breathe in and out all day long. Then, after a while I won’t have to remind myself to get out of bed every morning and breathe in and out… and, then after a while, I won’t have to think about how I had it great and perfect for a while.”
Eighteen years ago, I chose to become a fan of someone who had the potential to be one of the greatest football players ever, and this player/fan relationship has been one of the most rewarding of my entire life. Not everyone has it as easy as I have or been as blessed as I have been. A player like Peyton Manning comes along once, maybe twice, in a lifetime, and we get to be the lucky beneficiaries of that history making. That said, I knew if he became one of the greats, I wouldn’t want it to end in disgrace or drama. But I also know I never expected it would be as good as it has been.
Thank you, Peyton Manning, for helping me fall in love with the game of football. Welcome to your future. May it be as bright and successful as the previous chapter.
“Thank you, Jim.
“I sure have loved playing football for the Indianapolis Colts. For 14 wonderful years, the only professional football I’ve known is Colts football. Our team won a lot of games here, I’ve played with so many great teammates here and I’ve been part of a great organization here, an organization and an owner who I respect and continue to respect.
“I’ve been a Colt for almost all my adult life. But I guess in life and in sports, we all know that nothing lasts forever. (Pause, voice cracks …) Times change, circumstances change, and that’s the reality of playing in the NFL.
“Jim and I have spoken extensively about where we are today and our conversations have led both of us to recognize that our circumstances make it best to take the next step. This has not been easy for Jim and it certainly has not been easy for me. Jim, along with Bill Polian, drafted me 14 years ago. Jim and I have always been close. We made a lot of great memories together. He’s always been good to me. And Jim, I will forever be grateful.
“This town and this team mean so much to me. (Long pause, emotion.) It truly has been an honor to play in Indianapolis. (Voice cracks) I do love it here. (Voice cracking throughout) I love the fans and I will always enjoy having played for such a great team. I will leave the Colts with nothing but good thoughts and gratitude, to Jim, the organization, my teammates, the media and especially the fans.
“I haven’t thought yet about where I’ll play, but I have thought a lot about where I’ve been. And I’ve truly been blessed. (Voice cracking.) I’ve been blessed to play here. I’ve been blessed to be in the NFL.
“And as I go, I go with just a few words left to say, a few words I want to address to Colts fans everywhere. Thank you very much from the bottom of my heart. I truly have enjoyed being your quarterback. (Voice cracking, then trails off.) Thank you.”