“The greatest pleasure in life is doing what people say you cannot do.”
~ Walter Bagehot ~
I remember it like it was yesterday. It was a Saturday morning. I was in college, and I set my alarm so I would wake up in time to see it. I went out to the living room so as to not disturb my sleeping roommate, and I turned on the TV. The commissioner of the NFL stepped to the podium and spoke into the microphone, “With the first pick, the Indianapolis Colts select quarterback, University of Tennessee, Peyton Manning.” I had been a Peyton Manning fan for four years by that point, and that morning would define the next eighteen.
On March 7, 2016, that eighteen years came to a close as the man who taught me to love and cherish the game of football decided it was time to hang up his cleats. As I sat there watching quite possibly the best, most gracious retirement speech I’ve ever seen in my lifetime, I wondered how to process it all. Over the course of the last season, I’ve had many moments to accept this was the end, to process the finality of one the greatest experiences of my life, but when faced with the actuality of it, it didn’t feel real at all. I wanted to laugh. I wanted to cry. I wanted to do anything but accept what was happening before my eyes. It wasn’t until the next morning when my mind began comprehending what the 2016 NFL season would look like. Since 1994, with the exception of 22 games, I could count on Peyton Manning playing football in the fall. That won’t be the case come September. I realized there would be no more live plays to add to the memory bank. All I have now is game film and highlights (God bless NFL Films) and stories I could tell over and over. I want to remember everything because someday someone who is too young now or hasn’t even been born, yet, may ask me, “what was it like to see Peyton Manning play football?” First, I would ask how much time they had, and then this would be my answer.
He could quiet an entire stadium of people with the wave of his hand. He could pick up a blitz faster than a defensive coordinator could order one. Opposing coaches had plays in their playbook specifically named for him that, try as they might, still didn’t work. He could run an 80 yard, 2-minute drill with such pristine efficiency that it was questionable if he was even human. His memory was like a super computer. He could process information so quickly that I’ve said on more than one occasion that he should donate his brain to science research after his death. His passion and love for the game of football and its history is unequaled. His teammates loved him, his fans adored him, and the league was grateful for his professionalism and class. As the son of a Pro-Bowl quarterback, he had every highest expectation possible hanging over his head his entire life, and he lived up to and exceeded all of it. In my heart and soul, there will never be another like him. But that’s just the Cliff’s Notes. Here’s the novel.
Alongside every great football player is his teammates, and Peyton had some of the best in the business. I could attempt to list them all here, but it would take far too long, too much space, and I would surely forget several. It’s easier to talk about it in moments. Let’s start with Peyton’s most frequent target, Marvin Harrison. My favorite Marvin memory isn’t one of his long catches or how he managed to make nearly every corner in the league dive the wrong way on a tackle attempt. It was a two-point conversion in the 2006 AFC Championship game. It’s significant for multiple reasons. It was a pinpoint, accurate pass that only Marvin could catch. It came after a touchdown Peyton threw to defensive tackle Dan Klecko, and it tied the game after a comeback from 18 points down. That game took years off my life. In fact, I very nearly turned it off and went to bed, but I was doing laundry at the time, so I told myself I’d go to bed as soon as the laundry was done. The dryer buzzed on the last load right after that two-point conversion, so I went to bed much later than planned that night. Both teams battled it out, and to this day, these are the final words etched in my brain: “Intercepted by Marlin Jackson. Marlin’s got it. We’re going to the Super Bowl. We’re going to the Super Bowl.” Those are the words of Colts radio announcer Bob Lamey describing Tom Brady throwing an interception to seal the Colts victory, and I will never forget them.
The touchdown catch that runs through my memory like a YouTube video on repeat is touchdown #49 in the 2004 season to Brandon Stokley. I can see that entire play in my head. It was from 21 yards out, and Brandon was lined up in the slot. He took off running as fast as he could, and Peyton threw a pass over the middle to the end zone before Brandon was even there, but by the time the ball sailed through the air, it fell right into Brandon’s hands who had reached the perfect spot at just the right second. It was beautiful, and it broke Dan Marino’s single-season TD record. Tom Brady would eventually break Peyton’s record in 2007 with 50, and Peyton would break Tom’s record with 55 touchdowns in 2013, but that pass to Brandon Stokley might be my favorite touchdown pass Peyton ever threw.
