The Man In The Mirror
Take those boots off the shelf
Wipe that dust off yourself
Even if you’ve been through hell
The stories have been out there for a couple years now…the process through which Peyton Manning returned to the playing field from the ugly to the triumphant. They’re all there. The most striking ones to me have always been that he couldn’t sit himself up in bed after the final surgery and that he watched himself in a mirror throw footballs to re-learn how to pass the ball. There are millions of stories about athletes rehabbing their way back to play the sport they love. In fact, there are plenty on the Denver Broncos roster alone. Peyton’s story is just one of them.
As I watched him walk the sidelines in a polo shirt and khaki pants in Indianapolis during the 2011 season, I wondered if this was the final image we’d ever have of him as a player. As we learned everything he’d gone through to try to get back on the field just for that season, I wondered if this was the last image we’d ever have of HIM. Was this going to be what sidelined him for life not just for career? It was scary. Anytime you mess with the neck, it’s scary, and I don’t mind telling you there was a part of me who wanted to say “just stop. You have a beautiful wife and two amazing children. Live for them. You’ve done enough.” But saying that to Peyton Manning would be like telling the sun not to rise.
And so it began…his long road back to the top of his game…not just the game of football…but to HIS game of football…the way he plays it. I love football in all its forms, but if you told me I could only watch one person play football for the rest of my life, I’d ask for a reel of Peyton’s games because I just LOVE the way HE plays football…even in the bad games. As he was rehabbing and fighting with his nerve damage everyday, I was hoping and praying he’d just be able to play the game, again. I wanted to see him run out of that tunnel, buckle that chin strap, take that snap, pass that ball. That’s what I hoped for, dreamed of, wanted. He wanted more.
He wanted to be a part of a team, again. He wanted to walk up to the line of scrimmage, cast his vision on the defense, smile to himself, call the perfect play, and eat that opponent alive. That’s what a competitor does when faced with the challenge of a lifetime. You stand up and say, “You’re not gonna beat me today.” So that’s how he found himself in front of a mirror watching himself throw a football because he knew what he was doing wasn’t right, and he needed to see it for himself in order to fix it.
Since his return, I’ve been afraid the last image I would have of him on the football field would be of him lying there unconscious, his fate unknown. I tried to remind myself that the only thing I wanted after all the surgeries and all the rehab was to see him play football. The fear gets a little less each step of the way like the half-life of a chemical element, and now I worry about him getting hurt on the average play just like any other player on the field not because of anything in his medical history. At the same time, these last two seasons have brought me more joy than I ever imagined, and while watching him play is an amazing thrill, learning about his new team has been the icing on the best cake you’ve ever tasted. Foxy, Champ, DT, Woodyard, Julius, Pot Roast, Manny, Unrein, Knowshon, Bruton, Welker, Prater, Zane…just to name a few…these guys go into battle with Peyton every week. They each have their own goals and dreams…their own legacies to build, but they each play for the Denver Broncos, and that means something to me…something that came as a great surprise to me this deep into my NFL fandom. This team…this franchise…this is what it’s meant to be…this is what it’s supposed to feel like. And I, for one, am grateful to the Broncos for letting me be a fan of it all on their journey to the Super Bowl.
Now don’t get me wrong. I WANT that Super Bowl tomorrow. You put a chance at winning the holy grail of the NFL in front of me and I suddenly turn into one of Pavlov’s dogs…one of the more rabid of the litter, in fact. Still, there have been a lot of articles in recent weeks about Peyton’s legacy and about how winning or losing this game is what his entire career hinges on as if to say his body of work over the entirety of the last 16 seasons has meant nothing. They’re frustrating to read for someone like me who’s been a fan of his for 20 years. But wanting that Lombardi Trophy and believing its the only thing that matters when defining a successful career are two completely different things. In the history of sports, no trophy or championship has made a player or a coach a better player or coach than they were before the game. They are each the same person with the same talent and competitiveness. They just happen to have some hardware on the shelf. But in this day and age of over-analyzing, we pay people to tell you that Peyton Manning is a failure or hasn’t accomplished anything if the Broncos don’t win tomorrow night.
Don’t believe that. Instead, consider this. His legacy, to me, is only further cemented every single time he runs out of that tunnel because this is a man who could’ve been one surgery away from not being able to walk, again, much less be able to produce the single greatest statistical season for a quarterback in NFL history. But proving anything to anyone was never why Peyton worked so hard to get back to the game. Proving he wasn’t done. Proving he was up to the challenge and could exceed expectations. Proving he gets to decide when he’s done. All of that is and was for the man in the mirror. He’s got one more thing to prove to that man, and he gets to do that tomorrow night in Super Bowl XLVIII.