In Peyton’s 14 year career with the Colts, a lot of players came and went, but my absolute favorite player Peyton has ever played with is Dallas Clark, tight end from Iowa. I’m not ashamed to admit, he’s easy on the eyes, but he was also a workhorse who laid his body on the line for that football team. He played the 2006 post season with a partially torn ACL because we needed him to be an acrobat in football pads. I have watched that man make a one-handed catch for a touchdown with the ball high above his head. I have seen him stumble over the grass untouched, correct his balance, and then complete the 80-yard touchdown in a win vs. the Dolphins in which the Colts possessed the ball for less than 15 minutes of game time. It was unheard of for any team in NFL history to win a game while controlling the ball for less than 15 minutes. The Dolphins gambled that keeping Peyton on the bench gave them the best shot at winning the game. Bad idea. Don’t tell Peyton he can’t do something because no one has ever done it before. It will backfire. It was also the night Peyton surpassed Johnny Unitas as the winningest Colts quarterback in team history. But even those touchdowns aren’t my favorite Dallas Clark completion. In fact, it was a bobbled catch vs. the Ravens in the 2006 divisional round playoff game. The defender was in front of Dallas Clark, but Peyton threw that ball anyway. It grazed the defenders fingertips, and Dallas got a hand on it. It then rolled right down his arm, bounced off his thigh, and landed in his hand. First down, move the chains. Peyton got the next play off so quickly that he managed to catch the Ravens in a 12 men on the field penalty, one of his specialties in picking defenses apart. But, that catch kept the Colts’ drive alive and led to a fifth field goal and a secured spot in the AFC championship game the next week. It was so ugly, it was beautiful.
I remember the first time I ever saw Peyton play in person in an NFL game. It was the opening game of the 2004 regular season vs. the Ravens in Baltimore. That’s not the friendliest of stadiums to play especially for the Colts. There’s a bit of history there, none of which is related to anyone on the team now or in 2004 for that matter. Nevertheless, the animosity still exists, but what I remember about that game is seeing the no-huddle audible up close and live for the first time. TV doesn’t even come close to doing it justice. Not even HD can capture its perfection. I sat there mesmerized by his command and efficiency in the short amount of time a play clock allows. Some people get impatient waiting for him to take the snap, but when you really watch, really sit back and take in every second of it, it actually looks more like art than football.
The important part of that process is the snap itself. I’ve watched enough football in my life to know how a snap can make or break the momentum of a team. For the majority of his career, Peyton had one person snapping him the ball: Jeff Saturday, Tar Heel. (That one was for you, Stuart Scott.) Jeff had the difficult task of translating Peyton’s audibles to the rest of the offensive line. He developed an entirely different language for them, so he would hear Peyton’s audible and relay the plan to the rest of the line in the language only they knew. It was a well-oiled machine, but Peyton put Jeff through the ringer. I remember when they were preparing to play the Bears in Super Bowl XLI, there was a report that it might rain on Super Bowl Sunday. In the week leading up to the game, after practice each day, Peyton would have Jeff dunk the football in freezing, cold water and then snap the ball to him over and over just in case the report was correct. It was, by the way. First time in Super Bowl history it rained on game day.
I was honored to be invited to the White House when the Colts came to visit with the President, and I met Dallas Clark, Jeff Saturday, and Adam Vinatieri. I also had the great privilege of finally meeting Peyton Manning and Tony Dungy at the US Capitol. They all could not have been more gracious and kind. Meeting Peyton obviously was the highlight, but words, much like that day as I bumbled through talking to him, fail me in trying to describe that moment. It is frozen in time, but I remember him sticking out his hand and saying, “Hi, I’m Peyton Manning,” kidding me about graduating from Alabama, and graciously agreeing to take a picture with me. Those days remain two of the best days of my life.
I will never forget the first time he beat the Patriots in Foxborough. That stadium had been his kryptonite, but one Monday night in 2005, as I sat in my bedroom floor bawling my eyes out, the final seconds ticked off the clock in a 40-21 win. It was something I never thought I’d get to see, but by golly, he pulled it off. I remember sitting in the floor in front of my parents’ TV on Thanksgiving Day in 2004 wearing my #18 Colts jersey as I watched Peyton throw six touchdown passes against the Lions. I’d never seen anything like it, and I thought I never would, again. Funny thing, though, Peyton always likes to prove me wrong.
The second time I saw Peyton play an NFL game in person was in Indianapolis in a September 2006 game vs. the Jaguars. That was the day I realized how genius it was to play football indoors in a controlled climate. So much more enjoyable for spectators to not have to worry about being too hot or too cold or rained/snowed on. It was heavenly for this girl who grew up sweating to death at Tampa Bay Buccaneers games. The game was even better. Dallas scored, Terrence Wilkins – the little engine that could- scored on an 82-yard punt return, and Peyton Manning scored a rushing touchdown on a naked bootleg. I couldn’t have asked for a better game to see live.
Since I mentioned the Buccaneers, maybe this is the perfect time to talk about that miracle night in 2003. It was Tony Dungy’s second season as the Colts head coach and his first return to Tampa after being fired by them following the 2001 season. Every single member of that Colts team wanted to win that game for him, but things seemed bleak down the stretch with the Colts down 21 points with less than seven minutes remaining in the game. The Bucs wouldn’t score another point while the Colts would score 24 unanswered. It was a Monday night game and my mom had stayed home and sent my father and brother to the game by themselves. I remember talking to her as the Bucs, winning by 7, punted the ball back to the Colts with a little more than 90 seconds left in regulation. I told her, “you have left him too much time on the clock. You will lose this game.” Peyton didn’t need 90 seconds. He needed four to tie the game. A Bucs missed field goal later and the game went into overtime with the Colts eventually winning on a 29-yard field goal. To this day, of all the come from behind victories I have watched Peyton orchestrate over the years, that game remains my absolute favorite one.
Of course, it wasn’t always as easy as it seemed. In fact, sometimes it was downright excruciating to get through a season that didn’t end in a Super Bowl win because the narrative was always that Peyton couldn’t win the Big Game…until he did. Then it became he can’t win another one. The media never stopped. He evicted one monkey from his back and another one was placed there the next day. In total, his teams reached four Super Bowls and won two. The pain of losing in a Super Bowl is something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, but mark my words, losing in your first game of the playoffs is more brutal than I can even put into words. I wanted a championship for him so badly, that I physically ached after some of those playoff losses. The problem was always that I knew he was one of the greatest to ever play the game, and no Super Bowl ring was going to change that. He was the same quarterback who walked onto the field against the Bears for XLI as walked off the field after wining the game. He simply had more hardware and jewelry afterward. His skill level and ability didn’t change except to the media…for a split second until they moved the line for him, again.
The game wasn’t always kind to his body, either. Some problems were man-made while others were simply part of the natural aging process, but I remember the exact moment his neck was injured. It was a game against the Redskins in which two defenders, one of whom was fined the next week for the hit, came at him low and high. They bent him backward at the waist like he was Stretch Armstrong, and when they let go, he bounced back to the earth violently. He laid there for a few seconds until the referee told him that if he didn’t call a team timeout, they would have to call an injury time out, which would require Peyton to sit out a play. Peyton called the time out. The defensive coordinator for the Redskins that season was Gregg Williams who would later be found guilty by the NFL for developing an illegal bounty system with the Saints to pay players for injuring opponents. Over the next four years, the nerve damage sustained during that play, though not noticeable at the time, would gradually worsen until the four neck surgeries became necessary along with sitting out the entire 2011 season. Prior to that lost season, Peyton missed one play due to injury when a defender hit him under the chin strap and broke his jaw. He came out, missed one play, and returned to the game with a bloodied and swollen jaw.
The lost season would lead to the end of an era and the end of my loyalty to the Colts. I suppose someday I will have to visit Indianapolis, again, to see the statue they plan to place in front of Lucas Oil Stadium and maybe to see his name in the ring of honor next to Johnny Unitas’s, but March 7, 2012 ended any respect I had for that organization when he was fired by the Colts because of the injuries he was rehabing at the time. The speech and press conference Peyton gave at his public firing was one of the kindest, most dignified, and professional demonstrations I have ever seen in my life by any human being, but it didn’t stop me from sobbing uncontrollably at my desk at work. I, like Peyton, had hoped and dreamed and really believed all those years ago in 1998 that he would be a Colt for life, that he would achieve that rare feat of playing his entire NFL career with one team. His father hadn’t even done that despite his loyalty to the Saints and New Orleans. But, alas, both Peyton and I would be forced to mourn the loss of that dream and search for a new landing spot.
That spot resides a little more than 1000 miles west of Indianapolis in Dove Valley for the Denver Broncos Football Club. For the best behind the scenes story on Peyton’s free agency tour and eventual signing with the Broncos, check out Peter King’s column for Sports Illustrated. I was cautiously optimistic, still emotionally hurt by the firing, and fearful that he wouldn’t be able to play football by the time the 2012 season rolled around. What happened over the next four years was captivating, enthralling, unbelievable, and brilliant. Though the last season and a half the aging process really took its toll on his performance, what I saw in the midst of it was a seasoned veteran who found a way to contribute even when his body was failing. He was never, in eighteen years, going to win a game with his legs or his speed (or lack there of), but he could always, always win with his mind. So, when the body stopped responding the way he needed it to, he put all his eggs in the brain basket, and with the extraordinary help of the greatest defense in the history of the NFL, he won a second Super Bowl to close out his career.
Wait, not so fast. How did we get there? We can’t possibly just skip over four whole years, right?!
Of course not! I wouldn’t leave out the most crucial part of the story. I just needed to wrap up the Indianapolis chapter before moving on. There was a moment at that first game in a Broncos uniform when my heart skipped a beat. I’d spent the previous year thinking I would never get to see him play football, again, so seeing him run out of that tunnel and take his first snaps for Denver truly took my breath away. Obviously, I cried because as the years grew closer to the end of his career, I got significantly more emotional. I didn’t know at that moment the next four years would go by so fast and hold so many incredible achievements and memories.
I don’t remember the first touchdown he threw to Demaryius Thomas, but I do remember pausing to appreciate the irony of finding another #88 to throw to. Like Marvin Harrison before him, DT became a bit of a security blanket for Peyton’s first three years in Denver. Marvin Harrison will remain Peyton’s top receiver of all time in touchdowns, but DT, in only four seasons, comes in at #4 on the list.
I remember the press conference when Emmanuel Sanders was signed by the Broncos. I remember it because he said the magic words every Peyton Manning fan loves to hear:
To play with Peyton Manning is like wide receiver heaven. I feel like he’s one of the greatest quarterbacks to play the game. Definitely I look up to him a lot in terms of his preparation, and I know that he’s going to make me a better player whether it’s mentally and physically. I know that I’m in a great environment.
I have always appreciated a player who wanted to play with Peyton, but also one who wanted to learn from him. Over the years, there have been plenty who thought just being on the same field with him would be enough. That the game would be easy just because Peyton was throwing passes to them, but the truth is he wants you to work for it just as much as he does. He wants you to study and prepare the way he does. But more than anything he wants you to do those things because you want to do them to become a better player and out of respect for the game not because he asks or tells you to. Emmanuel Sanders got that, and he got it by just watching Peyton. He saw the structure and the dedication, and he understood that to be the best football player he could be, he needed to follow that blueprint. E was handsomely rewarded for his hard work on and off the practice field with pass after pass after pass his first season with the Broncos, but it took until game six for him to catch a touchdown pass. I had many an argument with the football gods about why E hadn’t found the end zone, yet, and then they finally threw me and E a bone. He would finish that season with nine touchdown passes and over 1,400 receiving yards. In all his seasons with the Steelers prior to that, he’d never been above 800 yards on the season. In his two years with Denver and Peyton, he amassed over 2,500 yards and quickly became one of my all time favorite Peyton teammates.
For as long as I live, I will never forget the joy of the 2013 season. It started with Peyton proving me wrong like I said earlier he liked to do by throwing seven touchdowns against the Ravens in the opening game, and by the end of the season, it became one of the greatest statistical seasons for any quarterback in the history of the NFL. Peyton broke the single-season touchdown record, again as well as the single-season passing yards record. If there is any one season that I enjoyed watching Peyton play the most, it was that year. He was having so much fun with his teammates, with the game of football. It just seemed like a dream come true. It was during that season I realized the dream of playing for one team for an entire career had to die in order for this to happen. As much as I will always carry with me the pain of seeing Peyton heartbroken over being fired, and rightfully so, I also will always carry with me the memories of watching him prove how much he still had left in him. I would go through all that heartache, again, if that’s what it took to get the last four years of his career.
Don’t get me wrong, that season ended terribly at a Bruno Mars concert also known as Super Bowl XLVIII. From the start, it was clear it was not the Broncos’ night, but try as it might, it could never take away how magnificent the rest of the season was. Peyton’s time with Denver wasn’t without its problems. There were endings in the playoffs that ripped my heart out and stomped on it like the overtime loss to the Ravens in 2012 and excruciatingly painful loss to the Colts in 2014. There would be the season he finished even while playing on a torn right quad muscle, and the final season when a new offensive strategy caused a partially torn plantar fascia in Peyton’s left foot. It was hard sometimes to watch him struggle to run out on the field, but that faded away in February as he lifted the Lombardi Trophy high above his head with his teammates who had struggled and fought through the season with him to bring home a championship to Denver. I loved those teammates because they loved and supported Peyton. No matter how bad it got, they had his back. Perhaps they recognized the man who had carried them for the three years before and realized it was their turn to carry him. Whatever it was, I will forever be grateful to that team and franchise.
There are a million more stories and memories and moments I could tell. There are players and coaches and front office executives I haven’t mentioned who deserve recognition like Pat Bowlen, Tom Moore, Adam Gase, Bill Polian, Jim Mora, Jim Caldwell, John Fox, Gary Kubiak, John Elway, Joe Ellis, Gary Brackett, Bob Sanders, Dwight Freeney, Cato June, Joseph Addai, Tarik Glenn, Ryan Diem, Hunter Smith, Pierre Garcon, Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, CJ Anderson, Eric Decker, Wes Welker, Jacob Tamme, Chris Harris, Jr., Champ Bailey, Terrance Knighton, Julius Thomas, Montee Ball, Bennie Fowler, etc. All of them…every single player…who ever suited up and battled for 60 (or more) minutes alongside Peyton on either side of the ball has a memory in my bank because they helped write his story. I could talk at length about the gracious man he is outside of football and the millions of big and little wonderful things football has provided him the opportunity to do over the years for those less fortunate than him or those who just needed a positive message of hope and encouragement because they helped write his story, too. I could tell you about the beautiful person he became when his children Marshall and Mosley came into this world, but I will leave that story for them to tell in the years to come.
For my part, all I know is twenty-two years ago, when he committed to Tennessee, I started building my Peyton Manning memory bank, and as I sit here fighting back tears, I find myself immensely overwhelmed and in awe of these years. This is not my story. It is his, but I will cherish every second of it he shared with us, and after all the tears have stopped falling like rain, I will still have these memories to be my sunshine.
Thank you, Peyton. Words can never appropriately express what an honor it was to love the game of football with you.
*If you were looking for a lengthy discussion about the actions of a 19-year-old, you did not and will not find it here. I have known and understood that story for 20 years after extensively reading and researching both sides of the situation. Though some believe this information was not available until recently, they are wrong. A simple Google search or reading of his Wikipedia page is all it would’ve taken. Nothing new has been revealed that hadn’t previously been reported nor changed the fact that no physical contact was made that day between the plaintiff and defendant other than the plaintiff examining the defendant’s foot. But I learned a long time ago that nothing I say or do or Peyton says or does is going to change the opinion someone has already developed about him. If you choose to believe the lies and biased view of a tabloid reporter with an agenda, that is your choice, and you are well within your right to do so. I, on the other hand, prefer to stick with that extensive research I did each time the plaintiff brought this up, again, in order to make money for her livelihood. That research turned up nothing but a childish prank by a 19-year-old whose behavior since has not demonstrated a repeat offense. I’m not going to crucify him for it for the rest of his life because I don’t want to live in a world where forgiveness doesn’t exist.
“Adversity doesn’t build character. It reveals it.”
There was a moment as the Super Bowl 50 halftime show concluded and the players returned to the field when I felt peace fall over me. I realized in that moment there were 30 minutes remaining. Not just 30 minutes left in the game. Not just 30 minutes left in the season. But 30 minutes left on the roller-coaster ride of a lifetime. So, I took a deep breath and reminded myself to enjoy the journey. I was determined for that final 30 minutes to relish every snap, every pass, every hand-off, and even every sack and three and out because these were the last of them…at least I think they are. 😉 But, let’s back up because if we’re going to enjoy the journey, we have to know how we got to that moment of peace.
Rewind with me to six months ago and the start of the 2015 NFL season. It was to be Peyton’s 18th season in the league, and from the start, I didn’t feel comfortable. There was a new head coach with a new system that involved Peyton’s 39 year old body being more mobile than any other time in that 18 year career. I wanted nothing to do with a QB roll out involving anyone wearing a #18 Broncos jersey. Those days were over. Those days were for the 22 year old drafted in 1998. That player didn’t exist anymore, if it ever did, and for any coaching staff to expect him to was plain crazy talk. People told me they’d find a way. He’d get used to it. All I imagined was seeing a shell of the player I once knew hobbled and limping off the field from more hits than his body could handle. It wasn’t a lack of faith in Peyton. It was a lack of faith in the execution of the new system, and truthfully, the bulk of my concern lay with the rag-tag team at offensive line after an off-season of selling and trading off guards and tackles right and left. Those five men hadn’t worked together for any length of time, and I wasn’t completely sold on their ability to prevent that 39 year old body from breaking into a million pieces.
Despite my concerns, the NFL decided to go ahead with the season anyway, so the Broncos took the field. It was far from pretty what I saw from a once prolific offense that could strike fear in the hearts of defensive coordinators around the league. And then something strange started to happen. This other set of eleven men trudged out on the field, dug their cleats deep into the ground, and stared down every offense that stood on the other side of the line of scrimmage like they were the only people between them and an all you can eat steak dinner buffet. Sports analysts told me this group of men was called a defense. I was baffled. I had heard of such things, but seeing a defense on the same team as a Peyton Manning-led offense was like seeing Big Foot. After 22 years, I had convinced myself that we couldn’t have nice things like defenses, and yet, here they were in the eleven o’clock hour. Better late than never, gentlemen.
And so it was that the new offensive system would score just enough points to be on the right side of the scoreboard, while the defense would battle through every play, rack up quarterback sacks like the people on those hoarders shows, and get that last stop at the end of the game to seal a victory that would have me shaking my head wondering how in the world we had rolled into week nine of the season undefeated. That week and the next would serve as the turning point of the season as the offense could no longer hold up their end of the bargain, and the unimaginable happened. Peyton took a seat.
That day broke my heart. In some ways, I’ve blocked it out of my memory because that was the unwanted image I had in my head from the beginning of the season, and despite the efforts of all 53 men on the active roster, it was now coming to fruition. In the days and weeks to come, we would learn the new, more mobile system had caused a partial tear in Peyton’s plantar fascia; an injury I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy and one he had been dealing with since training camp. For the next six games, I watched backup quarterback, Brock Osweiler, start in a place Peyton had every season since 1994 except one. It was in that six games when my love for the game was tested; the love Peyton himself had taught me. I knew two things for sure: there was no way on God’s green earth we were winning the Super Bowl, and I would never get to see Peyton Manning play football, again.
Funny thing though, the football gods have a sense of humor and enjoy proving me wrong. The Broncos managed a 4-2 record in those six games and stay in playoff contention even if all phases of the game were playing with a bit of lackluster. One week, they would look unbeatable, and the very next week they’d look like they were just going through the motions. They were missing their fire, and in some cases, they seemed to forget that football games were a full 60 minutes. In others, they needed a few more than 60 minutes and showed me heart and determination. I wasn’t quite sure how the defense had maintained their league leading ranking, but they had, and they limped right into the final game of the season where Peyton took on a role he hadn’t had since he was a freshman in college: backup quarterback. I was convinced Coach Kubiak was simply letting Peyton dress for the game but had no intention of sending him into it. I still watched because even the mere sight of seeing Peyton in a football uniform makes me smile. Then it happened. Things weren’t going well from the start all the way into the middle of the third quarter, and in order to prevent losing not only the division but the #1 seed in the playoffs, Coach Kubiak was forced to pull out all the stops including inserting Peyton into the lineup. I think we know what happened next. Sports Illustrated said he “rode in on a bad foot and led the guys with the white horses on their helmets to a win”…and a 5th straight AFC West Division title, a 3rd #1 playoff seed in 4 years, and a wild card weekend BYE, so we waited.
I’m not gonna lie. When it comes to the playoffs, I’m always hopeful of the easiest route, but truth be told, the harder road pays off in the end. The opponents the Broncos faced in the playoffs seemed like destiny. During the six games Peyton missed, two of those opponents were the Steelers and the Patriots, so when it worked out that those were the two teams the Broncos would face in the playoffs, I thought, “well that makes sense.” It didn’t make things any easier. The Steelers match up was difficult to watch because it was tense the entire time with the Steelers being one really great play away from taking the game despite missing a few players due to injury. Winning that game, though, meant having to play the Patriots…again. I hate playing that team with the heat of a thousand suns, but it has more to do with the media narrative than it does with the actual game. And, so it was, that I had to sit through an entire week of every sports reporter, former player, and tom, dick, or harry explain why the Broncos didn’t have a prayer against the Patriots in the AFC Championship game and that this would likely be Peyton Manning’s final game of his career. By the end of the week, it sounded as if the team shouldn’t even bother dressing out for the game. I was livid. I don’t care who you are or how many sports journalism degrees you have or number of years playing professionally in your record, those are 53 men who are NFL professional football players who worked their tails off all season long, against all odds, to earn the #1 seed in the AFC, and they shouldn’t even bother stepping on the field?! How about we go ahead and play the game anyway?
That narrative had me worked up so much that I was sick as a dog before the game started, and I couldn’t bring myself to watch it live. I recorded it and watched it after I knew what the outcome was and after I had bawled my eyes out watching the trophy presentation. I counted at least eight heart attacks I would’ve had had I watched it live, so at least there was some validity to my decision not to watch. What I saw beyond that was a team just as livid as I was by the media’s rhetoric the previous week. I saw a defense that didn’t care a single second that the Patriots were undefeated in games when Tom Brady had his full slate of receivers and backs healthy and in the game. I saw an offense that found ways to score points little by little. I saw a team that said, ” don’t count us out just, yet. What you expect of us isn’t always the same as what we expect of ourselves.” And when those final seconds ticked off the clock, the Broncos had found one more stop, one more play, one more something to send them to Super Bowl 50.
As a side note, and something no one ever wants to hear because they like the “Peyton can’t beat the Patriots” storyline more so than the truth, Peyton Manning quarterbacked teams in the NFL actually have a 3-2 playoff record vs. the Patriots. There is a lot of historical talk out there about Peyton being horrible against the Patriots and even more to the point him being horrible against them in the playoffs. But consider this truthiness before you fall back on what people want you to think. The first time during Peyton’s career that they met in the playoffs was in the 2003 season AFC championship game, which the Patriots won by 10 points and went on to win the Super Bowl. They met the next year but in the divisional round with the Patriots winning and eventually winning the Super Bowl, again. However, that would be the last time the Patriots would beat a Peyton Manning-led team in the playoffs. In fact, the next two times the Patriots won the Super Bowl, they didn’t even have to play a Peyton Manning quarterbacked team; however, three of the 4 times Peyton has been to the Super Bowl, it required beating the Patriots in the AFC championship game. For all the stories about how Peyton is a great regular season quarterback and not great in the playoffs, while I concede his 14-13 playoff record isn’t great, his teams are actually better in the playoffs against his one, media created arch-nemesis than in the regular season. Ok…back to our regularly scheduled programming.
Two weeks. That’s what the NFL schedules between the conference championships and the Super Bowl to sit and stew and think about the final 60 minutes of play of the NFL season. For my psyche, it’s about 13 days too long. For the media, it was a field day of opportunities to do exactly what they’d done in the week leading up to the AFC Championship Game: trash the Broncos and heap praise upon the Panthers. By the middle of the second week, I was out of fingernails to bite, was nauseous all the time, and wanted to cry every five minutes. If I didn’t know better, I’d have thought I was pregnant, but 22 years of loving the game because I was watching it through Peyton’s eyes had come to what I believe is its fruitful conclusion, and I was scared. Not of him getting hurt. Not of him losing the game. But of what that moment would feel like when I had to watch him walk off the field for quite possibly the last time. I didn’t want to know that feeling though I’ve always known eventually I’d have to, but just like the regular season, despite my concerns, the NFL decided to go ahead and play the Super Bowl anyway.
Though it didn’t calm my nerves or stop me from yelling at the TV, from the opening kick, it was clear to me at least that the Broncos were settled. There were no nerves to shake off, no surprises they weren’t ready for, no set back they couldn’t handle. This was a team that had spent those two weeks understanding their opponent, honing their already fully developed skills, and building confidence from the adversity they’d faced all season long. I saw a defense that was so stifling, that even I couldn’t catch my breath before the next play was run. I’m not old enough to have seen or remember the Steel Curtain or the Orange Crush or really even the 85 Bears, but of the great defenses in NFL history that I have seen and remember, this is by far the best one I know. They turned the tables. It was no longer the Panthers offense trying to read the Broncos defense. The Broncos were reading the Panthers like a book. And, while some might believe a defensive game is boring, look, again. The skill and determination involved in what the Broncos defense accomplished for those 60 minutes, or 120 minutes when you count the AFC championship, is something so outstanding and remarkable that it deserves admiration and appreciation.
By the time we got to halftime, I was stunned. Still nervous. Still scared. But blissfully stunned. And then the peace came. I looked across the room at my TV and realized this is where I was going to be, where I was going to be sitting, when the final seconds ticked off the clock and the roller-coaster ride came to a screeching halt. I took a deep breath, and I smiled. In the middle of this intense football game, I found the calm, and suddenly I thought, win or lose, I want to remember every single second of these last 30 minutes. Someday someone might ask me what it was like to see Peyton Manning pass the ball to Emmanuel Sanders or CJ Anderson work his horse right into the endzone one more time or a much maligned offensive line finally find their footing or the Broncos defense play lights out against the best offense in the league or a kicker and a punter and a kick returner prove that special teams players are people, too. And I wanted to be able to tell them exactly what it was like. To tell their stories. To share their memories. That’s when I saw it.
When I’m watching a game, I can’t always see the strategy in the midst of all the stress and worry, but when I finally allowed myself to breathe and take the game no matter what, I was able to see just exactly what was going on here. For the entirety of his career, Peyton has finished a drive and gone to the sidelines to review printouts of photos from each play they ran. He’s looking for what the defense is showing him, so he knows what to do the next time he sees that formation. He’s looking for what went wrong and what went right, so he can adjust. I kept saying throughout the game that he needed to see something…that surely he had seen something by now. Why so many three and outs?! And then I took that breath.
For all the negative connotation surrounding the title of “game manager,” there is something incredibly cunning about it. It means he can beat a team with his brain, and playing 18 years in the NFL provides a lot of data to sort through and use during games. Being a game manager also allowed him to play 18 years in the NFL. In those final 30 minutes I saw the entirety of Peyton’s career: the young gunslinger who could toss the ball 60 yards down field perfectly, the veteran who could beat a blitz with his eyes closed, and the journeyman who was the smartest person on the field. He had figured out the Panthers weren’t giving him much. There were a few holes here and there, but he would have to settle for field goals when he could get them and depend on the defense that had gotten them there.
The three and outs, which appeared as negative drives, were actually eating clock four plays at a time. It was, in my opinion, genius. He could’ve forced throws potentially causing more turnovers, but he knew that choice wouldn’t be the best way to help the team. It dawned on me in that moment, that those six games he didn’t play were the best thing that could’ve happened to him. It forced him to evaluate his role, not on the team, but at this point in his career. If a player wants to play for any length of time, he has to adjust as time goes by to the game and to his body. Playing the game at 29 is different than playing it at 39 because abilities have to transform to be successful at each stage. That time away gave him an opportunity to get his mind and body on the right track, to find the way he could contribute to the success of this team at this moment.
I could not have been prouder as I watched Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware pour the Gatorade down Coach Kubiak’s back and Peyton find his way over to the fourth coach he’d taken to a Super Bowl while the final seconds disappeared off the clock. It had taken all 53 of them, a defensive coordinator who was unemployed just last year, and a melding of the minds between a coach and a quarterback with two very different yet successful ways of doing things. This team had proven me wrong in the best possible way, and they are welcome to do so any time they want.
Nine years ago, another team proved me wrong, and the world champion smile appeared for the first time. That game required Peyton to be an offensive juggernaut in the pouring rain. Nine years later, in a very different way in a very different game, the world champion smile appeared, again. There is a bit of symmetry if it is the end of this wild ride to win a Super Bowl half way through a storied career and then to win one to close it all out.
So here we sit. It’s been 295 days since Peyton signed a free agent contract with the Denver Broncos on March 20, 2012. Truth be told since he came into the league, he’s only reached the end of a season with the last team standing once, so I’ve spent 90% of his career not smiling at the end of a season. But something funny happened on Saturday night despite my “shout heard round the world” when Jacoby Jones scored on a 70 yard TD pass to send the game into overtime for an eventual loss to the Ravens. (Seriously, if you didn’t hear me scream, you should get your hearing checked.) I smiled…at the end of a season that didn’t include Peyton’s team raising the Lombardi trophy…I smiled. Why was I so “ok” with it? Why was I, dare I say, happy? And then it hit me…at some point between last season’s sadness and the snow-capped Rocky Mountains, I re-evaluated how I view the end of a season.
And it turns out Peyton felt the same way:
“When you take a year off from football, you come back for all the enjoyable moments,” Manning said. “When you’re not playing, you miss out on all the highs, but you also miss these disappointments. But I would rather be in the arena to be excited or be disappointed than not have a chance at all. That’s football. That’s why everybody plays it. You have to be able to take the good with the bad.”
“You can’t do it right away, but as the sun continues to shine every morning you do take some time to reflect on some good things that happened this year. It’s certainly not the finish that we wanted, but I think it’s a mistake if you don’t reflect on some of the good things.”
Ten months ago when the Colts decided they no longer needed his services, I absolutely was completely unsure if he would ever play football, again. It was an uphill battle for him to not only prove to NFL teams that he could still play the game, but convince them enough to invest a significant chunk of their salary cap in him. When he finally made his decision, he landed himself smack dab in the middle of Colorado with the Denver Broncos, a franchise I hadn’t necessarily been all that fond of in previous years, but I accepted it for two reasons: Peyton was satisfied with his choice and the Broncos WANTED him unlike his previous employer. Of course this didn’t stop me from cringing at the thought of him running out on that field and taking that first big hit. My hope ten months ago was that he would survive the season. My hope was that he would be given the opportunity to get his legs back under him and his arm back into the swing of things. I got a lot more than I hoped for or expected.
I got Eric Decker, Von Miller, Demaryius Thomas, Elvis Dumervil, Knowshon Moreno, Wesley Woodyard, Joel Dreessen, Champ Bailey…just to name a few. I never expected to fall in a love with this team so quickly. I never expected to have so much fun watching them play. And somewhere along the way, I became a Broncos fan. Somewhere in the middle of a season I could’ve only dreamed of, I suddenly felt like Peyton had been a Bronco his entire career. The season felt more like they were out in the backyard just throwing the ball around. And I realized the reason I was having so much fun watching them play was because THEY were having fun playing. I couldn’t even begin to tell you the last time I saw Peyton have this much fun.
So here we are 10 months later. And of course I would have cherished a Super Bowl victory, but knowing where this all started and never expecting this team that entered week 6 with a 2-3 record and won their 1st of 11 straight games in incredible fashion, made the playoffs with 4 games left, and then ended up the #1 seed in the AFC playoffs, how in the world could I be anything but happy, thrilled, thankful, and excited…for the future.
If I can have this much fun as a rookie fan of the Broncos…I can’t wait to see what’s next. I couldn’t script Peyton’s twilight years in the NFL any better than this if I tried. He needed a place where the organization and fan base would let him be himself…where he could do everything in his power to reward them for their belief in him…where he could eventually sail off into the sunset on his terms and not the terms of some doctor’s scalpel…where he could get back to the pure joy of playing football…where he could have fun, fun, fun til daddy takes the t-bird away.